Aberdeen hires rainmaker during drought
By Sue Gates
Dacotah Prairie Museum
The residents of Aberdeen and Brown County have always been of sturdy stock and haven't let the challenges of Mother Nature deter their determination to live happy and prosperous lives on the prairie.
In the late 19th century, many people came from the East to establish farms on the unclaimed land of the James River Valley, some of the most fertile land in the region. However, even the richest soil is useless without sufficient moisture to sustain its vegetation.
These first farmers in Brown County harvested bountiful crops in the 1880s. However, by the early 1890s, the first signs of drought appeared, and these young farmers began to suffer its consequences and express concerns about their futures.
The economy of Aberdeen was also affected as the drought worsened. By 1892, the local economy was so depressed that many local banks and businesses were forced to close. The optimistic spirit of Aberdeen and Brown County's early residents was replaced with one of earnest concern. The prosperity of the previous 10 years was evaporating as quickly as the water in the James River. The town fathers were desperately trying to find solutions to this ever-worsening situation and were willing to try almost anything.
In January 1892, area officials met to discuss rainmaking with a representative of an artificial rain company in Kansas.
Area farmers, desperate for moisture, were very enthusiastic about securing his services. The salesman assured them, "It will be child's play to produce rain on these plains. By that I do not mean that we'll be able to cloud up the sky and let the torrents down in 30 minutes of time. I find, however, that this country is wonderfully like our part of Kansas, and there we have seldom failed in bringing good heavy showers in a comparatively short period. In fact, rain is almost as certain there as death and taxes."
The sales pitch was so convincing that five counties agreed to pay $2,000 each for his "secret process" if, after a demonstration of the process, a half-inch of rain fell over a 500-square-mile area. His fee to conduct the test was $500.
Doland was selected as the test site. In June of the following year, the Kansas rainmaking company sent Morris to Doland to begin the test, which involved five days of work. Rain did fall over a 300-square-mile area after the five days, but it could not be proven whether the shower resulted from his work or from natural causes. But the people of Doland were satisfied with his results and paid him the $500 fee.
Aberdeen hires rainmaker: Aberdeen officials, hoping for similar results, were quick to contract with him.
Morris was scheduled to arrive in Aberdeen on June 27, 1893, and begin his work of producing a half-inch of rain to a 300-square-mile area as he had done for Doland. His fee was again $500. His Aberdeen contract did include a three-day grace period in case weather conditions were unfavorable to his work.
Morris and his son worked in a small shack near the Milwaukee Railroad roundhouse. No one was allowed into the shack, but all were welcome to gather outside to watch the vapors released into the atmosphere through a hole in the shack's roof cut especially for that purpose. Morris assured city fathers that he would produce a "big 'un" by July 4. He missed by one day.
Aberdeen had a soaking, two-hour rain the afternoon of July 5, just hours before Morris' five-day time period was to expire. More than an inch of rain fell that day, and Morris was paid his $500 fee.
Secret process: On July 10, the taxpayers of Brown County had a mass meeting to discuss the possibility of purchasing Morris' "secret process" so future rains could be called forth at will. The group urged the Brown County Commission to make the purchase; the commissioners refused. A second effort to persuade the commissioners took place the following day. Morris was also present to answer questions.
Enthusiasm for his offer waned when Morris could not answer any of the scientific questions he was asked. At the conclusion of the meeting, however, the group remained undaunted, and a committee was appointed to raise another $500 to see if Morris could produce another half-inch of rain. The money was raised immediately, and the deal was made.
The very next day Aberdeen had another downpour. The rain was not predicted, and, in fact, the skies were cloudless just before the rain. Had Morris again produced rain for the city? There was no way of knowing, but the debate about his skill, which had become very tiresome to most residents, was over.
His apparent success failed, however, to convince the commissioners to purchase his "secret process" for future use.
Later that summer, the local newspaper noted Morris was working in Illinois under the same contract terms he used in Aberdeen. His success there was never reported.