By Peter Carrels
During the Dakotas’ early settlement by non-natives, in the 1880s and 90s, business interests such as immigration promoters and railroad and land development companies lured prospective residents to our region using the jingle: rain follows the plow.
This meant, simply, if you come here and till the land, rain will fall.
When the region’s residents finally figured out that plowing the landscape did not deliver rain, they sought other reassuring approaches to resolve their worries and need for moisture. That’s when rainmaking enterprises became popular and profitable.
In 1893, Aberdeen and the Aberdeen area were experiencing a prolonged dry spell that threatened crops and commerce. To solve this problem, anxious Aberdeen businessmen hired a reputable rainmaker.
Rainmaker Morris was having a profitable run that season, as desperation—not precipitation—filled the air through a vast region of the Northern Plains. He’d come up from Goodland, Kan., where his rainmaking business was financed by bankers, lawyers, judges and other prominent and educated people. When he arrived in Aberdeen, in late June, there was much fanfare and celebration. Citizens were so confident in their new hero that local merchants sold every umbrella they’d stocked.
Morris’ contract was simple: If he could coax one decent shower from the heavens within five days, he’d be paid $500, a considerable sum in that era.
In the 1890s the rainmaking enterprise had a sense of legitimacy. Railroads funded rainmaking experiments, and sent rainmakers on extensive tours through the countryside, promoting their craft and calming the masses about living in a semi-arid region. One lucky rainmaker was offered a deal to produce rainfall by a consortium of 40 western Kansas counties. For every acre of cultivated cropland that received precipitation, the rainmaker would receive 10 cents. This generous opportunity could have generated as much as $20,000. It’s unclear how much cash the rainmaker reeled in.
In 1891, the U.S. Congress appropriated at least $9,000 for rainmaking experiments. In that same year the North Dakota legislature offered a reward to anyone who could devise a foolproof rainmaking system. No one stepped forward to claim that prize.
The following year federal lawmakers allocated another $10,000 for additional trials and tests. In one such project, scientists detonated balloons filled with explosive gas high above the land. The theory behind “concussion” rainmaking was based on the observation that heavy rainstorms often followed large military battles.
Rainmaker Morris followed a different approach. Atop a building in Aberdeen’s downtown he placed large containers holding mysterious compounds and chemicals. From these containers Morris carefully managed the emission of his secret gasses into the atmosphere. Curious observers watched from afar, as Morris allowed no visitors to his rooftop laboratory. This went on for four days, and the vigilant community held its collective breath as vapors and fuzzy fumes continually rose from that roof.
Then, on the fifth day, the Fourth of July, as outdoor festivities honored a favorite holiday, a heavy downpour drove revelers inside.
A local newspaper instantly likened Morris to a second Moses. After two more days of intermittent showers, a group of Aberdonians met with Morris and begged him to call off his influence before floodwaters inundated the city.
It’s unknown where Morris took his talents when he departed Aberdeen. But it’s likely that with a small fortune in his locked safe, he was en route to some other desperate and parched locality willing to pay him handsomely.
Morris and other rainmakers roamed the Plains for a few more years, often participating in well-attended debates in theaters and meeting halls to present their beliefs about the best approaches to summoning moisture from the sky. But their competencies were soon revealed as hollow, and their respect and authority faded as completely as the earlier “rain follows the plow” fraud.
Don’t malign the victims of the 19th-century rainmaker, as it’s much too easy to lose one’s sensibilities when enticed by assurances that calm our fearful and hopeful ways. “Rainmakers” still come round, peddling promises and prosperity. And we still bite at their bait.