I Remember the Thirties
by Helen Nolden
Helen Nolden won Honorable Mention for this article written for the Heritage Writing Contest at the Minot State Fair on July, 1986.
I was a young child during the drought of the so-called Dirty-Thirties. Being a child, it was hard to understand all of the ramifications of the drought as it dealt with the North Dakota farmer. It did really hit home one hot summer day when we were out on a farm!
At that time, my oldest sister lived on a farm about seven miles South of our hometown of Anamoose. I remember going out with my Dad and Mother. It was always so much fun for us City kids to go out to the farm to see the animals.
Most of all, my brother Tony and I had barrels of fun running barefoot through the sand banks in the ditches. It was almost like after a blizzard, only these weren’t snowflakes; they were tiny grains of sifted sand, which had been blown off the topsoil of the farmer’s plowed fields. Sometimes we would step on a very dry Russian thistle, but you quickly corrected that so you could get back to playing in the soft desert-like sand. It reminded us of pictures we had seen in our schoolbooks of the Sahara Desert.
One day, while we were playing in the ditch, some men in several cars drove up to my sister’s farmyard. Some of the men were dressed really nice, white shirts, ties, etc. But some of the men were dressed like farmers. I remember my eyes were as big as saucers when they were getting out of their cars holding guns in their hands. My Father said they were Federal Men. My goodness! Federal men out at my sister’s farm! When we heard that we followed them to the gate that led to the pasture.
The Federal Men looked over the herd of cattle for a time. Discussing in terms we children never understood. Then they marked certain cows with some kind of chalk. After that, they had a long talk with my brother-in-law John. My sister Kate was there too. I didn’t know at the time why she ran to the house crying. She loved all animals. Big and little. All of the horses had pet names. All of the cows had names. So did the sheep and some of the chickens. That was Kate!
John hitched a team of horses to a funny plow-like thing they called a scraper. He drove them out to the West pasture. The men watched as John dug a huge, deep trench. The Federal Men helped John herd the cows with the chalk marks on them up near the trench. The Federal Men then raised their guns and shot the marked cows. They drug the cattle to the huge trench, dropped them in, and then covered them with dirt. Then the Federal Men left as soon as this was all over.
John loved animals too. He was always so proud of his horses and cows. He never mistreated them nor did he allow anyone else to harm them either. It was strange to we children to see my parents crying. All of the adults were crying. We cried too, although I never really understood why.
My Mother tried to explain it to us just what had happened there that day. She told us the cattle were starving. They had no more hay. They were eating thistles, water and sand. Their ribs and bones stuck out like a Stag’s antlers. In this way, no matter how cruel it seemed, they wouldn’t be in pain any more. They wouldn’t have to search for food that wasn’t to be found. It helped us to understand a little bit better.
But I will never forget the sounds of that day! Long after the Federal Men had left, when my brother and I were again playing in the ditches, we would look back toward the pasture. I could still hear the guns reverberating through the stand of Willow trees. I could still hear the barking, then the whining of the dog, who ran away to hide for the rest of the day. I could still hear the frightened horses running to the farthest part of the pasture. The hooves beating in unison on the hard dry ground.
The dry breeze blowing the smell of the powder from the shells to us down near the gate. It sent shivers up the nape of my neck. I could still see my Father, a rough, tough, railroad man walking toward the mailbox just sobbing. I knew I would never forget the white tear-stained face of my brother-in-law. My sister went into hiding in their bedroom.
We kids knew something sad had happened that day, but we still couldn’t comprehend it all. We knew this was all connected somehow to the drought. We knew it had something to do with the sand in the ditches, but we were a bit too young to grasp it all at that time. I do know that it is something I will never forget for the rest of my life.