God, Guns, and Survival, Deep in the Heart of the Dust Bowl
On Hardscrabble Life in the Oklahoma Panhandle
Cimarron County is at the westernmost edge of the Oklahoma Panhandle, bordered by Kansas, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. It is out there. The sheer vastness of the space is dislocating, the wind incessant, the beauty of the landscape stark. This is High Plains country, where temperatures can drop 50 degrees in a day, and it rains an average of only 18 inches a year. In the 1930s, Cimarron County was the epicenter of the Dust Bowl. Today it’s the least populous county in Oklahoma, with almost one square mile for every person. As its tourist brochure says: Still not a stoplight in the county!
Boise (rhymes with choice) City is the county seat and the largest town in the county with 1,168 people. It’s an isolated town—a five-hour drive from Oklahoma City—hunkered beneath a giant sky, amidst a shifting pallet of neverending buffalo grass. It sits at the intersection of five small highways, the busiest of which is US Highway 287, part of the Ports-to-Plains trade corridor that stretches from Laredo, Texas, to Denver. Semi-trucks roll through town all day long. There are nine churches, and the only bar is the VFW, surrounded on three sides by hay bales and horse corrals. Businesses in town are closed from noon to one for lunch.
Pam’s Variety has been here since 1979 and sells quilting supplies, Tinker Bell figurines, vacuums, shovels. A table in front displays bridal registry items—a blender, a cake cover, the board game Balderdash—for Dagan and Dustin, one of two sheriff’s deputies. “I know everyone in town,” says Deanna Frances, who stops by Pam’s. She is from here, and her parents are still going strong at 95 and 102.
But Boise City is changing. Many of the storefronts in the center of town are empty. Cimarron Memorial Hospital no longer performs surgery or delivers babies. The familiar narrative of small town America: jobs drying up, young people leaving, aging population—holds true in Boise City. Agriculture and ranching are still the largest industries but family farms and ranches have dwindled. There is fierce pride here, devotion to the land, loyalty to community. But underneath runs a current of anxiety, a heels-in-the-dirt resistance to change, a fear that Boise City will lose itself. The population, about 70 percent white and 28 percent Hispanic, is in steady decline, but the Hispanic population is growing, which causes unease among long-time residents.
The playwright Lynn Nottage has called nostalgia “a disease many white American have” and in Boise City it is crippling. Nostalgia for how it was—or how it is remembered—fuels a desire to hold the line, to halt what many residents see as a slide into an America they want no part of.
Immigrants, legal and illegal, work at the smelly, dirty, difficult jobs at the feed lots and dairies on the outskirts of town, where thousands of sad-looking cows are crowded into lots thick with mud and manure. The issue in Boise City is not that immigrants take jobs from residents—no one wants the jobs they take—but the fear that they are a threat to the cultural homogeneity, to the traditional idea of what life is like here. Boise City is warm and welcoming to visitors, as long as you’re not looking to stay. It’s a town that refuses to let go of its belief in itself, unwilling to accept that what it once was is no longer. And there might be its undoing.
Guymon, in adjacent Texas County, is the largest town in the Panhandle. Its population, over 12,000, almost doubled since 1996 when the Seaboard pork processing plant and hog farms opened. Over half the residents are now Hispanic, and at Guymon High School its close to 70 percent. Growth has brought problems, including a bigger city crime rate and a ballooning number of emergency room visits, not to mention the putrid odor from hog production. But Guymon is a town that is thriving, boasting an arts center, soccer fields, swimming pools, a film festival, a YMCA, cultural events, even a drive-in movie theater. Guymon cultivates an openness to newcomers. From the city’s web page: “Change often is what signals growth, and Guymon has both growth and change. But what you see today is a healthy town with a very young population. The future is bright for this town and its citizens, both those who have been here for many generations and for those who are putting down new roots in the Oklahoma Panhandle.”
In Boise City, people shake their heads about what has happened to Guymon. To many, the trade-offs that come along with growth do not seem worth it. “In Guymon, immigrants who can’t read open food at the supermarket to taste it,” Jody Risley, who runs the Cimarron Heritage Center says. “You have to make sure the seal’s not broke.” Boise City insists on staying exactly as it is, or more accurately, as it was.
“Out here the word liberal is thrown around like an epithet. It drives me nuts, though I consider myself a conservative,” C.F. David says, leaning back in his battered office chair. David, 70, is the editor, publisher and owner of the Boise City News. Cimarron County, he says, is home to extreme right-wing conservatism. David is the town gadfly, and doesn’t shy away from writing about topics that rile his neighbors. “A river running through the community is the Tea Party, which in Cimarron County is radical. It’s the John Birch Society, been here at least 60 years.” In the 2012 presidential election more than 90 percent of the county voted Republican, trailing only two counties in Idaho, and three in nearby northwest Texas. (Cruz won the county in the 2016 Republican primary.) Even the militant sovereign citizen movement, which believes the US government is illegitimate—Oklahoma City bombing conspirator Terry Nichols was a member—has solid footing here. “I’m not a big fan of the president,” David says, “but lots of things he gets blamed for I don’t think he did.”
God-and-gun patriotism, distrust of government, economic fragility, lack of agency, remoteness—it’s a potent, anger-stoking mix.
* * *
The social hub of Boise City is the Rockin’ A Café. Lined with dusty pick-ups outside, it offers chicken-fried steak and big glorious country breakfasts. Guns are welcome. Signs cover the walls: “Evil is found in the heart of man not in the weapon in his hand”; “You can have my gun when I run out of bullets”; “Mind your manners or you’ll get the boot”; “Security is provided by Jesus and Smith & Wesson”; “In God we trust. Everyone else pays cash.”
LeLayne Tapp, 25, has been a server here for four years. In her denim shorts and turquoise cowboy boots, she greets everyone by name and charms the rotating cast of cowboys and sunburned men in work clothes at the large center table. They all order the daily special: a hamburger patty, mashed potatoes, green beans and chocolate cake hidden under whipped cream, which comes out first. At 3 pm each day, the old timers come in and claim the table.
Mark Axtell has owned the Rockin’ A for five years. He and his wife also own the mortuary, whose business has sagged with the shrinking population. “We’ve buried 2,500 people in 30 years of the mortuary,” he says. In those 30 years the population of the county has dropped by about as many people—half its residents—with little rebound.
In addition to running the mortuary, he gets to the cafe at 4:30 am to cook, and daughter Remington, 22, who has two young children of her own, is the manager. (If there was any question about Axtell’s position on guns, his son is named Colt). His wife makes the crowd-pleasing green chile cheese sauce for the enchilada special. He needs help at the café, and one of his two servers, Laura Torres, is leaving. “I can’t get help,” he says. “No one wants to work. Because they’re living off our taxes. Or else I’m getting applications from people I would never hire.”
The few people coming in to town, he says, are less than desirable, are looking for handouts. The word “welfare” is uttered with contempt by Axtell, part of the right-wing rhetoric commonly heard around here. There is a palpable through-line of self-reliance that runs from the early homesteaders, through those who stuck it out during the Dust Bowl and subsequent droughts, to those hanging on today.
“A farmer dies mid-field everyone brings combines over to finish the field,” Axtell says. “We look out for each other’s kids. You can’t pay for that.” He spits his chewing tobacco juice into a cup. “I wouldn’t even want to visit New York City!” he says with a laugh.
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Sheriff Leon Apple, 47, laconic and genial, looks as you might imagine, with a mustache that extends down to his chin. He jokes he should have put on his cowboy hat. His office is strapped for resources—they need new vehicles, he would like a third deputy, and they have to send everything downstate for forensics. But he is devoted to his job. “I have a big heart for the people,” he says. “I’m from here. I know life here.”
He says crime is higher now and he notices a difference in attitude, a sense of entitlement from younger residents, newer residents. His office deals with marijuana coming in from other states, a growing meth problem. (When C.F. David hears this he says, “Holy Christ. Someone’s finally admitting it.”)
One of Sheriff Apple’s deputies, Dustin Cox—of the wedding registry table at Pam’s Variety—is cherub-cheeked and affable, exceedingly polite. He cooks meals for inmates at the jail, which is housed in the courthouse above the Sheriff’s office. The one current female inmate is locked up for burglary, receiving stolen property and breaking and entering.
In 2013, members of the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, a polygamist sect that splintered from the Mormon Church, arrived in Boise City. “At first there was not a problem,” the Sheriff says. Two Barlow brothers came, then six other brothers followed. They bought a building downtown, some houses. There was one family, George Barlow, 52, and his wife Virginia, 48, and their children. George had been mayor of Colorado City, Arizona, the infamous enclave of Warren Jeffs, “President and Prophet, Seer and Revelator” of the FLDS church, who is now serving life for felony child sexual assault.
“But then reports started coming in of following young girls,” the Sheriff says. “There is a fear that more will come and purchase more land.”
Jody Risley describes George and Virginia, who volunteered at the Heritage Center, as kind, soft-spoken, hard-working and always willing to help out. The Barlow brothers offer construction and remodeling services; they are carpenters, electricians, mechanics. Risley hired them to fix a leaky roof on the Heritage Center, which, she says, “started the rift” with tradesmen in town. “They didn’t want the competition, didn’t want the town to change.” She says that while the Barlows were working on the roof—it was August and hot—one of the sons went up the ladder to take them water. Someone took a photo as evidence of child labor. “Well you start pushing for a child labor crackdown in Cimarron County you’ll be in trouble,” Risley says. “Parents have kids on the tractors.”
The investigation didn’t go anywhere but the divide grew, which C.F. David called “a low rumble around town.” George Barlow told a reporter from The Oklahoman that they don’t participate in polygamy, don’t believe in child marriage and any sexual abuse of children that occurred was not in line with teachings of their faith. He said they came to Oklahoma for work.
“Everybody started stirring crap,” C.F. David says. “Fear of a compound. Stories of following kids around town. The thing is, you go anywhere in this town you’re following somebody.” He says there were a lot of rumors, a lot of Internet research. He wrote two editorials urging acceptance.
In July of 2014, the simmering tensions around the newcomers culminated in a town meeting at a local banquet hall. “It was packed,” Risley said. “They had that meeting to make them leave town. They were going to run them out.”
Gary Engels, who works as an investigator for the prosecutor’s office in Mohave County, Arizona, where Colorado City is located, and Sam Brower, a Utah private investigator, came to answer questions. “My feeling is the money being made here is going to enrich the FLDS leadership, including Warren Jeff’s commissary in Texas state prison,” Brower said.
Engels told the crowd that Boise City, where land is remote and cheap, would be an easy place for the group to establish a stronghold, as they had done in Eldorado, TX. Both Brower and Engels said recent developments in Boise City are a pattern they’ve seen sect members follow before in other parts of the country.
Jennifer Adee, 33, said her three-year-old daughter had participated in a local beauty pageant and one of the brothers had sat in the audience taking notes. “Why would he do that unless he’s going to use it to go after our kids? I’m not judging him on his religion. If he wants to practice the way he practices, that’s fine. But I’m not going to let my child be a victim, and I’m not going to let anybody else’s child be a victim.” There was loud applause.
None of the Barlows was in attendance. “If one of those guys would have been there they would have strung him up with a rope,” Risley says.
From the posts on Facebook following the meeting, it appeared tensions were still high. Lisa Vermillion wrote, “They will be first in line at your welfare office. They give nothing back to the community they live adjacent to.” Jay Whizzle: “What do they want to do to these folks? Chase them out of town with torches and pitchforks?” Rhonda Stadler: “WOW!!! I sure don’t want them here!”
C.F. David called the town hall meeting a low point for Boise City. Some of the brothers stayed, others left. Risley says that George and Virginia went down into Texas because they felt Boise City had become unsafe for their children.
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The landscape changes sharply when you drive to the northwestern corner of Cimarron County, out to Black Mesa, the highest point in Oklahoma. Flat grassland gives way to hills with cottonwoods and cacti, wild sunflowers and soapweeds, buttes, and rocky hills. You might see elk, deer, antelope, bullsnakes, big horn sheep, wild donkeys, prairie dogs, and dinosaur tracks, believed to have been made by an allosaurus.
Kenton is a town of 20 ranchers and retirees, perched in this rugged terrain of mesas and panoramic plains. Sheriff Apple’s family has ranched here for generations. Cindy Apple, the sheriff’s wife, says she likes to get out to Kenton, out to the ranch. “Boise City is a little too hectic,” she says with a laugh.
Cows graze on thousands of acres of protein-rich native grasses, on land leased from the government. To have a chance to make money out here you need 30 acres for every cow. But family ranching in Cimarron County has become increasingly fraught. Gone are the days when ranchers paid low land lease rates set by state officials. In 1982, a court ruling required the Commissioners of the Land Office (CLO) to enact an open bidding system to generate the largest possible return on the land. The ranchers fought back by refusing to bid against their neighbors.
But in 2005, wealthy Phoenix developer James Parker, who C.F. David describes as “swarthy, in a jogging suit, expensive sneakers and bling around his neck” came to town with his son and entered into a bidding war for land—he paid $9 per acre, the ranchers had been paying $1.50-$2.50—winning a lease for four parcels totaling more than 24,000 acres. The Sheriff’s father, Bob Apple, had to be restrained after he lost land to Parker. The auction was so hostile that police had to escort the Parkers out afterward.
Once he had the ranch, the younger Parker claimed angry locals cut his fences, made threats, sabotaged his windmills and fired shots over the heads of ranch workers. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They sure think it’s Wyatt Earp or something,” he told The Oklahoman in 2011. The CLO claimed Parker allowed cattle to roam on the property of neighbors, overgrazed land, and refused to make lease payments after a land swap. A series of suits and countersuits ensued, and, in the end, Parker lost, and then he left.
There will be other Parkers, other out-of-towners, other cattle corporations—they can’t all be run out of Cimarron County. Some ranchers have taken out second mortgages, while some have given up, unable to compete with big corporations for land. It’s a struggle for family ranchers who have stayed, and they live in fear of the land lease auction. “The future of this industry is really sad,” fourth-generation Kenton rancher George Collins says in the documentary Lone Man’s Land. “I think ranching like we do it in this country is a dying breed.” The wistful longing for how it was, of course, powerless to change how it is.
* * *
The Territory of Kansas was created in 1854 with its boundary set at the 37th parallel. When Texas came into the union, being a slave state, it couldn’t extend its sovereignty north all the way to Kansas, because that would include land deemed free-state territory by the Missouri Compromise.
That left a narrow strip of land 34 miles wide, 168 miles long between Kansas and Texas, the Cherokee Outlet and the Territory of New Mexico, known as No Man’s Land. There was no law, no organized government, prior to 1890 when it was annexed to the Oklahoma Territory, and became what is now the Panhandle. No Man’s Land drew squatters from heavily mortgaged farmlands in western Kansas, cattle ranchers, and outlaws.
In 1906, at age 21, C.F. David’s father traveled from Missouri by rail in a cattle car lined with plywood, filled with everything he owned: a mule, horse, bicycle, wagon, and supplies with which to survive on the prairie. At Guymon, he unloaded and traveled three days to arrive on the land he was to homestead in Cimarron County. He lived in a tent while he built his dugout house. The government had come through and drilled a well every ten miles or so. “He dug in the frozen earth by measuring off and then gathering buffalo and cow chips, laying them in the outline of his home-to-be and setting them afire. As the fire burned out and the ground thawed, he’d dig out and start over with another layer of chips.”
Two years later, Boise City was founded by developers who promoted the town as an elegant, tree-lined city with paved streets, businesses, and railroad service. (Boise is from the French “les bois” meaning woods.) They sold 3,000 lots to buyers who discovered, upon their arrival, that Boise City was bogus—there was no bucolic town, there wasn’t anything. The developers went to prison for fraud. But enough people decided to stay anyway, joining the homesteaders already there, and Boise City was incorporated in 1925.
From 1909 to 1929, during the frenzied wheat boom, farmers ripped out 32 million acres of prairie sod in the Great Plains. In the 1920s, they switched to the more efficient, but shallow-slicing disc plow, which left topsoil vulnerable to the wind. On the Panhandle, farming sub marginal lands led to soil erosion, and falling crop prices and high machinery costs meant that farmers needed to cultivate more and more land to produce enough to meet their payments. And then came the severe drought, nearly a decade long, and the result was what became known as the Dust Bowl, one of the worst environmental disasters in US history. Without the root system of grass as an anchor, winds picked up exposed topsoil, creating massive rolling dust storms some 10,000 feet in the air.
Despite the migrant exodus from Oklahoma and other states, most of the people of Boise City stuck it out. It lost less than 10 persent of its population in what became known as the Dirty Thirties. Even in those brutal years, going on government relief was seen as shameful. People got by however they could.
“We would have left if we had any money,” Mabry Foreman, 92, says with a grin. His family farmed a quarter section (160 acres) near Boise City and stayed on through the Dust Bowl. “We were poor but so was everyone else,” he says. They had no electricity or water, but they had a garden and cows, which sustained them. In those years his father’s asthma left him too ill to work so Mabry and his brother took over the farm when they were ten and eleven years old. They got up at five to work and got to school at nine.
The Dust Bowl is an essential part of Boise City’s history. Most residents, their parents or their grandparents lived through it. Grit, in every sense, is part of the town mythology.
* * *
The Cimarron Heritage Center in Boise City, an impressive and thorough compound containing, among other things, a museum of Dust Bowl artifacts and history, a dinosaur exhibit, a windmill, a dugout house moved piece-by-painstaking-piece from its original site, Mrs. Opal Cox’s exhaustive button collection, and Cimmy, a 65-foot-long, 18,000-pound steel brontosaurus.
Jody Risley, 57, who has been the director for 20 years, is passionate about her role as keeper of history. In addition to running the center and raising money, she records stories of the Dust Bowl from those who lived through it. The Heritage Center is often empty. “I’ve had to chase out bums and hitchhikers who come in and hang out all day when it’s cold or rainy. They stretch right out on the couch,” she says. But despite the sparse visitors, she acknowledges that most folks have a sense of history from their own family stories.
“Mom’s mad they always go to the same sources for the Dust Bowl,” Bonnie Miller says, as she cuts back sage from around a county event board. “She has tons of stories!” Miller, fine-featured with bright eyes, is a retired schoolteacher and now an EMT. She grew up one of eleven. Two of her siblings have died of cancer and her youngest brother was killed in a combine accident. When she was younger she moved to Texas for a while to work in a hotel but her dad called her back for help with harvest and she stayed. Her mother is 86 and still lives out near Kenton—she ran the post office for 30 years—where Bonnie grew up learning to can ketchup and make biscuits for the cowboys, and the best way to de-feather a chicken—tail feathers and wings first after the scald or they’re never coming out.
Farms in the region now engage in “no-till” agriculture—stubble is deliberately left standing in fields to reduce the amount of farmland exposed to wind. Experts say the Dust Bowl can’t happen again, at least not to the same magnitude, but some here aren’t so sure. When it’s dry, wind can strip away an inch of topsoil in as little as 24 hours, soil taken centuries to form. “People always ask if it can happen again. Yes it can,” Jody Risley says. Grasshoppers thrive in hot dry weather, and during the Dust Bowl plague-like swarms descended on the Panhandle destroying what meager crops remained. “What the sun left, the grasshoppers took,” President Franklin D. Roosevelt once said during a fireside chat. “The grasshoppers were so thick on the road this year you could hear them under the tires,” Risley says.
LeLayne Tapp at the Rockin’ A shows photos on her phone from a dust storm they had last year. It’s strange to see it in color, eerie, the dust light like ashy snow, the sunlight a dark orange. Despite the recent rain, someone from the Department of Agriculture leans over his booth to say they can’t truly call it the end of the current drought, which has lasted for four years, until two or three more good seasons.
In Cimarron County, 30 percent of the agricultural land is part of the government’s Conservation Reserve Program that pays “rent” in exchange for farmers removing environmentally sensitive land from agricultural production and planting grasses. Farmers sign ten- to fifteen-year contracts, and they must pay fees and return rent payments to have their land released early.
“Now they’re breaking the sod again,” Risley says. Farmers are cultivating land released from the CRP. “This part of the country doesn’t take much rain to go from gray to green. But this year things actually grew. The co-op broke all records with wheat because there was rain and no hail.”
Each growing season feels precarious, a nail-biting watch of the sky. Everything hinges on a few inches of rain. Farmers are gamblers, and this year, at least, they have come out on top. “This year is beautiful because there’s been rain,” Pam Carson of Pam’s Variety says.
* * *
Boise City has survived its fraudulent beginning, years of dust storms and crop failures, even being bombed: in 1943 a B-17 bomber crew from the Dalhart Army Air Base dropped six bombs on the town square, mistaking the lights for their training target. But the future of Boise City is wobbly. Extinction by attrition is a looming possibility. With the huge tractors used now, and land fallow in the CRP, farms don’t need the people they once did. Family ranchers have a tenuous hold on grazing land, uncertain if their children will have anything to take over.
“The young people don’t come back here because there’s nothing to do,” Jody Risley says, echoing C.F. David: “Unless your dad owns 6,000 acres of ground, you’re going to leave.”
Laura Torres, 27, is a single mom to a four-year-old son, and she is leaving her jobs at the Images Salon and the Rockin’ A, leaving Boise City for the University of Kansas, a masters program in music therapy. Her goal is to be a music therapist at Seattle Children’s Hospital. “People are confused by what I’m going to do,” she says. “Therapy is unheard of here.” She has a distance about her, a determined forward-looking gaze. She has places to go.
The Patels have owned the squat, peach-painted Townsman Motel on the eastern edge of town for seven years. They arrived in Boise City via Chicago—where they had a convenience store—originally from Western India. They live in the apartment behind the check-in desk. Shital Patel, 44, is cheerful with a quick smile, a long braid down her back. She cleans the rooms each day, and her husband, a former software engineer in India, does building maintenance. The Patels, practicing Hindus in the heart of Christian cattle country, mainly keep to themselves. Their son just started at Georgia Tech in aero-astro engineering, and their daughter attends a boarding school in Oklahoma City. The Patels’ children’s success is paramount, and they have sent them far from Boise City to find it.
* * *
The question of Boise City’s survival is more than an economic one. They can’t keep those they want, can’t chase out all those they don’t. To uphold a way of life, they might watch it die out all together. Boise City remains authentically, stubbornly itself. They have survived before, and they believe they will continue to, they’ll grit their teeth and keep on, bolstered by the certainty of their belief that they belong to this land.
“If you moved here tomorrow, joined every club and community group, and died here 60 years from now, you would always be an outsider. There’s us, and then there’s you,” C.F. David says. “I moved away for 27 years and I felt that coming back. I went away. Sold my daddy’s farm. You don’t give up land. Especially land your father broke out with a horse-drawn plow.”
At No Man’s Land Beef Jerky, owner Britt Smith is exuberant, pushing samples on whoever walks through the door. It’s a rare thriving family business—Smith drives a Hummer—and they are expanding. Online orders come in from all over the country. He shows photos of his great-grandfather, who used to deliver ammunition to Billy the Kid, and of his grandfather ranching in the 1930s. “I think people live a long time here because they’re skinny,” he says. “And there’s room to breathe.”
Anywhere you turn in Boise City there is the long view, the expanse of wide, flat grasslands ever shifting in color from green to gold. Wind goes from a whisper to a roar. Clouds are sparse one minute, billowy the next, and then gone altogether, the sky a mesmerizing blue. You can watch the rain moving across the plains, the dark flat light electrifying the green of the new wheat crop. Cows swish their tails and lazily graze on acres of grass. The landscape makes you feel both insignificant and meaningful, lost and grounded. It’s beautiful. The breathtaking wonder of all that space.
C.F. David has been trying to sell the struggling paper, which has been in existence since 1898. There’s not enough of an ad base and it costs too much to heat the old building they are in. He had a heart attack a couple years ago and suffers from panic attacks, which have hurt his ability to do investigative work. He wants to pen a YA novel, wants to write his memoirs for his children.
In the cavernous back room of the Boise City News office sits the old printing press, retired long ago. David rummages through the heavy letterpress blocks of lead type. “Make sure to wash your hands after you touch these,” he says. “That’s what brought down the Roman Empire!”
For her new novel, I Will Send Rain, Rae Meadows did extensive research on the Oklahoma Panhandle, in part inspired by the iconic photographs of Dorothea Lange.
All photographs by Christina Paige, who has photographed for T: The New York Times Style Magazine, WSJ Magazine, and has done portraits for many other publications. Paige is a graduate of the International Center of Photography’s program in Documentary Photography and Photojournalism. She was chosen as one of Photo District News’s 30 Emerging Photographers for 2008. She is also a clinical social worker. She lives in Brooklyn with her husband and two daughters.