The Rainmakers

The Rainmakers
Charles Wright (inset) and his “Drought Breaker,” a rain-making contraption used in Nebraska about 1895. (Nebraska State Historical Society)

“The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad for them; and the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose.”

So wrote the prophet Isaiah. Seeing the desert transformed into a garden paradise is a very, very old dream.

Water, everyone agrees, is the key.

During the nineteenth-century droughts when the prairies and plains resembled a desert, newcomers hoped that history provided an answer dating back “as long ago as the time of Plutarch it was ‘a matter of current observation that unusually heavy rains fall after great battles,’ and it is not impossible, according to the theory of the commingling of air currents, that such rains might have been produced by the great battles of ancient times.”

Napoleon shored up the theory when he confirmed that rain came on the heels of cannonading. Furthermore, veterans of both the Civil War and the Mexican War also avowed that rain followed battles in which heavy and prolonged artillery fire was present.

And, if desperate people needed further proof:

Senator Stanford, one of the builders of the Central Pacific Railway, informed me [Senator C. B. Farwell, of Illinois] lately that he was compelled to do a great deal of blasting through a part of the country where rain had never been known to fall in any useful quantities and where it has never rained since, and that during the period of the blasting, which was nearly a year, it rained every day.

It’s not surprising then, when the rains failed and the dust blew, it brought rainmakers from as far away as Australia rushing to the drought-stricken prairies and plains. They made heaven and earth tremble with charges on the ground and charges carried aloft by balloons. Hour after hour the barrage continued and occasionally rain did follow. Disappointingly, despite a few modest successes, the droughts continued unabated while the rainmakers departed with their fees while the farmers just departed – if they could.

No matter how bad things became the one thing that seemed to flourish during these droughts was the settlers’ prose and their humor. Judging from copy published in the April 1, 1880, issue of the Saline County [Kansas] Journal conditions weren’t improving very fast. The writer reported “Another windy, dusty, trying, headache-producing, vexatious, disgusting, terrific, upsetting, tearing, rearing, careening, bumping, sign-lifting, chimney absorbing, lung slaying, garment destroying, eye blinding, and rip-roaring storms, last Monday.”

However, the attitude of residents subjected to these years of drought and wind were beginning to become a bit chaffed and raw, but the weary folk tried hard to hold onto their humor. This, from The Wichita [Kansas] Eagle, April 15, 1880, gives a hint of the stress that was lurking just beneath the humor.

If there is a man, woman or child in Sedgwick county [Kansas] whose eyes are not filled with dust and their minds with disgust, he, she, or it must be an idiot or awful pious. From everlasting to everlasting this wind for a week has just sat down on its hind legs and howled and screeched and snorted until you couldn’t tell your grandfather from a jackass rabbit . . . As for our poor women, weighted down with bar lead and trace-chains as their skirts are, their only protection from rude gaze is the dust, which fills up the eyes of the men so that they can’t see a rod further than a blind mule.

During the drought in the 1890s when the ground baked and sizzled out in the Nebraska Panhandle, back in eastern Nebraska “a Pawnee Indian promised a shower for ten dollars, a soaking rain for twenty. Someone gave him a jug of whiskey and the hail pounded the grass into the ground. It’s a good story, told not without envy.”

The writing on the jug declares Quinn’s of Kansas City, Mo., to be the “Largest Mail Order Grocer and Liquor Merchant in the West.” This jug of Rye Whiskey would probably have been available in during the drought of the 1890s. (Photo by Rod Beemer)

Anyone have an ol’ cannon and a jug of whisky? Things are getting desperate!

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