Growing Up in Baca County, Episode #4 by John Havens

   As the dust storms increased many of the farm families and a few of the town residents had to pull up stakes and look for greener pastures.  As a kid working around the service station I observed first hand family after family load all their belongings into cars and onto pickups and head out to find new homes.

   Even these many years later I remember three families who moved to southern Louisiana.  At least three families moved to Idaho, some to Oregon, some to California.  Several families moved to western Colorado, others to the Canon City/Penrose area.  It was not quite like a scene from Grapes of Wrath, but the Vilas community suffered the loss of many fine families.

   For those who stayed, times were hard.  Many farmers found work with the WPA, building bridges, roads and public buildings.  They would plant crops only to have them wiped out by the dust storms.  Then there were plagues of grasshoppers and the increase of jack rabbits.  Those critters increased in population until the famers had to organize rabbit roundup to reduce the population.  On one occasion Army Worms invaded an area near Vilas.  They stripped every garden as they moved from South to North for several miles.

   It was unbelievable how the dust swirled around houses and barns and drifted much like snow.  Farmers had to shovel the snow (dust) away from their front doors to gain entrance.

   There was one crop that seemed to thrive quite well during those days and that was broomcorn.  Tons of it was raised in Baca County, and if my memory serves me right, the town of Walsh became known as the Broomcorn Capital.

   But raising this crop was not easy.  It was strictly a dryland, crop and farmers spent long hours in planting it, weeding it, and then harvesting it.  Since no machine has been invented to cut the crop, it had to be harvested by hand.  Broomcorn cutters came from eastern Oklahoma, Western Arkansas, Southwest Missouri and other areas to cut broomcorn in the Fall of the year.

   One farm couple I was personally acquainted with hired 8 to 12 men during broomcorn harvest.  This couple had to get up by 5 a.m. and have breakfast ready for these men. They turned their double garage into a cook shack during this time.  They served bountiful meals, prepared lunches for the men to eat in the field, and another wellcooked evening meal in the cook shack.

   Since they no longer had livestock, they turned their barn loft into sleeping quarters, and the men ascended by ladder to their beds.  This had been their accommodations for several years, and no one had complained.  Then the Government stepped in and told this farm couple they had to have a stairway to the loft.  They complied with the order, and the first year of harvest one of the hands fell down the stairs and broke his leg, and the farmer had to pay the medical expense.  Also, the government said they had to have outhouse facilities at the end of so many rows of broomcorn.  The farmer decided there was getting to be too many rules and regulations, so they quit raising broomcorn.

(A comment by Kathy)

I know we have to have rules, but sometimes the rules cause more harm than good.  These men were out of work, the farmer out of income, and the community had one less industry.

    The WPA was a worthwhile program and saved a lot of people from starving and gave people a pride in earning a living for their family.  Today we are still enjoying some of the great buildings, bridges, and monuments that these people built.