The Last Days of the Rainbelt
- Authors / Editors:
- William Wyckoff
- Oct. 2014
This uncelebrated corner of Colorado (and nearby portions of western Kansas and Nebraska) is the setting for David Wishart`s book,The Last Days of the Rainbelt. Wishart`s well-written narrative tells an important, often overlooked story in the history of the West as he follows the cycle of boom and bust that shaped the eastern Colorado frontier between 1886 and 1896. Encapsulated in that single decade were both stories of unfettered optimism (the mistaken belief that settlement, tree planting, and new crops could literally refashion the region`s climate, producing a new plains “Rainbelt”) and the reality of the drought, crop failures, economic bust, and massive outmigrations that followed.
Remarkably, the episode that Wishart details unfolded more than thirty years before the famed Depression-era Dust Bowl devastated the region with similar results. As Wishart correctly notes, until his new book, we have known much less about this nineteenth-century story of radical optimism (and the pain that followed) than we have known about the well-documented bust of the Dust Bowl era. In this earlier episode, a flood of hopeful homesteaders were lured into the region in the relatively well-watered 1880s. At the time, the notion of the Rainbelt was promoted by a plethora of railroads, local boosters, state agencies, and even scientists. When desperately dry years returned in the early 1890s, the homesteaders simply got burnt and blown out, walking away from their sod houses and dreams that proved painfully ephemeral. But unlike the later Dust Bowl era, there was no New Deal safety net, no federal largesse to cushion the blow of utter agricultural implosion and disaster.
Wishart is well positioned to tell their story. For more than four decades, he has created his own enduring scholarly mark on the historical geography of the Great Plains. Earlier books on the fur trade, the dispossession of Native American lands by white settlers in Nebraska, and more general works of regional history and geography have paved the way for this latest book. Wishart writes with a style that is unburdened by academic jargon, telling a story that is accessible to both scholars and residents of the region. Wishart still succeeds admirably in connecting his particular local story with larger themes and ideas. For example, his narrative offers an important and early example of frontier failure in the North American interior that was very much an expression of late nineteenth-century capitalism and its inability to offer a sustainable path to success in a setting burdened by a fragile environment and its status as a persisting economic hinterland. Wishart also connects the longer term evolution of the region to questions about how an industrialized agricultural system (now firmly implanted across the area) can accommodate the new imponderables of global climate change.
How does Wishart tell his tale? Using the interpretive tools of the skilled historical geographer, he weaves a narrative that is first and foremost grounded in dozens of settler accounts of life in the region during the late nineteenth century. In particular, Wishart digs deeply into interviews of elderly residents that were recorded by Civil Works Administration (CWA) employees in the early 1930s. This CWA program, part of President Franklin Roosevelt`s New Deal, preserved firsthand accounts of the early boom and bust in the region as it was recalled by the generation who lived through it. In addition, Wishart makes extensive use of letters, diaries, journals, and newspaper accounts of the land rush into the Rainbelt, as well as the exodus that followed. Along the way, Wishart weaves into his narrative the stories of fascinating individuals who help make the period and the place come alive. For example, in a section entitled “The Geography of Desertion” (pp. 135–50), Wishart uses the letters of Leila Shaw Walters to illustrate the tough times of settler evacuations in the summer of 1894. Walters writes poignantly and personally about how families simply left behind cattle, farm machinery, and unpaid mortgages. Elsewhere, Wishart profiles Frank Melbourne (pp. 116–22) who, for a time, had the colorful reputation of being a “Rain Wizard.” Melbourne would arrive in a town, promise rain, garner local subscriptions, and then stoke up his stove with secret chemicals. The resulting stream of smoke was designed to coax water from the sky and on the lucky days when Melbourne`s performance was followed by a summer shower, his reputation and pocketbook benefited. Not surprisingly, Melbourne and his methods proved fallible and his system of seeding the dry plains atmosphere led to later failures and eventually his own suicide in a Denver hotel.
Wishart also makes effective use of other data sources. He maps the spread and retreat of settlement through extensive use of census materials, land office transactions, and records of farm debt. He also uses weather records and meteorological data to assess local variations in the drought as it unfolded. Perhaps most evocatively, Wishart makes use of photographs of the region taken during the drought by Willard Johnson, who published these images in a series of U.S. Geological Survey reports. Johnson was a topographer and geologist for the Survey who was completing an early mapping of the Ogallala Aquifer across the region. The timing of his surveys took him across the area just as drought conditions worsened. His stark images of abandoned schoolhouses, ruined homes, and deserted towns helped dramatize the disaster that was occurring across the region at the time and Wishart makes effective use of these photographs in his narrative.
Wishart also sets his story in the larger historical geography of the Great Plains. He reminds us of earlier Native peoples who made quite different adjustments to the region`s subhumid environment and he recalls how their lands (and the bison that grazed there) were taken away as European-
American settlement advanced. He also carefully distinguishes between the wetter tall grass prairies of eastern Kansas and Nebraska and the short grass hinterlands found across the western plains. He also describes the earlier open-range ranching system that was used across portions of the region before the homestead boom took shape in the late 1880s.
Just as useful is an Epilogue entitled “After the Rainbelt” (pp. 151–62). My only regret is that it merely whets one`s appetite about the post-1900 story across this region. Perhaps a tale best told in another book? In any event, Wishart briefly outlines what has unfolded across the failed Rainbelt and he draws several valuable insights from that larger story. First, he reminds us that our cumulative knowledge about the region`s fickle environment has indeed grown since the 1890s. Second, he reviews the truly transformative impact of deep-water drilling and irrigation that has shaped parts of the region since the 1950s, benefiting from the huge (but not sustainable) reserves of the Ogallala Aquifer. Finally, Wishart concludes the volume by pondering the consequences of global climate change on the region. He notes, “as always on the Great Plains, drought waits in the wings, poised for a reappearance” (p. 162). Given most predictive climate models, the High Plains will be even more vulnerable to drought and to unpredictable extremes of weather in the decades to come.
Wishart`s sobering moral is clear. The parable of the Rainbelt reveals a great deal about the human capacity to misunderstand the environment and our role within it. We also need to heed the past as we contemplate the future, especially in the High Plains, and make these historical geographies more legible to twenty-first-century residents of the region. Wishart`s fine book is a reminder of how that is done. His scholarship reveals the craft of historical geography at its best: His focus is on a place and how it has changed through time; it is also on the stories of the ordinary people who called the High Plains home during this difficult episode of failed settlement; and finally, Wishart`s study is an appreciation of the High Plains landscape and how it was transformed, experienced, and represented by an earlier generation of settlers and promoters whose thirsts for an emergent Rainbelt remained tragically unquenched.