In cruel corner of Oklahoma, town endures dry adversity

Katharine Q. Seelye / New York Times News Service

BOISE CITY, Okla. — While tornadoes and floods have ravaged the South and the Midwest, the remote western edge of the Oklahoma Panhandle is quietly enduring a weather calamity of its own: its longest drought on record, even worse than the Dust Bowl, when incessant winds scooped up the soil into billowing black clouds and rolled it through this town like bowling balls.

With a drought continuing to punish much of the Great Plains, this one stands out. Boise (rhymes with voice) City has gone 222 consecutive days through Tuesday with less than a quarter-inch of rainfall in any single day, said Gary McManus, a state climatologist. That is the longest such dry spell here since note-keeping began in 1908.

The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, caused in part by the careless gouging of the earth in an effort to farm it, created an epic environmental disaster. Experts say it is unlikely to be repeated because farming has changed so much. Boise City recovered from the Dust Bowl and has periodically enjoyed bountiful years since.

But this drought is a reminder of just how parched and unyielding life can be along this wind-raked frontier, fittingly called No Man’s Land, and it is not clear how many more ups and downs Boise City can take.

“The community is drying up,” Mark Axtell, the area’s only funeral director, said during a walk through the cemetery, where brown tufts of buffalo grass crunched underfoot.

In the past decade, Boise City lost almost 16 percent of its population, according to the 2010 Census. Just 1,312 people live here now — far fewer than the 3,000 who bought the first lots in 1908, only to discover that they had been hoodwinked. The land was inhospitable, and promises of railroads, water and trees (Boise is from the French “le bois,” meaning trees) were a fraud.

Boise City became the county seat for Cimarron County. But now, the county, too, has sagged. In the past decade it lost 21 percent of its population. Its 2,475 residents are spread so thin over such a wide expanse that an average of only 1.3 people occupy each square mile.

The young have little reason to stay. The old are dying or moving away to be closer to their children or to medical facilities, since Boise City’s only nursing home has closed.

“Last year, we did half as many funerals as the year I took over,” said Axtell, 48, who bought the business 25 years ago. “Last year was my fourth consecutive low year.”

The plunge in funerals prompted him to buy a cafe last year to supplement his income. Called the Rockin’ A, its 12 tables have become the town’s social hub.

But the main street outside is deserted, and many storefronts shuttered. Most people shop at the Walmart 60 miles away.

Residents blame a lack of jobs — not the drought — for the town’s decline. Dry spells come and go, they say, and coping with them is baked into their psyches. Many who live here are descended from those souls who endured the Dust Bowl and have reaped harvests aplenty since; they are bound to the land and not easily discouraged.

“Your die-hards will stay here,” Rebecca Smoot, 58, whose family homesteaded here in the early 1900s, said during breakfast at the Rockin’ A.

She lives in Boise City but works as a corrections officer just over the border in Texas.

“They stayed here during the Dirty 30s when everyone else was moving,” Smoot said. “That’s the way a lot of the people ended up with a lot of the land.”

The drought plays a major role in the town’s self-image and its economy. It has already doomed this year’s crops and is forcing ranchers to sell some of their herds; without water and grass, cattle need more nutrient-rich feed, which is expensive.

On the Sharp ranch, 15 miles outside of town, the cattle were grazing on dirt.

“The protein value is getting down low,” Dan Sharp, 65, said as Rusty Murdock, the county’s only veterinarian, tested his 22 bulls for their potency.

Three were deemed subpar, possibly because of the drought, and Sharp said he would sell them for slaughter.

“If they can’t reproduce, they aren’t worth keeping,” he said.

Over the past 15 years, his herd on his 15,000 acres (roughly the size of Manhattan) has dropped from 580 to 450.

His wife, Carol, 63, said the drought had “made everything a lot harder.

“You live more day-to-day because you don’t know what tomorrow is going to bring,” she said as wind whipped dust across the range and her daughter donned ski goggles.

But they are committed to ranching.

“The land is like a member of the family,” Carol Sharp said. “You don’t disown it if things aren’t going right.”

Many in town dread the day when a construction crew completes a highway bypass around the town. They expect that long-haul truckers, who often stop in town for gas and food, will no longer bother.

John Freeman, a county commissioner, estimated that 3,000 trucks a day pass through now and provide half the county’s sales tax revenue. He hopes the county can make up for that loss, several times over, by harnessing the inexhaustible supply of wind. But the permitting process takes years, and transmission lines are not yet built.

Like many small towns that survived the Dust Bowl, Boise City now seems on the verge of extinction.

“There’s no economic growth whatsoever,” Freeman said. “It’s going to have to be wind energy or we’ll die.”