Dust bowl days stuck in memories

CNJ Staff Photo: Andy DeLisle
Grace and Foy Bailey were married in 1933 during the Great American Dust Bowl. They have lived in the area most of their lives and are among the few eastern New Mexico residents who lived through the Dust Bowl.

By Marlena Hartz: CNJ staff writer

Traces of their frontier life are hidden. They share two rooms, Nos. 19 and 21, at the end of a sterile hallway in a home for the old.

When she digs the photo album from its resting place, the bottom of a drawer, those times drift into the room.

“There was nothing to keep the wind and dirt out,” remembered Foy Bailey, 92, his khaki pants and plaid shirt loose on his weathered frame.

Dirt invaded everything. It burrowed under fingernails, snuggled into the pores of skin, blackened the sky so dark buses and cars halted in their path and people dared not leave their homes, he said.

“It was scary,” said Grace Bailey, 90, more prone to chit-chat than her husband.

“We hung sheets to keep the dust out,” she said. “It came anyway, through cracks in houses and the crevices near windows.”

“The houses we lived in were not the same back then,” Foy Bailey said.

During the Great American Dust Bowl of the 1930s, the Baileys were newlyweds.

Their first home, captured in a black-and-white photograph, was lined with cardboard, a 10-by-16-foot shack in Grady that Foy Bailey built himself.

Few eastern New Mexico residents who lived through the Dust Bowl remain. In Curry and Roosevelt counties, people 65 and older represented just over 11 percent of the population in 2004, according to U.S. Census data.

Among his five companions — who shot pool on a Monday afternoon — B.D. Johnston, 89, was the only other one that recalled the Dust Bowl, which transformed the region over the course of a decade.

“Tumbling weeds would blow up fences and tear them down,” said Johnston, the son of Broadview farmers and ranchers who grew cotton, wheat and tended to some cattle during the Dust Bowl.

“It was bad,” he said.

Food was scarce.

“We nearly starved,” Grace Bailey said.

Families lived on what they grew in their backyards, she said. Her family sold cream at the market for money and butchered their hogs for meat. But even the animals were bone thin, she said.

Dust storms would descend over the plains sporadically, she said. Some storms were stubborn, lingering for days.

Those who fled the region had money. Those who stayed didn’t, the Baileys and Johnston said.

Severe poverty waned in 1935, Bailey said, with government work projects generated under the New Deal.

The hardships of the era, though, never left those who lived in it, according to Eastern New Mexico University Special Collections Librarian Gene Bundy.

Originally from Oklahoma, his grandparents lived through the Dust Bowl.

“It colored everything that they did. It was never out of their mind that it could happen again,” said Bundy, who presides over a university collection of photographs and documentation of the era.

“Anybody who lived through that, they changed,” he said.