Rainmakers


(Frank) Well, here we are again. And you know, it’s rained a lot this year. A whole lot. (Deb) We have had an incredible amount of rain, yes. (Frank) Course some places like California are still in drought but Kansas has had some interesting stories about rain and rainmaking and all of that. (Deb) You know Kansas…this year when I was out west they said they had, I think, as much rain in one month as they’d had in the years 2012, 2013. So, drought is a really big deal. And when the rain comes as farmers and ranchers well know, makes a big difference in what kind of crop you’re gonna get or what conditions you’re gonna have to deal with. (Frank) Yea. Of course, we had the Dust Bowl back in the ’30s. But we know that a lot of that was due to the fact that the farmers over-planted… (Deb) Right. (Frank) …and they cut down a lot of whatever trees were out there. And then the drought came and everything blew away. (Deb) And they believed…what was that old saying, The rain will follow the plow? Didn’t exactly happen. (Frank) Yea. (Deb) But you’ve got a great story about that phenomenon. (Frank) Yes. In fact we’re gonna have two segments because it really is interesting. So, lets take a look. Kansas has experienced some record rainfalls this year, relieving the drought many areas had experienced. Those hot, dry spells are no stranger to Kansans, even today, and rather than just complain, folks thought they would do something about it. They hired rainmakers. Burt Lancaster immortalized the profession with the character of Bill Starbuck in the 1956 movie, The Rainmaker. Starbuck, full of promises and a knack for wooing the ladies, breezes into a drought-stricken small Kansas town and convinces most of the folks he can make it rain. In the end, he even wins over the skeptical Lizzie. Decades later, the scenario inspired the song, Lizzie and the Rain Man, a hit for Tanya Tucker. Let’s turn now to the archives of the Kansas State Historical Society for the story of a real rain man: Melbourne the Wizard. Rainmaking captured the imaginations of many late 19th-century Kansans convinced that nature could be conquered. Years before Melbourne came to the state, experts claimed large fires or explosions could produce rain. Some believed gases released into the air caused an atmospheric effect that made rain. By 1890 many people accepted rainmaking as a possibility if not an actual science. Melbourne was one of earliest rainmakers to raise the hopes of western Kansas farmers battling severe drought in the early 1890s. For several days rainmaking gases rose from his shed in Goodland. A gale from the southwest drove the vapors to the northeast, where heavy rains reportedly fell. Goodland eventually experienced a light shower, but not enough to justify Melbourne’s $500 fee, and the rain wizard departed unpaid. Despite Melbourne’s failure to create a good rain, Goodland residents considered his efforts a success. Enterprising locals established three rainmaking companies that were active for many years all over Kansas. The Inter-State Artificial Rain Company claimed to have purchased Melbourne’s secret. Its rainmaking squads traveled throughout the region. The first good rain in six weeks followed one visit to Oklahoma City, and one company official wrote another, I tell you, Marve, we have got the world by the horns with a downhill pull and can all wear diamonds pretty soon. We can water all creation and have some to spare.

(Frank) And we’re back again. (Deb) OK, Frank that’s really cool. (Frank) Rain, rain rain. (Deb) That’s some really cool stuff. And of course, my favorite piece of what you just did was maybe the Tanya Tucker song, Losing Your Man. I loved that song. Yea and the fact that this guy, this writer, watched that old movie, which you and I love a lot. The old Burt Lancaster movie and then he was inspired to write that song. That’s pretty cool. (Frank) Yea, yea. It is. (Deb) Art inspiring art. Life inspiring art. Art inspiring life. You know all those good things. (Frank) Only Burt Lancaster could have played that part. (Deb) Yea, really. Yea, he has the panache, or the whatever, to pull that off. In fact we didn’t really get done with that story. So, let’s talk about well, what happens now today in real time. One of the more popular Kansas rainmakers was C.B. Jewell. Chief train dispatcher for the Rock Island at Goodland, Jewell also claimed to know Melbourne’s secret. His employers were so confident in his abilities that they furnished him with everything necessary to conduct rainmaking experiments. Unlike Goodland’s companies, Jewell didn’t charge for his services nor did he keep his methods a secret. He used gases, jars, batteries to establish electrical communication with the clouds, and sometimes dynamite and exploding rockets. He claimed volatile gases charged with electricity chilled the atmosphere and caused condensation to form. His four generators produced 1,500 gallons of rainmaking gas per hour. Like those of the rainmaking companies, Jewell’s experiments met with varying degrees of success. In June 1893 he failed to produce rain at Dodge City but took credit for rainfall at Meade, claiming wind carried the chemicals there. At Phillipsburg later the same month his work was followed by near-flood conditions. The town’s newspaper editor wrote, If this wetting is due to Mr. Jewell, give him credit for it, and if it is it isn’t costing anybody a cent, so let’s don’t hear any loud words about it. By the end of 1894 the enthusiasm for rainmaking was replaced by one for irrigation. A brief revival of interest occurred in the 1950s in parts of western Kansas, but it wasn’t until the mid-1970s that the state again saw organized efforts at controlling weather. A variation of rainmaking was tried in western Kansas in 1975, when the Western Kansas Weather Modification Program began operating. Its main objective is to minimize hail damage to crops using chemical crystals that reduce hail formation. The chemicals are fired from a small airplane into the updraft of storm clouds. The Kansas Water Office estimates that hail damage decreased by 27 percent in participating counties. The program also targets rainfall increase as an objective. Although these results have not been closely studied, one test location reports an 11 percent increase in rainfall.

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