David Lias

Through a computer search, I found this definition of the saying “Grab a Root and Growl,” which, you have to admit, isn’t used that much up in these here parts:

“The exhortation grab a root and growl is a way of telling someone to buck up and do what must be done. The sense of grabbing and growling here suggests the kind of tenacity you might see in a terrier sinking his teeth into something and refusing to let go. This phrase is at least 100 years old.”

I bring this up because “Grab a Root and Growl” was the catchphrase of John McCarty. He was the young editor of the “Dalhart Texan” newspaper in Dalhart, Texas, during the Great Depression, when that region of Texas was being slammed by drought and grasshoppers.

On top of that, Dalhart was in the middle of what is now commonly known as the Dust Bowl.

Just to back up a bit, Timothy Eagan, author of the book, “The Worst Hard Time,” notes that 1925 was probably the peak of prosperity and good times in that region of Texas.

He writes, “People were building houses, they were building towns, they were building banks. There was seafood coming in by rail from places like Galveston. There was this great frenzy in this so-called last frontier, and they were overturning the sod at a frenzied pace.”

He also notes that 2,000 acres a day of grassland were being plowed under because the price of wheat was soaring, the weather had been good and local farmers thought, “There's no end to this prosperity.” This great flatland, this area that had been disparaged as the great American desert, was suddenly the wheat equivalent of a gold rush.

We all know what happened a few years later. The stock market crashed. The Great Depression began. That region of Texas, along with most of the Midwest, was gripped by drought. Farmers tried planting wheat, but it never grew.

What were once grasslands were now barren stretches of dried, plowed up fields. The winds came and there was nothing to hold down the ground. The land just started to blow, and it took to the sky. There were black blizzards that turned a bright, sunny noon day into midnight dark.

There was a lot going wrong in Dalhart, Texas. It didn’t take long for people of the region to start pulling up roots, grapes of wrath style, to head for California after hearing that work could be found there.

When press reports of the dire situation in the Dust Bowl appeared throughout the country, McCarty and the "Dalhart Texan" fought back, rushing to the region's defense. He attacked outside critics for blaming "a group of courageous Americans for a six-year drouth [sic] cycle and national conditions beyond their control."

As many fled the plains following the disaster of Black Sunday in April 1935, McCarty dug in his heels and decided to stay, come what may.

Declaring that the southern plains were "the best damned country God's sun ever shown upon," McCarty published a pledge in the newspaper, stating that he would stay until everyone else was gone. He vowed to be the last man on the plains, and he dared others to join him.

His dare did not go unchallenged. Farmers, bankers, doctors, cowboys and schoolteachers came to the newspaper office and signed McCarty's pledge in ink, promising that barring a family or other emergency, they would stay on the plains "until hell freezes over."

From all over the plains, applications for membership arrived at the newspaper. Although it held no meetings and made no resolutions, the Last Man's Club became a rallying point, a symbol of the determination of the normally independent people of the plains joining together to stay and fight.

The Last Man’s Club became a mutual support group for those farmers that chose to stay in the drought-swept Great Plains, for those individuals who, as McCarty said, chose to "Grab a Root and Growl."

We aren’t in the middle of a dust bowl here in Vermillion. We haven’t been hit by a Great Depression, but it’s likely that we’re already in an economic recession. This has all happened quickly, without warning, because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Tuesday night, the Vermillion City Council did the right thing and that right thing likely will make life a bit harder for a number of people in the community.

It passed an emergency ordinance stating that certain businesses -- mainly those where people congregate, like bars, restaurants and beauty salons, must close effective Monday.

The Vermillion community had already been rocked by the coronavirus before Tuesday night’s meeting. Our public and parochial schools have been empty for weeks. You can find a few cars here and there on the University of South Dakota campus, a sign that only a small number of people are visiting the buildings.

Students haven’t been on campus for weeks. We learned on Tuesday that classrooms will remain empty. Professors will continue to teach university students online. The continued lack of contact seems like what it is -- a highly impersonal way to receive or offer an education. It is what must be done, however, to stop coronavirus from spreading.

Some students are still in Vermillion, living in residence halls. There likely are a few living off-campus, too. A process will be underway soon to help empty the residence halls in an orderly fashion.

It won’t be long and the off-campus students will be gone, too -- likely when their leases end.

We can’t sugar coat the situation we’re in. These are dire times. Everything, it seems, is at risk all at once, ranging from one’s personal health and the way we receive an education to the businesses we long to support and the public good that local government had planned to accomplish in the near future.

The Nov. 18, 1941 issue of the “Amarillo (Texas) Times” reported that “Members of the Last Man’s Club will swing their feet under a banquet table loaded with turkey and other food grown in Dallam County for the first reunion of the colorful organization which is composed of people who swore never to be whipped by dust storms.”

At that banquet, people “celebrated the best harvest in many a year.” Record breaking crops were grown that year and “the range is in the best condition since the days of the buffalo and the cattle are sleek and fat.”

We’re all a bit dazed right now by how rapidly things have and are changing in Vermillion. Remember, though, that in our community’s history there have been worse times and people pulled together to survive them.

There are tough times ahead for Vermillion. There is a time waiting for us, though, too, where we will all get together to celebrate life’s return to normal.

Until then, vow to make the best of these times. Adopt the spirit of The Last Man’s Club.

Grab a Root and Growl.


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