Thunder Butte

July 28, 2005

The Big Drought: From Paradise to Dust and Mud Holes

South Dakota is not generally an especially hot place. Even in summer, temperatures rarely break the 90 degree mark. I also remember it as a sea of prairie grass, a verdant plain, if you will. As a child, I used to lie in the tall grass, feeling the wind as it whistled through the trees and grass, listening to the birds singing, and watching the clouds scudding across the sky. It was idyllic, pleasant, a time and place that I remember as a lot of fun. Then, hot winds came, water holes dried up, animals died of thirst, and grasshoppers arrived in swarms. The ‘hoppers covered everything, and they ate everything, even the fence posts. It was common to see a piece of fence post hanging from a wire, where most of it had been eaten away.

For a year or two before the drought set in, outlanders, investors from out of state, bought up and leased hundreds of thousands of acres of native prairie grazing land. They sent in tractors with large gangs and sod-buster blades, and they broke up this land everywhere. They planted things like flax, all sorts of other exotic crops, at least by South Dakota standards. Many of these alien crops grew for a few inches, then withered and died. When the sun blazed down and the hot winds blew, the soil gradually raised into wind-blown clouds of dust, which eventually covered everything. Since no rain came, humidity decreased and what grass remained was brittle and dead. Most of my memories of those times are of intense heat, grasshoppers, flies and never ending dust.

During the drought, I used to take my pony out and ride a lot, just to look at the land. I often rode up and down the length of Thunder Butte Creek. It was common to see small pools of water remaining in some deep part of the creek where thousands of fish would be flopping about in what little water remained. All they had was mud in some places, and in other places, the water was gone and the stream bed was covered with dead or dying fish and turtles.

--John Crowley
Mike Crowley Thursday, July 28, 2005


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