Untold Stories Of Two Buttes Families Battling The Dust Bowl

In October of 1911, one of Colorado’s least populated towns—Two Buttes—was founded in the prairies of Southeastern Colorado. The homesteaders who arrived with dreams of farming the lands had no idea the crises life on the plains would throw at them.

Dust Storm Baca County (1935)
Dust storm near Two Buttes, Baca County (1935) | National Archives

American novelist Sanora Babb, who passed away at age 98 in 2005, recounted life growing up in Two Buttes in her memoir, An Owl on Every Post. She lived in a one-room dugout with her sister and father, where the ground was eye-level with their windows. During the hardest years of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression, she and her family fought for their lives out there on the plains, battling the land that both supported and tormented them. Drought, dust, hunger, and loneliness were near constants in their lives.


From inside the dirt walls of her family’s dugout, Sanora Babb learned to read newspapers. Inspired to pursue a career in journalism, she left Two Buttes for the city when she was old enough to strike out on her own. Successful in her journalistic career, she later turned to writing books. Common themes throughout her collection of works were the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression.

Author Sanora Babb from Two Buttes, Colorado
Sanora Babb and husband James Wong Howe on a dirt road (1937) | Dorothy Babb

Old-timer James Robert Gourley, who passed away at age 98 in 2020, recalled growing up in Two Buttes in a tiny dugout his father dug with a shovel in 1913. He traveled long distances on foot and horseback to attend school, and helped his family farm their 320-acre homestead. During the Dust Bowl, they were plagued with drought, dust storms, and crop failures. Only through perseverance did they survive those years of crises.


When World War II broke out, Gourley left Two Buttes to fly with the 483rd Bomb Group Squadron. Upon returning to Baca County as a hero at the end of the war, he met and married his sweetheart, Mary May Gourley.


Mary May, who passed away at age 93 in 2019, also recalled the challenges of growing up in Two Buttes. Dust Bowl conditions were so devastating, her family was forced to move to the larger town of Walsh in Baca County. There her father was fortunate to find work with the government. When she and James Gourley married, they returned to Two Buttes and lived in a dugout until finding a permanent home. Mary May was active in the community and James worked the land until he retired at age 89. Both were forever grateful for the people who helped their families weather those roughest years. One of them was the doctor who delivered Mary May and provided care for her family and other families in Two Buttes. His name was Dr. W.P. Verity.


The Baca County History Archives tells the story of Dr. W.P. Verity, a prominent surgeon from the East Coast who arrived in Two Buttes in 1910. Struck by a terminal pulmonary disease at the height of his career, he was given just one year to live. Unwilling to accept his grim diagnosis, Dr. Verity traveled to Two Buttes, hoping the fresh western air would heal him. Miraculously, it did.


Rather than returning to the city to resume his surgical career, Dr. Verity stayed in Two Buttes to provide medical care to the town’s residents, often without charge. In the late 1920s, he started the Two Buttes Musical Band and purchased instruments for the untrained musicians. Under the guidance of the musical instructor he brought in to lead them, the band often performed in the larger nearby town of Springfield, and went on to take third place in a regional competition.

Springfield Colorado Main Street 1917
Springfield, Baca County (1917) | Denver Public Library Special Collections

As the Great Depression crippled the nation in the 1930s, Colorado’s eastern plains suffered significant hardships. Agricultural losses, severe droughts, suffocating dust storms, and even grasshopper plagues delivered an unrelenting series of blows. One of the worst dust storms to batter the area in 1935 carried top soil for miles.


In connection with President Roosevelt’s New Deal programs, governmental recovery efforts were rolled out across Baca County, including in Two Buttes. The Works Progress Administration (WPA) built a brick gymnasium in the heart of town to provide residents with much-needed employment. By establishing a space the entire community could enjoy through musical shows, school sporting events, and educational activities, the gymnasium also provided a boost in morale. It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

Two Buttes Gymnasium, National Register of Historic Places, Colorado
Two Buttes Gymnasium in Baca County, CO (2015) | Jeffrey Beall

Today, Two Buttes has a population of 50 people and a land area of 0.2 square miles. Despite its small size, the town supports a post office, fire department, library, and museum. In 2020, the town made headlines when Nashville country singer Clare Dunn announced she’d moved back to her family’s ranch in Two Buttes to weather the pandemic.


Two Buttes reservoir, completed in 1910 to irrigate the farms of Baca County, is now mostly dried up. It never provided the irrigation people had hoped for. Located in Two Buttes State Wildlife Area, the reservoir is today used for swimming, fishing, and bird watching. In nearby Prowers County, Two Buttes Mountain offers hiking opportunities. Both destinations are located around 15 miles northwest of the town of Two Buttes.

Two Buttes Reservoir with Two Buttes Mountain in the distance, Colorado
Two Buttes Reservoir with Two Buttes Mountain in the distance (2019) | Jeffrey Beall

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