Hot, dry winds buffeted Goodland in the fall of 1891 as townsfolk gathered around a building on the county fairgrounds. Mysterious gases issued from a small hole in the roof while "Melbourne the Rain Wizard" worked his magic within. Everyone anxiously awaited what Melbourne had promised—a good rain.
Rainmaking captured the imaginations of many late-19th-century Kansans convinced that nature could be conquered. Years before Melbourne came to the state, experts claimed large fires or explosions could produce rain. Some believed gases released into the air caused an atmospheric effect that made rain. By 1890 many people accepted rainmaking as a possibility if not an actual science.
Melbourne was one of earliest rainmakers to raise the hopes of western Kansas farmers battling severe drought in the early 1890s. For several days rainmaking gases rose from his shed. A gale from the southwest drove the vapors to the northeast, where heavy rains reportedly fell. Goodland eventually experienced a light shower, but not enough to justify Melbourne's $500 fee, and the rain wizard departed unpaid.
Despite Melbourne's failure to create a good rain, Goodland residents considered his efforts a success. Enterprising locals established three rainmaking companies that were active for many years all over Kansas. The Inter-State Artificial Rain Company claimed to have purchased Melbourne's secret. Its "rain-making squads" traveled throughout the region. The first good rain in six weeks followed one visit to Oklahoma City, and one company official wrote another, "I tell you, Marve, we have got the world by the horns with a down-hill pull and can all wear diamonds pretty soon. We can water all creation and have some to spare."
One of the more popular Kansas rainmakers was C.B. Jewell. Chief train dispatcher for the Rock Island at Goodland, Jewell also claimed to know Melbourne's secret. His employers were so confident in his abilities that they furnished him with everything necessary to conduct rainmaking experiments.
Unlike Goodland's companies, Jewell didn't charge for his services nor did he keep his methods a secret. He used gases, jars, batteries (to establish electrical communication with the clouds), and sometimes dynamite and exploding rockets. He claimed volatile gases charged with electricity chilled the atmosphere and caused condensation to form. His four generators produced 1,500 gallons of rainmaking gas per hour.
Like those of the rainmaking companies, Jewell's experiments met with varying degrees of success. In June 1893 he failed to produce rain at Dodge City but took credit for rainfall at Meade (claiming wind carried the chemicals there). At Phillipsburg later the same month his work was followed by near-flood conditions. The town's newspaper editor wrote, "If this wetting is due to Mr. Jewell, give him credit for it, and if it is it isn't costing anybody a cent, so let's don't hear any loud words about it."
By the end of 1894 the enthusiasm for rainmaking was replaced by one for irrigation. A brief revival of interest occurred in the 1950s in parts of western Kansas, but it wasn't until the mid-1970s that the state again saw organized efforts at controlling weather.
A variation of rainmaking was tried in western Kansas in 1975, when the Western Kansas Weather Modification Program began operating. Its main objective is to minimize hail damage to crops using chemical crystals that reduce hail formation. The chemicals are fired from a small airplane into the updraft of storm clouds. The Kansas Water Office estimates that hail damage decreased by 27 percent in participating counties. The program also targets rainfall increase as an objective. Although these results have not been closely studied, one test location reports an 11 percent increase in rainfall.
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: April 2009
Date Modified: December 2010
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