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The Rainmaker

From 1930 until the rains finally came again in 1939, America suffered the worst drought in known history. Seventy five percent of the nation was significantly affected and 27 states in the West lay wasted, covered under dirt from storms that people called, black blizzards. In the Texas and Oklahoma Panhandles livestock and wildlife died with great suffering. Nothing grew.

"Winds whipped across the plains, raising billowing clouds of dust. The sky could darken for days, and even well-sealed homes could have a thick layer of dust on the furniture. In some places, the dust drifted like snow, covering farm buildings and houses."

"Each and everyday got worse and you couldn't see no end, and you couldn't see anything of any improvement. And the government come in and took the cattle and killed' em, paid $16 for a cow and $3 dollars for a calf. Ran 'em in pits and shot them by the tens of thousands. When that was gone, you didn't have anything hardly left."


In the northwestern Panhandle of Texas it snowed in early March of 1930 but when the temperature rose to 70 degrees over the next few days it was barely muddy enough to make a tire track.

Then, that was the end of it.

By 1933, and still no rainfall, the earth began to come apart. The grasslands to the north in Oklahoma and Kansas, to the south in the bottom half of the once greatest ranch in American history, the million acre XIT, were badly overgrazed and overtilled with winter wheat production. When the land lost its glue that held it all together the hot, dry winds blew the dirt around as if by the Hand of God. Cattle and crops failed, then what little money there was left in the region failed as the Great Depression wore on. People fled for other parts of America but where there was nothing there, either.

In the Grapes of Wrath, John Steinbeck wrote..." death was a friend, and sleep was death’s brother.”

Dalhart, Texas suffered greatly. Not even its access to the great Ogallala Aquifer could save it; implement makers, store keepers and banks went under. Rich soil where tall corn use to grow blew as far south as San Angelo. Children all over the Panhandle died from breathing dirt. No amount of praying helped.

By April in 1935 Dalhart was a blurry ghost town in the relentless wind. Tex Thornton, from nearby Amarillo, rumbled into town, his truck loaded with nitroglycerin, a plan to blast the clouds above wide open and rain to fall by the buckets. He was 42 years old, brash, cocky and had a reputation for torpedo shooting hard rock oil wells from northern Oklahoma to to West Texas. About explosives, when Tex spoke, people listened. The city fathers of Dalhart listened, gave Tex $300 front money of a 500 dollar contract, and prayed he was telling the truth.

He loaded large balloons with nitroglycerin and time clock bombs he'd spent years perfecting and launched them high in the sky. The timers were set to go off at different altitudes and when the cap ignited inside the bomb the glycerin packed in baskets below the balloon exploded like cannon fire. He circled the town of Dalhart and released his balloons while caravans of onlookers watched with the fingers crossed.

Then the wind howled again and the balloons blew downwind and back to the ground exploding on contact. A barn was blown to smithereens. A balloon raced past the windshield of a family on their way back East, all their belongings loaded in the truck, and exploded 100 yards away. Tex moved south, then north, waited for dark blue clouds that came with passing cold fronts, and tried again. It did not rain. In frustration he buried the rest of his nitro, over 300 pounds, in a pit and blew dirt 500 feet into the sky that simply made the black blizzard worse.

He drove out of town, back to Amarillo one morning before first light without even asking for the rest of his money. Rainmaker or rainfaker, nobody knew. The effort seemed noble to many.

A week later it snowed in Dalhart, a light dusting, and Tex took credit for the moisture. But nobody picked up the newspapers to see that it had snowed in Denver and over Trinidad Pass the day before on a passing cold front.

Tex went on to do great things with his knowledge of explosives; as hydraulic frac'ing came into existence, and pumping hydrochloric acid into hard rock became more and more prevalent his knowledge of torpedo shooting became less needed and he re-focused on well control and shooting out oil well fires in the Mid Continent region and Texas Gulf Coasts, often picking up jobs that Pat Patton or Myron Kinley did not have time to get to. People knew him and respected him. He was famous in North Texas.

So it was in 1943 when he picked up two hitchhikers, man and wife, between Dalhart and Amarillo. They stopped at a joint called the Park Plaza outside Amarillo and got to drinking. Tex got caught in a motel room with the wife and her husband beat Tex to death with a 2 x 4. The law in Texas was clear back in those days; if you messed with a man's wife you got what was comin' to you. Neither husband nor wife was ever charged with the murder. They skated and Thornton, after decades of escaping violent death shooting explosives and risking everything in oil well firefighting...finally found rest.

It was a helluva way for Tex to go, given where he'd been.


Photographs from SMU Digital Libraries and the Library of Congress. Quotes about the Dust Bowl from the Library of Congress and the works of John Steinbeck.


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