Baca County History

by the Plainsman Herald

Decade of Dirt: A Book Project Primer

Dykes Funeral Home and Ambulance Service

Rarely is Colorado mentioned when conversations arise about the Dust Bowl.  However, those of us who grew up in southeast Colorado are fully aware Baca County Colorado was part of the hardest hit area of the 1930’s dust bowl. Source: United States Soil Conservation Service

The Great Depression, and the much worse Dust Bowl that accompanied it, was the most impactful and profound time period, indeed the watershed moment, for southeastern Colorado. It was like year zero on our calendars, BDB – Before the Dust Bowl, and ADB – After the Dust Bowl. 

Our good friend and history partner Steve Doner says, “Even though those events happened 20 years before I was born, they have colored and continue to color my world, from blow humps along fence lines that I drive by everyday, eighty years after they were formed, to the frugality that dictates how I spend money. April 14, 1935, known as Black Sunday, is logged in my memory even though the only knowledge I have of that day is all second hand. In the Spring of 2018, after the Badger Hole fire burned over 20 houses within 7 miles of mine and the critical plant residue that held the topsoil, we were subjected to several weeks of near zero visibility around our farm every time the wind blew, reminding us once again of the delicate dance agriculture has with nature on the High Plains. 

My father raised me to accept the fact that those days could return and that this land was unforgiving if you forgot the lessons of the “Dirty Thirties.” I remember as a child wondering why my grandmother would use her finger to clean out every egg shell when cooking and my father said, “Son, you would have to live through the hard times of the Dust Bowl to realize why.” My mother grew up in far eastern Kansas and the Thirties were good times for her family with no such philosophies etched into her brain.

Rarely is Colorado mentioned when conversations arise about the Dust Bowl.  However, those of us who grew up in southeast Colorado are fully aware Baca County Colorado was part of the hardest hit area of the 1930’s dust bowl.  

Unidentified Springfield residents in front of the Springfield Democrat Herald sometime in 1935.

The impact on Baca County Colorado was horrific. The census in 1930 was 10,570 but after a decade of dirt and depression it fell to 6,207 in 1940, a loss of over 41 percent. In terms of population, the county never recovered. The population climbed back to 7,964 in 1950 only to be hit with another mini dust bowl in the early 50s when it was dryer even than in the 30s. The population in Baca County has continued its downward spiral with the latest estimates placed at 3,575. Elliott West in the Contested Plains demonstrates that the trend of ebb and flow has been the normal pattern of human population on the plains since humans first arrived and tends to follow the rain cycle.  

This post provides a primer to our latest book project, “Decade of Dirt.” Our project will provide additional historical documentation of what our parents and grandparents lived through during the “Dirty Thirties”.  Our primary source document is content from the pages of the Springfield Democrat Herald (now the Plainsman Herald).  We will also use content from the pages of the Springfield Republican and the Walsh Tab as those are available. Most of the photos are from Baca County families who lived through the thirties.    Additional documentation including Red Cross materials provided locally by the Homsher Family will also be shared to help tell the story as well as letters, poems and comments from locals. We certainly intend to provide a unique perspective.   We also hope to add to our collection of archives we intend to share in this compilation. If you have any Baca County Colorado Dust Bowl artifacts you want to be part of this compilations leave a comment and we’ll get back with you.

How will this project be different than other Dust Bowl compilations? During a recent conversation on this topic of whether some points made in works of outsiders such as Tim Egan and Ken Burns are accurate one of my fellow Baca Countians commented, 

 “Only those of us who live here and heard the stories first hand from our parents and grandparents really know the story.”

This video clip is an excerpt from the series “An American Experience”. There is audio laid over the clip but it doesn’t actually talk about the scene. Steve Doner, a fellow local history buff and I just recognized the location. It is from Walsh, Colorado which is mentioned in the newspaper items later in this post. The building was their high school gym, which was turned into a Red Cross Hospital in March or April of 1935. The car is the ambulance for the Dykes Mortuary and Ambulance service shown in the news clipping, which is also shown below:
Excerpt from “Decade of Dirt”
One of many ads from the 1930s. Courtesy of the Plainsman Herald

Excerpts from the Springfield Democrat Herald courtesy of the Plainsman Herald. The Red Cross was very active in the dust bowl region.

The Homsher family had first arrived in Southeast Colorado in 1887 and Herb Homsher Sr had become a prominent business man and citizen. He was in unique position to give of himself and his resources during this difficult time. The volume of correspondence where he worked to obtain resources for destitute families and local farmers is a testament to Homsher’s empathy for his neighbors. Photo Courtesy of Kent Homsher

More Dust Bowl Era Red Cross Artifacts

Herb Homsher Sr. was the Red Cross Chairman (see Above) in my Baca county during the 1930’s Dust Bowl/ Depression. Note the Red Cross sign in the background of the photo. His grandson Kent Homsher has provided a literal treasure trove of artifacts for this project, including letters on Red Cross letterhead requesting services and food.

There are multiple occasions in the requests for Red Cross flour where the person requesting the flour is described as “worthy” of the commodity requested.

Dust Bowl stories made famous in works such as the “Grapes of Wrath” often discuss the plight of those who left the devastated area, but many had no resources to leave and were simply stuck where they were. The note is on the back of a torn out piece of newspaper. There were not even any resources with which to write the request for assistance. Also note the concern for the family’s children, “If you can get it for the kids, I guess John and I can go without -“

“Mrs. Ross – Get Earl’s overalls. Size 13 years old – Hugo – if you think they look big enough y not get larger ones – get Corolie some dresses and bloomers – get what you can stockings and socks – size 10 – stockings – tell him I just got 25 lbs for flour at Pritchett was all they had – If you can get it for the kids, I guess John and I can go without – I’ll sure thank you – for we haven’t anyway to get any where”

M Castoe

Courtesy of the Homsher Family Collection
Prohibition was alive and well in 1932 and the moonshiners were doing a booming business in Southeast Colorado. Herb Homsher Sr. even attempted to access some of these confiscated resources for area residents.

We are excited to get this project underway! If you are interested in contributing with a Baca County specific artifact, please leave a comment.

Check out these other Dust Bowl Stories on this site

A Different Kind of Dust Bowl Story: Pretty Boy Floyd in Baca County, Colorado, 1934.

Baca County’s Connection to 1939 Czechoslovakia: Another Unusual Baca County Dust Bowl story.

A 1933 Dust Bowl Thanksgiving

I Was Working on the Railroad…In The Heart of the Dust Bowl?

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