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Rainmakers

One of the most pronounced characteristics of Nebraskans has been an unwillingness to accept a dry year with no protest. Protests have been expressed politically--as in the Populist movement of the 1890s--or through the promotion of irrigation. But the protests that most completely seized peoples' imaginations, have been attempts to increase rain.

Modern attempts at rainmaking, such as cloud seeding, may be more scientific and effective but seem less flamboyant that former methods. During the severe drought of 1894 in Nebraska, a favorite theory was based on the popular observation that the detonation of high explosives caused rain. The Rain God Association was formed in the Nebraska Panhandle, set up stations from Long Pine to Harrison, and arranged to discharge gun powder at set intervals. Explosions, singly or in conjunction, did not help northwestern Nebraska in 1894, however, and the drought continued. Rainmakers in the Grand Island area had better gunpowder, or a better area to work in. A Ravenna report in 1894 stated that five of seven attempts to bring on rain had succeeded.

Louise Pound, an authority on Nebraska folklore, considered the four most well-known Plains rainmakers to be Frank Melbourne, Clayton B. Jewell, William F. Wright, and William B. Swisher. Melbourne, known as "The Rain Wizard" and later as "The Rain Fakir," was the most famous and probably the most mercenary of the group. Said to be an Australian, he worked in Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado in the early 1890s. His rainmaking method seemed to involve burning chemicals on a raised platform in open country although he ultimately confessed that it was a fraud.

Kansan Clayton B. Jewell's experiments in rainmaking were at first sponsored by the Rock Island Railroad, for which he was a train dispatcher. (Railroads were often willing during these years to underwrite rainmaking activities because of the increased profits to the railroad if rain came.) Lincolnites William F. Wright, a University of Nebraska professor, and William B. Swisher, a pioneer doctor, also achieved some renown as rainmakers.

After 1894 the rainmakers, with their chemicals and cannonading, with their mixture of science and magic, largely disappeared. Nebraska suffered subsequent periods of drought, but began to rely on other remedies, such as irrigation.

(July 1999)

 

 

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