That Time it Rained…

The boosters have had their say, now it’s time to give the Devil his due.

The South Plains is a dry and inhospitable region and there’s plenty of data to back that up. The region has seen its share of catastrophic droughts spanning multiple years along with regularly experiencing rainfall so minimal one might be inclined to reconsider the veracity of Stephen H. Long’s “Great American Desert” declaration.

A quick glance over the  statistical tables reveals a sprinkling of exceptionally wet years spaced between the years of average precipitation and the brimstone quality droughts. These unusually wet years have done more damage to the psyche of the South Plains than the droughts and dry seasons.

Take a moment and consider the data complied by the National Weather Service at Lubbock. The table records rainfall amounts above and below the 18.3 inches annual average stretching back to 1911. The extremes stand out, especially in the positive range.  Conversely, the extremes in the negative range are less pronounced, obscured by the preponderance of below average rainfall years.

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Look where the wet years fall on the table, there’s at least one per decade and it typically follows or precedes a pretty substantial drought or below average period. It shouldn’t be any surprise that those years in the first half of the century correspond with the boom in land sales and explosion of optimists making their final trek into the great unsettled west. The wettest years were followed by a surge of hopefuls from east eager to stake their claim in “God’s Country”. Those optimistic newcomers’ faith in the region was usually put to the test within a few years of their arrival as the fertile green landscape faded to a sickly brown. From those trying years we get our local stories of perseverance and patience that drip with themes of pioneer courage and god fearing Americanism and in the subtext cast doubt on the quality of the character of those who didn’t make it.  At this juncture, historians have written about this frontier much in same vein as Frederick Jackson Turner and those who persevered were portrayed as the rightful heirs of Manifest Destiny. Local histories celebrating assorted anniversaries and early settlers have invariably read like hagiography. The region’s popular history has been tainted by this approach akin to the memories of the locals who only seem to remember the times it rained. The progressive history of winners and the march of prosperity has little room for those who were not part of the “in crowd”.

There’s been enough idyllic stories about ranchers, churchmen and the fine families that came to the South Plains with their bibles and plowshares. It’s time to recover from the monsoon amnesia and set the record straight by including the multitudes of settlers who woke up one day, scratched their heads as they surveyed the empty nothingness out their front doors and asked, “What the hell am I doing out here?”

There are fewer historians writing about Texas history and the local historical associations memberships grow older with each passing year. The progressive local histories of the chamber of commerce variety have done their damage. The end result of decades of praising a select group of “early settlers” and a fetish for a ranching culture that was in decline at the being of the twentieth century has sullied the prospect for future historical studies of the region that fail to conform to that model. The next generation of historians will not be writing about the South Plains and we’ll lose many of the stories waiting to be told.

We don’t have an axe to grind with West Texas and our agenda isn’t to poke fun at those who were daring enough to brave the wind and build homes in the middle of nowhere. Our purpose is to save our local history by telling the whole damn story. There’s nothing to hide. Those rainy years might be the ones we’d like to remember, but truth be told this place is a desert.

 

Handbook of Texas: Droughts

Texas Tech University: West Texas Mesonet

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