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By Rowdy White

Ray’s little spread was a few miles from mine in that patch of sand shinnery country in Jones County. Like many Texans of his age, Ray grew up on a ranch, left to make a living, and then returned to the land for the lifestyle when he could afford it.

Ray would graze a little wheat in the winter, cut and sell hay in the summer. His wife had a little kitchen garden and chickens in the yard. The last dry winter I ran goats, it was his hay that kept them fed. I remember leaning against my truck, talking about nothing with him while we watched the early December sunset through his post oaks. It was one of those small moments that brimmed with perfectness.

A couple years later, my goats were sold. I was busy juggling full-time school and work schedules, and I hadn’t talked to Ray in months. Coming home from town, I came around a curve on FM 600 to find a car wheels up in the ditch. Mrs. Oliver, one of my other neighbors, was kneeling a dozen yards from the wreck doing CPR on someone. As I ran up, I could see it was Ray’s wife. Ray was still hanging upside down in the car, his door bent, and seat belt jammed.

Mrs. Oliver and I traded out between CPR and lying under the back of the car trying to keep Ray calm through the shattered rear window. He kept asking about his wife and for a knife to cut himself free from the belt. To keep him immobilized until help could arrive to cut the car open and stabilize his neck, we lied to him about the knife. We also lied to him about his wife, saying we were working on her and she was alive.

We were working on her, but after being ejected from the car when it rolled, she offered no resistance when I pressed on her chest. Her lips were cool on mine as I tried to breathe my life into her. We kept it up until the helicopter landed, but Mrs. Oliver and I both knew what the outcome would be before we heard the news that night.

Ray came home from the hospital a few weeks later to an empty bed and a new home health care aid. He lived in the house for a while, but his fields remained empty. I rarely saw him off the porch. Eventually he moved in town to live with his children, and a year or two later Ray was dead. His kids eventually sold Ray’s place.

The plains are littered with abandoned houses from Abilene through to Saskatoon. Driving through the ruins of homesteads on the plains, you’ll find a falling down house or a stone chimney surrounded by a few trees with a few deer or a covey of quail staring out from the kochia and Russian thistle that choke out all native vegetation.

If you relax your eyes a little, you can see the memories of kids running through the now rusted and torn screen door, laundry on fallen down lines, and the gleaming red paint on the tractor that’s not moved since before you were born.

If your interests turn to that sort of thing, you try to guess when each place was abandoned. Tiny or large satellite dishes or a large television antenna hanging on a roof or—even better—a radio aerial strung between the house and an outbuilding tell part of the story.

Steel or wood windmills tell another part of it. Wind chargers that look like a car alternator with a fan attached really dial in the timeline. If you’re bold enough to stop and stand amid the memories and dreams of others, glancing at the discarded bottles and trash will tell you even more of the story. Smooth bottom glass bottles that never rode a conveyor belt puts you back before the 1950s; no seams on the bottle lips pushes time back before the 1920s. Kicking old oil cans out of the ground lets you see printing protected from the sun.

Looking out over the prairie while listening to the wind, you see the promise and allure of living in that beautiful country and hurt a little for the family that had to leave it.

If you can narrow down the “when,” you can hazard a broad guess as to the “why” a homestead was abandoned. Some look livable, having not been too many years since the kids took part in the rural to urban drain, the parents or grandparents dying or retiring to town.

Other homesteads are fading back into the prairie—victims of the Savings and Loans scandal of the 1980s, the late ‘80s drought, the drought in the ‘50s, the drought and Dust Bowl of the ‘30s, the drought in the 1880s. Those are just the ones we can still see. Countless dugouts are long gone. We also know the Wichita and other tribes, even the Puebloans, farmed on the Great Plains, and it is thought that droughts between 1200–1400 A.D. are what pushed the plains cultures to be the hunters we think of today. The bones of those native homesteads are out there, too. They’re just more difficult to see.

The plains are covered with reminders that it is possible to work hard every day, pour your heart and self into a dream, make no large mistakes according to the thinking of your time, but still fail. The rain didn’t fall when it should have. The markets a world away from your homestead crashed, and your banker’s poor choice ruined both him and you. Cancer steals the best years of your life while the medical-insurance system steals your savings and your family’s future earnings. Swerving to avoid a truck in your lane kills your wife, lames you and leaves you to die slowly from broken dreams.

None of this is an excuse not to try, not to work hard or not to strive for self-sufficiency. But, it should be a reminder to reach out instead of looking down when others are watching the weeds grow up through their dreams.


ROWDY WHITE is a wildlife biologist in the Department of Natural Resources Management at Texas Tech University in Lubbock. This article is used by permission of

This article appears in the Spring 2022 issue of the Ranch Record.  Would you like to read more stories about ranching life? When you become a member of the Ranching Heritage Association, you’ll receive the award-winning Ranch Record magazine and more while supporting the legacy and preservation of our ranching heritage. Become a member today.