Drought recalls long, punishing dry spell of 1950s

After enduring nearly a year of drought, Texans have grown accustomed to seeing acres of withered crops, scores of dried-up ponds and mile after mile of cracked earth.

But the drought that began last fall has yet to eclipse the infamous dry spell of the 1950s, a bleak period when the skies stubbornly withheld moisture. It was the state's worst drought ever.

Nearly everyone who lived through that time remembers constant hardship: Water supplies ran so low some communities had to import it from Oklahoma. Farms and ranches failed. And the lack of rain actually changed the state's demographics because so many families fled rural agricultural areas for cities.

Now, with the possible return of another La Nina weather phenomenon, Texans who remember that desperate decade from childhood or adolescence are facing another intense drought that could drag on for at least another year.

"I hope this is not going to be like the drought of the '50s," said Pete Bonds, 59, who has cattle ranches in 27 Texas counties. He recalls how the extreme dry weather wicked away the water levels in lakes near Fort Worth.

From 1949 to 1957, Texas got 30 to 50 percent less rain than normal, and temperatures rose above average.

In search of grazing land, many Texas ranchers took their cattle to Kansas, where Jim Link was a preteen ranch hand. He remembers trying to find a missing steer one day in a pasture and walking into a strangely empty house.

"It was kind of spooky," said Link, now a 68-year-old part-time cattle rancher south of Fort Worth. "The table was still set. The furniture was still there. The clothes were in the closet. The bank had foreclosed on the house."

Link once asked his grandfather how the drought compared to the Depression. "He said the biggest difference was that in the '30s, it broke people financially. But the 1950s broke them spiritually."

To keep their cattle alive, Link and others would rush to get water that arrived in town in large tanks on the back of trucks.

In the Texas town of Cisco, officials wanted to stop providing free water to the state fish hatchery. The dispute with the Game & Fish Commission became so intense — and sparked so much infighting among residents — that the hatchery eventually closed, according to documents at the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

"Many people here are walking the streets accusing (city officials) of being communists," a state commission official in Cisco wrote to a colleague in Austin in July 1950.

Jiggs Mann, who as a boy worked summers on the JA Ranch near Amarillo and then returned in 1953 after serving in the military in Korea, said cowboys were able to move cattle around to other pastures when they ran out of grass. Still, some of the animals didn't fare well in the heat and dryness and were sold early for slaughter.

"The drier it got, we had to move them more often," said Mann, 82, who worked on a chuckwagon crew, as a cowboy and later became boss of the historic ranch. "A lot of creeks dried up and didn't ever run."

The 1950s brought the second, third and eighth-driest single years ever in the state — 1956, 1954 and 1951, respectively, according to the National Weather Service.

The state's driest single year was in 1917, with an average of just 15 inches of rain. That drought lasted into 1918 and is considered the third most severe in Texas.

In the 1950s, as now, crops turned brown in the fields and eventually stopped growing at all. Ponds dried up, and the parched ground opened to expose 6-inch cracks. The drought moved north in 1953, spreading into Oklahoma and Kansas.

It finally started to break in early 1957.

"I happen to remember my grandfather — he was a tough old rascal — staring at the clouds," Link said. "It just rained on his face. I always thought it was the rain, but it might have been tears."

With miniscule rainfall since last fall and weeks of triple-digit temperatures in Texas, this year's drought has been declared the second-most severe in state history and the worst for a single year. Nearly 95 percent of the state is in the worst or second-worst categories of drought, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor. The bone-dry conditions also have led to a record number of wildfires that have burned nearly 3.5 million acres in Texas since November.

Rainfall is well below normal in all corners of the state, which cannot be remedied quickly — despite 3.53 inches of rain in Abilene on Saturday and varying amounts in other parts of West Texas and the Dallas-Fort Worth area. In fact, a weekend San Angelo downpour left some drivers stranded when creeks and ditches flooded roads.

"That's beneficial rainfall, but we're in a drought that occurs once every 50 to 100 years," Andrew Pritchett, a meteorologist with the National Weather Service in Lubbock, said Sunday. "The rain was scattered, so a lot of places missed out. And the ground is so hard that it's not able to soak it in."

Many ranchers have already been forced to sell some of their cattle because they don't have water or grass. Others are moving herds to other pastures or states as they try to save their generations-old livelihood.

"I have never seen it this brown across the state of Texas, including in the 1950s," said rancher Tom Woodward, 67. "In the 1950s it was a series of years, but we got some rain. This year, it's just phenomenal because it has not rained for the most part."

The current drought gripping several states could extend into next year because the La Nina weather phenomenon blamed for the crippling lack of rain might be back soon, just two months after the last La Nina ended, according to the U.S. Climate Prediction Center.

Bonds said ranchers are facing tough choices because there is so much uncertainty.

"My concern is when it's going to rain," he said. "I know how to handle drought. I wish I knew how long it was going to be."


Associated Press Writer Betsy Blaney in Lubbock contributed to this report.


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