Untold Stories Of Two Buttes Families Battling The Dust Bowl

Devastating dust storm in Baca County, Colorado
Dust Storm in Baca County, Colorado (1935) | Denver Public Library

The farming communities of Baca County, in southeastern Colorado, were some of the hardest hit during the Dust Bowl. Families fought for their lives out there on the plains, battling dust storms, drought, and economic hardships. The stories of desperation and perseverance that follow are first-hand accounts from people who weathered the toughest years of the Dust Bowl in Two Buttes, one of the smallest towns in Baca County.


The history of Two Buttes is rooted in the Homestead Act of 1862. It offered Americans 160 acres of land for free if they improved the quality of the land by farming it for five years. Families flocked to Two Buttes, and other towns in Baca County, to claim their acreage.


American novelist Sanora Babb and her family came to Two Buttes in 1913 to help her grandfather farm his 160-acre claim. Their mud-walled house had been dug out of the dirt with a shovel by Sanora’s grandfather. Prairie grasses provided insulation, and their windows were eye-level with the ground. This style of abode was common for pioneer families, who couldn’t afford to build clapboard homes.

Dugout homestead in Southern Colorado (1934)
A dugout homestead in Southern Colorado (1934) | Colorado State University Archives

Along with the pioneer families came consequences. Many were inexperienced in farming. They had no appreciation for the native Buffalo grasses that protected the fertile topsoil. Deep-rooted and tolerant to drought, the grasses kept the soil from parching and held it in place. Once the grasses were plowed by farmers to make room for crops, the rich topsoil blew away. Nothing but dry, hard ground remained.

 

John Schweizer, who grew up on a farm in Two Buttes during the Dust Bowl, remembered the day in 1931 a local farmer decided to plow his fields to plant wheat. Another farmer followed suit. Then another, and others more. When the winds of the “dirty thirties” started churning, all the healthy soil disappeared. Drought compounded the issue. Soon the land was desiccated and bare. Nothing could grow there anymore.

Soil erosion at Chermant farm in Baca County
Soil erosion at Chermant farm in Baca County (1936) | Colorado State University Archives

Farmers had many names to describe the ferocious winds, loaded with suffocating dirt, that barreled down on their crippled communities: dust storms, black blizzards, black dusters, rollers. The storms often blew in with little notice. One moment the sky was blue, the next it turned black. Those caught outside couldn’t see, couldn’t breathe.


It was easy to get lost in the blinding storms.


In March 1936, just before one of the biggest dust storms of the year struck Two Buttes, three-year-old Steve Benson wandered from the family farm. When the boy couldn’t be found before nightfall, the Benson family feared the worst. Either the boy had been smothered by the “black blizzard,” or froze to death when overnight temperatures dipped below freezing. He was only wearing overalls.


A search party of 500 people set out the following morning to look for the boy. A plane arrived from Denver to aid in the search. They found no sign of him. Until farmer Dewey Fetters, who lived six miles from where little Steve Benson went missing, saw the boy ambling up to his farmhouse. The boy’s shoes were missing; burrs were buried in his feet. In the words of a child, he said he’d spent the night outside.

Newspaper clipping from 1936 (Boy lost in black blizzard)
“Boy, 3, Lost in Black Blizzard Found Alive” (Longmont Times, March 16, 1936) | Colorado Historic Newspapers Collection

On the Schweizer farm, it sometimes felt like the winds blew for two hours straight. Dust storms left drifts so high, they were practically eye-level with the second-story window of their farmhouse. The gate 50 feet away from their front door once stayed buried in a drift for over 60 days. The windmill 20 feet from their house remained obscured in the lingering dust cloud until the next day.

John Schweizer described an occasion navigating a dust storm in Two Buttes by car. He and the town doctor, William Verity, drove into a roller to see what that experience would be like. As the wall of dust moved toward them, a moment of panic set in. They reminded themselves this storm was ordinary and pressed on.

 

Once inside the black blizzard, the sun was gone, dirt filled the air, and breathing was difficult. In near zero visibility, they couldn’t see over the car hood to the radiator cap. They couldn’t make out the edge of the road. Dirt had filled in the ditches and made them look level with the road. Somehow, the men managed to drive out the storm in one piece.

Automobile navigating a dust storm during the Dust Bowl
Automobile approaches amid blowing dust (1930s) | Denver Public Library

Doctor William Verity was a well-respected figure in the Two Buttes community. His generosity in providing families with medical care, often free of charge, helped them survive the roughest years.


A prominent surgeon from the East Coast, Verity arrived in Two Buttes in 1910. Stricken by a terminal illness at the height of his career, he was given one year to leave. Unwilling to accept his diagnosis, he traveled to Two Buttes, hoping the fresh Western air would heal him. Miraculously, it did. A healthy man again, Verity remained in Two Buttes to serve as the town doctor until he died in his nineties.


Anyone in need of medical care could get treatment from Doctor Verity, either at his small office on Main Street or at their farm if they couldn’t afford gas to drive into town. Rose Schweizer, wife of John Schweizer, recalled a time the doctor traveled to her family’s farm in Two Buttes to remove her brother’s tonsils.


Rose also described the measures her family took to protect their farmhouse from the swirling dust. They hung wet blankets over their windows and doors to keep the dirt from blowing in. But the blankets usually dried out by morning. Before Rose and her siblings could eat breakfast, they had to sweep the floors and wipe down the furniture to clean up all the dirt that came in overnight.

Aftermath of a dust storm in Colorado (1936)
Aftermath of a dust storm in Colorado (1936) | Library of Congress

Without irrigation and healthy soil, farmers and ranchers were often unable to grow enough hay to feed their livestock. During the worst years, cows would lay down and die. They would either succumb to starvation or thirst, or suffocate on the dirt blowing in the storms.


Rose Schweizer would never forget a cattle ranch near her family’s farm, where over 30 cows were starving to death. They had no meat on their bones, and would probably die soon. The rancher didn’t know what to do, so the government arrived with a grim solution. After paying the rancher $2 per head of cattle, they rounded up the herd and shot them. Then they dug a trench with a tractor scraper, shoved the cows in the hole, and covered them with dirt.

Cattle at water trough on Baca Land Grant parcel 4
Livestock water trough on Luis Maria Baca Ranch, Baca Land Grant Number 4 | Denver Public Library

The one-room schoolhouse Rose Schweizer and her siblings attended was some distance away. They usually traveled by wagon, picking up other kids from Two Buttes as they went. Girls were supposed to wear dresses to school, but wore overalls instead. The wind would blow the little rocks so hard, it pelted their skin and brought blood to their legs. Based on the color of the dirt, they could tell which direction the dust had blown in from. Yellow dirt came from Texas, red dirt came from Oklahoma.


Many families in Two Buttes, and across the whole of southeastern Colorado, found the Dust Bowl conditions intolerable. They were forced to uproot and seek work elsewhere. Across Baca County, the population declined over 40% from 1930 to 1940.


Mary May Gourley, who grew up on a farm in Two Buttes, remembered her family joining the countless others who left Baca County at the height of the Dust Bowl. Her father had been fortunate to find work with the government in Walsh, Colorado. She knew someday, she would return.

Dust Bowl family with automobile in Colorado (1930s)
Dust Bowl family with their automobile (Colorado, 1930s) | Donated to Denver Public Library by Rocky Mountain News

The families that stayed as the Dust Bowl raged on continued to suffer one blow after another. Crop failures persisted, drought was unrelenting, and the dust storms kept blowing as a near constant in their lives. The worst storm came on Easter Sunday in 1935. It would forever be known as “Black Sunday.”


A calm morning with blue skies and a warm sun shining overhead gave no indication of the epic black blizzard that would soon pummel Two Buttes and the rest of Baca County. As gale-like winds swirled across the Great Plains, an ominous dark cloud formed overhead. Soon the sun and the sky turned black. The air became thick with blowing dirt as the dust storm devoured everything in sight: roads, fields, farmhouses, windmills, tractors, cars, and the storefronts on Main Street. Soil was carried for miles. Widespread blackouts occurred.

Dust Storm Baca County (1935)
Kodak view of a dust storm in Baca County (Easter Sunday, 1935) | Library of Congress

Livelihoods were destroyed by the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression. The lands were unfarmable. Hunger was widespread. Work was nonexistent. No one had money. Desperation and hopelessness were endemic. It wasn’t until President Roosevelt rolled out his New Deal programs that optimism came.


When the Works Progress Administration (WPA) arrived in Two Buttes, nearly every man in town was put to work on public construction projects. The local banker, postmaster, and grocery store owner were the only exceptions. Workers built roads around town, along with a brick gymnasium in the center of Two Buttes to serve as a community gathering space. Completed in 1937, the gymnasium was used for sporting events, musical shows, educational activities, and countless other community events. It was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2009.

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

Harry Collier, who arrived in southeastern Colorado in 1917, recalled the WPA days around Baca County. Even though the men were given work, times were still tough. The $40 they earned each month for their service wasn’t enough to support a family. Most relied on additional assistance programs.


Collier worked with the government on a commodity welfare program. In his old Ford truck, he hauled beef, pork, milk, flour, sugar, and prunes to the hungry residents of Baca County. But welfare programs weren’t a long-term solution. The land needed to be made healthy again.


Through the Farm Services Administration (FSA), farms across southeastern Colorado, including in Two Buttes, were rehabilitated. Native grasses were restored to bring the land back from its stricken state. Once crops were planted, new farming methods were employed that focused on conservation. Farmers were taught to rotate crops, plant trees as wind breaks, and use proper plowing techniques.

Native grasses before the plows came in Two Buttes
FSA supervisor stands amidst grasses that were native to Baca County before the plows came (1939) | Library of Congress

Many families that left Two Buttes during the Dust Bowl never returned. Some did.


Mary May Gourley, whose family relocated to Walsh so her father could find work, came back to Two Buttes as a teacher in the 1940s. She met and married her sweetheart, James Gourley. He’d grown up in Two Buttes as well, and had just returned home from flying with the 483rd Bomb Group Squadron in World War II. The pair lived in a dugout in Two Buttes until they could afford a farm with a permanent home. Throughout their lives, Mary May stayed active in the community, and James worked the land until he retired at age 89.


The story of James and Mary May Gourley is a common theme around Two Buttes. People who call that small town home have roots that go back a long ways. They may be few in number these days, but they can’t imagine living anywhere else.

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