Dry Farming

From Wyoming Tales and Trails

This Page, Dry Farming, Rain Making Schemes.



Big Horn Basin Black Hills Bone Wars Brands Buffalo Cambria Casper Cattle Drives Centennial Cheyenne Chugwater Coal Camps Cody Deadwood Stage Douglas Dubois Encampment Evanston Ft. Bridger Ft. Fetterman Ft. Laramie Frontier Days Ghost Towns Gillette G. River F. V. Hayden Tom Horn Jackson Johnson County War Kemmerer Lander Laramie Lincoln Highway Lusk Meeteetse Medicine Bow N. Platte Valley Overland Stage Pacific Railroad Rawlins Rock Springs Rudefeha Mine Sheepherding Sheridan Sherman Shoshoni Superior Thermopolis USS Wyoming Wheatland Wild Bunch Yellowstone

Home
Table of Contents
About This Site


"Results of Dry Farming Under The Direction of Dr. V. T. Cooke, Near Cheyenne, Wyo.," 1906

And at the same time as developers were promoting irrigation, other efforts at bringing prosperity to the state were made by the promise of agricultural development using "dry farming." In 1906, John L. Cowan published his Dry Farming -- The Hope of the West, A Method of Producing Bountiful Crops Without Irrigation in Semi-Arid Regions. Thus, Gov. B. B. Brooks chaired a Dry Farming Congress in Cheyenne in 1909. Notwithstanding, that a snow storm reduced expected attendance, some 500 delegates were present. The following year, another congress was held in Spokane under the chairmanship of Wyoming Congressman Frank W. Mondell. Congressman Mondell had, himself, successfully utilized dry farming methods near Newcastle for five years. Indeed, Professor of Botony and later president of the University of Wyoming Aven Nelson joined the band wagon. In 1911, Dr. Nelson told an assemblage in Cheyenne that with farming as the "backbone of our prosperity," the state might attain a population as much as "two millions of people." There were some naysayers such as Bill Nye, publisher of Laramie Daily Boomerang, who earlier wrote,

Unless the yield this fall of most agates and prickly pears should be unusually large, the agricultural export will be far below preceeding years, and there may be actual suffering. I do not wish to discourage those who might wish to come to this place but the soil is quite course, and the agriculturist, before he can even begin with any prospect of sucess, must run his farm through a stamp-mill in order to make it sufficiently mellow.

Dry Farming Exhibit, Wyoming State Fair, Douglas, 1908

The historical premise for dry farming was explained by a Utah proponent Dr. John A. Widstoe in his Dry-Farming, A System of Agriculture for Countries Under Low Rainfall, The Macmillan Company, New York, 1920:

The great nations of antiquity lived and prospered in arid and semiarid countries. In the more or less rainless regions of China, Mesopotamia, Palestine, Egypt, Mexico, and Peru, the greatest cities and the mightiest peoples flourished in ancient days. Of the great civilizations of history only that of Europe has rooted in a humid climate. As Hilgard has suggested, history teaches that a high civilization goes hand in hand with a soil that thirsts for water. To-day, current events point to the arid and semiarid regions as the chief dependence of our modern civilization.
In view of these facts it may be inferred that dry-farming is an ancient practice. It is improbable that intelligent men and women could live in Mesopotamia, for example, for thousands of years without discovering methods whereby the fertile soils could be made to produce crops in a small degree at least without irrigation. True, the low development of implements for soil culture makes it fairly certain that dry-farming in those days was practiced only with infinite labor and patience; and that the great ancient nations found it much easier to construct great irrigation systems which would make crops certain with a minimum of soil tillage, than so thoroughly to till the soil with imperfect implements as to produce certain yields without irrigation. Thus is explained the fact that the historians of antiquity speak at length of the wonderful irrigation systems, but refer to other forms of agriculture in a most casual manner. While the absence of agricultural machinery makes it very doubtful whether dry-farming was practiced extensively in olden days, yet there can be little doubt of the high antiquity of the practice.
Kearney quotes Tunis as an example of the possible extent of dry-farming in early historical days. Tunis is under an average rainfall of about nine inches, and there are no evidences of irrigation having been practiced there, yet at El Djem are the ruins of an amphitheater large enough to accommodate sixty thousand persons, and in an area of one hundred square miles there were fifteen towns and forty-five villages. The country, therefore, must have been densely populated. In the seventh century, according to the Roman records, there were two million five hundred thousand acres of olive trees growing in Tunis and cultivated without irrigation. That these stupendous groves yielded well is indicated by the statement that, under the Caesar's Tunis was taxed three hundred thousand gallons of olive oil annually. The production of oil was so great that from one town it was piped to the nearest shipping port. This historical fact is borne out by the present revival of olive culture in Tunis, mentioned in Chapter XII.
Moreover, many of the primitive peoples of to-day, the Chinese, Hindus, Mexicans, and the American Indians, are cultivating large areas of land by dry-farm methods, often highly perfected, which have been developed generations ago, and have been handed down to the present day. Martin relates that the Tarahumari Indians of northern Chihuahua, who are among the most thriving aboriginal tribes of northern Mexico, till the soil by dry-farm methods and succeed in raising annually large quantities of corn and other crops. A crop failure among them is very uncommon. The early American explorers, especially the Catholic fathers, found occasional tribes in various parts of America cultivating the soil successfully without irrigation. All this points to the high antiquity of agriculture without irrigation in arid and semiarid countries.


Dry Farming corn, near Laramie, 1906

The Agricultural Experiment Station confidently predicted that with dry farming one-fourth the state could be profitably farmed on a regular basis and that half of the remainder of the state could be profitably farmed without irrigation in a majority of seasons. Dry farming rested on the premise that with deep plowing and harrowing of the soil after rain, that the water would be stored for use of the crops. The problem, according to the "experts" such as Dr. V. T. Cooke, was not lack of rain, but with evaporation. Dr. Cooke was brought in from Oregon by Cheyenne businessmen to promote the benefits of dry farming.


Dry Farming wheat Christensen Ranch, 1906.

The enthusiasm for dry farming was in partial reaction to a paper on the subject written by the State Engineer Clarence J. Johnston. John L. Cowan explained:

[T]he members of the Young Men's Club of Cheyenne, Wyoming, listened to the reading of a paper on the subject of dry farming by State Engineer Clarence J. Johnston. A project was at once set on foot for the opening of a demonstration farm on waste lands near the city, supposed to be entirely worthless without irrigation. The farm was put in charge of Mr. F. C. Herman of the Irrigation and Drainage Bureau of the United States Department of Agriculture. Last season record breaking crops of corn, otatoes, peas, oats, and garden vegetables were grown on those "waste" lands. Winter wheat, rye, alfalfa, and barley were also sown. Within ten days the grain was ten inches high, covering with a perfect carpet of green the land that had been considered incapable of raising anything.


Dry Farming Potatoes, 1906.

With numerous books and magazine articles being written, publicity given by dry farming congresses, reports from agrricultural experiment stations, and promotion by railroads, a wave of homesteading spread across the northern plains, the Dakotas, Montana, and Wyoming. The railroads, of course, needed a population to serve and were to a great extent a real estate sales operation. Brochures were distributed across eastern Europe and the immigrants came. In some areas, derision greated the new settlers. The 160 acres was, in many instances, too small for effective dry farming. In some areas the new dryfarm settlers were called "honyockers," pronounced "hawnyawkers," drerived from the German huhn jäger, hen hunter, a chicken chaser.

In her 1912 novel, The Lady Doc, Cody writer Caroline Lockhart described the coming of the homesteaders to her fictional town of "Crowheart":

They came in prairie schooners, travel-stained and weary, their horses thin and jaded from the long, heavy pull across the sandy trail of the sagebrush desert. With funds barely sufficient for horse feed and a few weeks' provisions, they came without definite knowledge of conditions or plans. A rumor had reached them back there in Minnesota or Iowa, Nebraska or Missouri, of the opportunities in this new country and, anyway, they wanted to move—where was not a matter of great moment. Others came by rail, all bearing the earmarks of straitened circumstances, and few of them with any but the most vague ideas as to what they had come for beyond the universal expectation of getting rich, somehow, somewhere, some time. They were poor alike, and the first efforts of the head of each household were spent in the construction of a place of shelter for himself and family. The makeshifts of poverty were seldom if ever the subject of ridicule or comment, for most had a sympathetic understanding of the emergencies which made them necessary. Kindness, helpfulness, good-fellowship were in the air.


Dry Farm Cabin, 1912

As noted with regard to the Tallmadge and Buntin Land Co. on the preceding page, a drought hit the state in 1910. A worse droght hit beginning about 1920 leading to the Dust Bowl. Dry Farming generally needs a minimum of 15 inches of rain a year. Thus, the promotions of dry farming turned to dust with the drought, and the state marked a substantial decline in acreage devoted to dry farming. Additionally, many homesteaders, in what is now the Thunder Basin National Grasslands, were relocated by the Federal Government's Relocation Administration in the 1930's. In some instances they were relocated to areas which were already developed. In others, they were paid $2.05 to $2.21 an acre for their homesteads. The Relocation Administration was headed by Rexford G. Tugwell, a former Columbia University professor. Dr. Tugwell was a believer in centralized planning having, apparently, been inspired by the Soviet model. In the 1920's Dr. Tugwell, with others, made the pilgramage to Moscow for a personal audience with Joseph Stalin. Dr. Tugwell justified the actions of the Relocation Administration in government financed films such as The Plow That Broke the Plains. The film, an artistic success, blamed the 1930's droughts on the actions of the farmers. It should be noted, however, that dry farming successfully continues even today in some areas of eastern Wyoming such as Niobrara County.


Dry Farming Orchard Near Lusk, approx. 1910.

Thus, for the most part, the State remains dependent on irrigation for its agriculture. Other privately developed irrigation plans in addition to those of Tallmadge and Buntin, however, have proven not to be profitable for the promoters. Wm. F. Cody's plans for irrigation in the Bighorn Basin made agriculture possible, but provided him with nothing but financial losses. By the same token, the Wyoming Development Company provided irrigation for some 50,000 acres near Wheatland. Wheatland has prospered, but the company was awash in red ink, losing more than $1,500,000 in 50 years.

But while some talked of the weather, others tried to do something about it. The idea that the weather in the American West could be changed started at a very early time. Dr. Ferndinand Hayden in 1868 predicted that the entire climate could be changed if only each settler would plant 10 to 15 acres of trees for each 160 acre parcel. Others predicted that the disturbance of air by trains would produce rain or that plowing of the earth itself produced rain. Thus, Gen. G. M. Dodge in an 1888 speech in Toledo, Ohio, claimed that "The building of the Pacific roads has changed the climate between the Missouri River and the Sierra Nevada." Gen. Dodge explained:

Since the building of these roads, it is calculated that the rain belt moves westward at the rate of eight miles a year. It has now certainly reached the plains of Colorado, and for two years that high and dry state has raised crops without irrigation, right up to the foot of the mountains.
Salt Lake since 1852 has risen nineteen feet, submerging whole farms along its border and threatening the level desert west of it. It has been a gradual but permanent rise, and comes from the additional moisture falling during the year rain and snow. Professor Agassiz, in 1867, after a visit to Colorado, predicted that this increase of moisture would come by the disturbance of the electric currents, caused by the building of the Pacific railroads and settlement of the country.

[Writer's note: Professor Agassiz, 19th Century naturalist, Jean Louis Rodolphe Agassiz (1807-1873), professor of zoolology at Harvard University and an opponent of Darwinism.]

Others, attempted to produce rain. Most rain making efforts were prompted by the 1890 publication of War and the Weather by Edward Powers, which contended that rain was caused by the concussions of loud noises, such as produced by cannons or thunder. The theory was that the noise of the thunder produced the rain. The theoretical explanation for the concussions causing rain was given by Sir William Moore, K.C.L.E., Q.H.P. in an 1891 paper, "Famine: Its Effects and Relief," Transactions of the Pidemiological Society of London New Series, Vol. XI:

Clouds are masses of minute vesicles. The liquefaction of vapours is their passage from the aeriform to the liquid state. Liquefaction may be due to three causes -- cooling, chemical affinity, compression. When an explosion occurs, compression results; minute vesicles of moisture coalese and become larger drops, and then they fall.

Sir William conceded, however, that the amount of rain so produced would never suffice for the cultivator's purpose and, instead, governments should rely upon irrigation.

Rainmaking by explosions from baloons, 1891.

In 1891, Frank Melbourne, an Irishman known variously as the "Rain King," the "Rain Wizard," and later by skeptics as the "Rain Fakir," undertook to produce rain in Cheyenne on a contingent fee basis; that is, if he made it rain he would be paid $150.00. He claimed that for ten years he had successfully produced rain in the Outback of Australia. Among those contributing to the pot were F.E. Warren and Joseph Carey, who each contributed $10.00. Setting up in a barn off of 23rd Street, Melbourne confidently predicted he would produce rain on Sunday (so as not to interfere with work), September 1. As predicted the rains came and Melbourne was paid (it also snowed in Casper). He then predicted that he could make it rain again by Sept. 6 for another $100.00, far less than the $1,000, he received the following year in Fort Scott, Kansas. The second effort was less sucessful and Melbourne departed for Utah. Later unsuccessful efforts were also made in Holyoke, Colorado, before Melbourne committed suicide in a Denver hotel.

Elsewhere, others attempted to make rain. The Rock Island Railroad employed one of its dispatchers, Clayton B. Jewell, on a special train to produce rain. The train was available to drought parched communities for $500.00. In Texas in 1891, some $9,000 in federal funds were expended by Robert G. Dyrenforth in an unsuccessful effort to produce rain using explosive balloons and kites. The explosions were thought to create "air-quakes," the compressive nature of which created the rain. Governor James Hogg took a personal interest in the effort and planned on attending some of the tests. Dyrenforth left the state before the governor could arrive. Robert J. Kleberg of the King Ranch also employed a rainmaker. In most of the west, the employment of rainmaking magicians with bottles of mysterious chemicals or explosives had ended by 1894. Yet, even as late as 1915, public funds were spent in some areas on an effort to produce precipitation.

In San Diego that year, the City employed the self-styled "Moisture Accelerator" and sewing machine salesman, Charles M. Hatfield to shower the City's reservoir with rain for a fee of $10,000, payable when the reservoir was filled. In 1905, Hatfield had been employed by the government of the Yukon Territory to produce rain for placer miners. There he was unsuccessful. For San Diego, Hatfield constructed a twenty-foot tower near the reservoir from which smoke emitted upwards from his "evaporating tanks." Sure enough, the rains came, but with a vengence. It rained for five days. The reservoir filled, several dams collapsed, a train was derailed by the force of the water, and houses were washed off their foundations. Efforts to reach Hatfield to get him to stop the rains were unsuccessful, the telephone lines had washed away in the deluge. Then ensued the flood of lawsuits. The City contended that the flood was caused by an Act of God and, therefore, it was not liable for the damages caused by the floods; nor was it liable to Hatfield for the $10,000. Hatfield argued that the City should have taken precautions for his success. In reality, of course, the production of rain and the efforts of rain fakirs such as Hatfield, Melbourne, and Jewell, was more a matter of coincidence. In some cases the rains came before the wizard could start his efforts; if only he started a day earlier he would have gotten credit. In other instances such as Melbourne in Holyoke, the rains came after the wizard left town; if he had only stayed around another day he would have been credited.

Next page: Farm Equipment.