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Texas | Columns | "Texas Tales"

Dust Storms

by Mike Cox
Mike Cox

When Mary Jane Weaver told her daughter-in-law her life story back in 1940, she was 85 years old, born six years before the Civil War.

She had seen a lot during that long lifetime, but what happened one spring afternoon in Vega, the seat of Oldham County, was high on the list of the most memorable.

As she recalled it, she was at her brother Rufus' residence. He was outside, in the fashion of old-time Texans, sitting on the porch. She was inside when he called for her to join him.

"I just wanted you to see what was comin'," he said, pointing toward a towering, billowing blackness headed in their direction.

It looked like a monstrous thunderstorm, minus any lightning, thunder or the refreshing smell of rain.

"We all believed it was a cyclone," Mrs. Weaver recalled. "It was just rollin' and boilin'. In less than ten minutes, it was just as dark as any night you ever saw."

Back inside the house, she discovered that she literally could not see her hand before her face.

The sun-killing phenomenon descending on the Panhandle was not a tornado. It was a dust storm.

"About that time I heard a train whistle," she continued. "The train went within 20 feet of Rufus' house and the headlight just give out a little glow, not a bit bigger than the top of a teacup."

Mrs. Weaver and her brother had trouble breathing, the air was so full of dirt. The next morning, everything in the house was coated with fine dust.

In telling her daughter-in-law about the storm that turned day into night, Mrs. Weaver didn't mention a date, but it probably was the one that swept across the Panhandle on Palm Sunday, April 14, 1935.

An earlier storm on March 3 had been more severe, but it had blown through at night. The Palm Sunday storm was one of 350 dust storms recorded from 1932 to 1937. Of all those, it was the second worst.

Texas Panhandle dust storm,  April 1935
The dust storm of April 1935
Photo courtesy Louise George

The same storm raced through nearby Amarillo at 50 miles an hour.

"We thought the world was coming to an end," Dessie M. Hanburry recalled a half century later. "It was so dark you couldn't see the light in the room. I've never witnessed darkness so dark."

When the storm hit Stinnett, in Hutchinson County northeast of Amarillo, Mrs. Weaver's daughter Myrtle was about to serve dinner (as Texans then commonly called the noon meal) in the café she and her husband operated.

"Somebody come runnin' to the café and told her to go to the courthouse and get there quick," Mrs. Weaver said.

Myrtle ran back into the kitchen, covered the food, and grabbed her son. Her waitress collected Myrtle's daughter and they ran to the courthouse.

By the time they got inside the fence that surrounded the building, it was too dark to see. And then Myrtle dropped her son.

"The dust was so thick she couldn't find him," her mother continued. "But he cried out and she grabbed him by his hair."

Newspapers reported the following day that the storm had rolled from Nebraska and Kansas at 60 miles an hour. The thick concentration of dust particles generated enough static electricity to interfere with automobile ignitions, causing vehicles to stall or making them unable to start.

Unknown to Mrs. Weaver, until she saw the story in the Monday morning edition of the Amarillo Globe-Times, was the experience an Amarillo rancher and a photographer had. They left Amarillo Sunday morning intending to take pictures of sand drifts and other damage wrought by previous "black blizzards."

Later that day, the dust storm caught them out in the open on the XIT Ranch outside of Dalhart. The photographer managed four shots before the blackness enveloped them. They groped their way along a barbed wire fence until they found an abandoned two-story building. Breaking open the door, the pair spent the night inside. When they made it back to their automobile the next morning, they found the dust had dulled all its chrome and ground the glass over the vehicle's headlights to near opaqueness.

In the same issue of the Amarillo newspaper, the main story on the dust storm led with a local weather forecaster denying that the Sunday storm had been the Panhandle's worst ever. To what must have been the delight of the chamber of commerce, he said it had merely been the most "spectacular" storm since it appeared during daylight hours. Not that the daylight lasted. And by all accounts it was the region's worst dust storm.

From time to time, the wind still blows dust in the Panhandle, but soil conservation efforts begun following the Great Depression keep most of the dirt where it belongs-on the ground.

© Mike Cox
"Texas Tales" June 24, 2019

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