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The Perils of Pluviculture

 

The pluviculturist, or rainmaker, is a stock figure, tragic and comic, in the story of the Great Plains. Generally he appears in history and fiction as a charlatan, hoaxing the unfortunate farmers of the prairies out of their savings when they were most vulnerable, in time of drought.

 

In the 1956 film The Rainmaker, Burt Lancaster fixes the type of the pluviculturist in the popular mind. He comes to town oozing charisma, stirring not only the hopes of drought-stricken agriculturalists but also the affections of an unhappy Katherine Hepburn. The film appeared during another period of drought on the plains. We are given to understand that rainmaking is a farce.

 

People who believed in rainmaking in the 19th century, however, were not nut cases. A recent article by Michael R. Whitaker in the Great Plains Quarterly explains how this belief came about. The belief in concussionism, that is, the making of rain by discharging explosives, came from lived experience.

 

Veterans of the Civil War figured prominently in the settlement of the Great Plains. They gathered often to share remembrance and fellowship. One of their palpable memories was that big battles often were followed by drenching rains. They attributed this to the effects of artillery.

 

This “lived experience of the Civil War,” according to Whitaker, made believers out of people on the plains. In 1871 a fellow named Edward Powers wrote up their experience in a book called War and the Weather, which was republished in 1890.

 

In that year Congress appropriated funds for concussive rainmaking in West Texas, a task entrusted to a patent lawyer from Washington named Robert G. Dyrenforth. He had a long interest in explosives, which came to life in grand fashion in 1891.

 

At several Texas locations, mortars fired charges into the air; kites loaded with explosives were ignited by electricity; and most spectacular of all, balloons loaded with hydrogen and oxygen were raised high in the sky, also to be ignited by wire. Early experiments coincided with local rains. Subsequent ones, not so much. Dyrenforth fell into disrepute.

 

We cannot call this sort of activity an aberration, however. Now, courtesy of the Library of Congress, we have access to many Great Plains newspapers in digitized form. A search discloses that rainmaking is a recurring, persistent phenomenon in Great Plains history from Texas to Alberta.

 

In 1921, in fact, people in North Dakota were reading about the activities of a man named Charles Hatfield who was using a “moisture accelerator” to induce rain in southern Alberta. It turns out this was the fellow who in 1915 contracted with the city of San Diego to make it rain and fill its reservoirs—resulting in twenty or more deaths by flooding! Which, of course, made Hatfield famous. Film historians say he was the prototype for Burt Lancaster’s character in The Rainmaker.

 

E. S. Keene, dean of engineering at North Dakota Agricultural College, denounced rainmaker Hatfield as a fraud. Nevertheless, in 1922 the commissioners of Slope County entered into negotiations to bring this most notorious of all pluviculturists to southwest North Dakota.

 

Hatfield made an offer; Slope County made a counter-offer of $5000; and a deal was struck. Only Hatfield never showed up in Amidon. He was next reported in Italy, accelerating moisture over Naples.

 

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