Monday, September 23, 2013

WHAT WAS IT REALLY LIKE IN THE OLD WEST?


I love to write about the Old West, about cowboys and ranchers and the exciting lives they led. Researching my stories gives me pleasure. Reading the historical romances of my friends brings me relaxation and satisfaction. They are a mental vacation from today’s stress.

But what was it really like to live in the Old West?

My work in progress features three adults and three children in an 1888 Texas dust storm. Any of you who have ever lived in the Southwest know how dreadful a dust storm can be. Not sand, but fine dust that seeps in through the tightest windows and doors.

Except for six years in California as a child, I grew up in West Texas. We had some doozy sand storms that would sting your skin if you happened to be outside. And this was in prehistoric times when girls could not wear jeans to school and we had to walk home with sand stinging our bare legs. Ugh, those were NOT the good old days. We also occasionally had a bad dust storm.

Dust storm at Midland TX

The first one I remember was when I had just turned eight. We had just moved back to Texas from Bakersfield and the dust started blowing in the afternoon. Because I was asthmatic, my mom wet sheets and hung them at the windows of my room. She didn’t bother to do the same in her and Daddy’s bedroom. The next morning when they woke, my mom started laughing at my dad. Fine gray dust covered his face, like grayish-brown talcum. When he raised his head, she could see the outline of where he’d lain. He asked her why she was laughing and she told him he looked as if he had on some kind of stage make up. He told her to go look in the mirror. She was shocked to see she looked the same and her brown hair was beige. I still remember the surprise of seeing their outline on the pillows before I was banished back to my room.

Lubbock, Texas
About ten years ago, my husband and I were visiting his mom in Lubbock, where she lived in a beautiful, new assisted living complex. The sky grew dark and we thought we were in for a thunderstorm. No, it was roiling clouds of black dust from who knows where? The dirt around Lubbock is reddish-brown and further west the soil is tan. This was black and fine, like tons of obsidian talcum powder smothering us. Her apartment had double-paned windows in metal frames. That storm must have sucked all the oxygen from the air, because I started choking up. I don’t have many asthma attacks now that I’m an adult and know what to avoid, but I had a severe attack then. We had to cut our visit short and hurry out of town or go to the emergency room. We left.  

Dugout in Indian Territory
Oklahoma Historical Society
From our family history, I have a transcript made from the oral interview of a woman born in 1890, a relative of my dad’s stepmother. This woman recounted a move from Texas to southwestern Oklahoma in 1899. They had a tent with them and found an abandoned dugout to use until their home was built. One of the boys had asthma and was just recovering from pneumonia. The musty smelling earth kept him from living in the dugout, so he remained in the tent. One day the women in the family had put all the bedding out to air. The father and boys came rushing home from the fields because they thought the black cloud on the horizon was a grass fire, a terrible thunderstorm . . . or the end of the world. These people lived in an isolated area with few resources. The wind struck and a terrible dust storm engulfed them. Afterward, they recovered the tent, some of their bedding up to a mile away, and never saw some of it again. Whew! And that was before the infamous Dust Bowl.

In my current story, THE MOST UNSUITABLE COURTSHIP (to be released in October), the adults are as uncomfortable as you would expect of anyone caught in a dust storm on the prairie. But two of the children have asthma, one severely. This made me wonder about pioneers like those above from my step-grandmother's family. My husband and I have taken turns sitting up nights with our asthmatic children (or sitting with one child when they were both ill at the same time), we learned to give respiratory therapy to them, and we monitored their diets, shots, and medicines. With all that, we still felt helpless when they were sick.

How horrible it must have been to have a child gasping for breath with no help in sight. No emergency room, steroids, or modern medicines. No wonder so many children died in infancy.

I love to write and read about the Old West. I'm glad I missed out on the real Dust Bowl. I give thanks that I live in the New West.

10 comments:

Jacquie Rogers said...

I sure enjoy my insulated house, central heat, and all that goes with it. We don't have dust storms here, but they do in Idaho--very fine dirt that settles in and on everything.

About asthma: my great-uncle was diagnosed with it. The doctor prescribed smoking. At age 6, they made him smoke four pipe bowls per day. Can you imagine? It turns out that he wasn't asthmatic at all--he was allergic to dogs.

Caroline Clemmons said...

My dad started smoking at fourteen to help his sinusitis. He smoked mentholated tobacco. He became a life long smoker. Unfortunately, he died of emphysema from smoking.

Kat said...

Great post, Caroline!! I've never seen a dust storm, living in Alberta, Canada and I don't think I want to. :)

Ginger Jones Simpson said...

Great post Caroline. My great-grandparents lived in Oklahoma and I've heard tales of the great dust bowl your picture shows. Not many of them were smokers, but snuff dippers and tobacco chewing. :)
Thanks for sharing and brining back some memories, if not teaching me some new things about my favorite era.

Dick said...

Was in a dust storm about the third grade on trip to dads folks in Texas. Sand stuck on walls, bugs every where.

Dad was born in 1899, youngest of 12,in Palo pinto county. 5 did live to see adulthood. Rough times, but like war all dad remembered was the good times.

Carra Copelin said...

I enjoyed your post, Caroline. I've never been in a dust storm and don't feel like I've missed a thing! LOLI will not try to seek out that experience. ;-)

Susan Horsnell said...

Enjoyed reading about dust storms. Can't begin to imagine what they must do to people's lungs. I think I will stay well away, being a chronic asthmatic they would wreak havoc with me. Such an interesting post.

Ciara Gold said...

I remember those dust storms. My grandmother lived in Midland and my uncle lived in Lubbock. In fact, my grandfather was principal of Midland High for a number of years. Anyway, they had huge cinderblock fences to help combat some of the dust and we loved climbing on them. Fond memories. I can't begin to imagine how the settlers dealt with the sand. Ack.

Caroline Clemmons said...

Ah, yes, Ciara. My uncle had a cinderblock fence with tall Lebanon cedars around it to combat the dust. Don't think they helped all that much, but anything is worth a try. Everyone painted their walls a color called "Sand," which was a tan with some pink in it and matched the color of the dirt so it didn't show so badly on the walls. I still hate that color. LOL One of my jobs was to vacuum the walls.

Lyn Horner said...

Thanks for the info and photos, Caroline. When I was a youngster studying geography in about 4th or 5th grade, the Great Plains (at least the southern part) were still referred to as the Great American Desert. I think I see why now. Those dust storms sound very much like the terrible sand storms that sometimes race across the Sahara Desert. Nasty!