The Rainmaker (Part One)

Well into the 20th century, farmers across the United States depended on favourable weather to ensure good crops and a proper harvest.   Considering how common floods and droughts are even today, it's hardly surprising that farmers would have a natural obsession with the weather, including what could be done to turn the odds in their favour.  And thus, the dubious profession of rain-making was born.

While most of these self-professed rainmakers were basically flim-flam artists, there were a few who seemed genuinely convinced about the nature of their powers.  The first rainmakers were essentially religious figures who relied on prayers asking God for rain in any community struck by drought.  Of course, rainmakers could be found in cultures around the world and many Native American tribes had their own version boasting powers that came to them from the Great Spirit.   Even as newspapers published stories denouncing these native beliefs as rank superstition,  rainmakers continued to offer their services to agricultural communities across the country, often without any comment at all from these same newspapers.  It likely helped that they had mostly abandoned supernatural explanations in favour of  various pseudoscientific "theories" that sounded much more plausible to the average farmer.   Some rainmakers even gave lectures describing their methods which were mainly intended to attract potential customers.   Though never as popular or common as "dowsers" who promised to find underground water as needed, rainmakers still had their supporters.

All of which brings us to Charles Mallory Hatfield, the king of rainmakers, or, as he preferred to be called, a "cloud coaxer."   Born in Fort Scott, Kansas  in 1875 to a farming family, he spent his formative years in southern California.  Though he never had much of a formal education after quitting school in the ninth grade to become a salesman for a sewing machine company, that didn't stop him from carrying out his own experiments in rainmaking.  It's hard to say what motivated him to become a rainmaker except for his farm background which gave him a firsthand look at the devastating impact that droughts could have.  Whatever his motivation, he reportedly perfected his rainmaking process by 1902 and was ready to offer his services to the world.   

To this day, nobody knows exactly what  his secret rainmaking formula actually was.   According to one newspaper story from 1905, Hatfield used a mobile cabinet about twelve feat square at the base which contained "104 shallow evaporating pans filled with chemicals.  Through evaporations of these liquids, he claims to affect the atmospheric conditions,"   Aside from admitting that his "secret mixture" contained around twenty-three chemicals in all (hydrogen and zinc are only two of the known ingredients), Hatfield was emphatic about protecting his trade secrets.

The first real demonstration of his rainmaking prowess came in 1904 when he promised the people of Los Angeles that he would bring them eighteen inches of rainfall over the following six months.   Climbing a wooden tower over twenty feet tall, he released his mystery mixture into the air over the town of La Crescenta in California.   And, sure enough, the rain started almost immediately.  While the National Weather Service pointed out that the rain Hatfield was taking credit for was part of a larger storm system already underway, that hardly stopped the local farmers from turning Hatfield into a folk hero and to hire him again when drought struck the area once more.    While he didn't quit hit the eighteen inches of rainfall he had promised, the rain that did come down earned him a $1000 fee and allowed him to join the lecture circuit as "Professor" Charles Hatfield.  

But it wasn't just farmers who requested Hatfield's services.   In 1906, Gold miners in Alaska decided to call in Hatfield to solve a problem they were facing that had nothing to do with growing crops.   The miners knew that the best gold was found in alluvial placer deposits formed in river and stream sediments.   This is what made panning for gold so profitable, but only if there was enough running water in the rivers and streams to separate gold particles from the other, worthless, dross.    Which was why the miners needed America's foremost rainmaker to keep the rivers flowing at a high enough level.

After coming to Alaska and hearing their pitch, Hatfield struck a deal with the miners:   they would appoint a panel to decide how much rain was needed.   If Hatfield met this goal, he would get $10,000.   If he failed however, he would only get enough money to cover his basic expenses.   The miners agreed and Hatfield went to work.    He mixed up his chemicals and arranged for the tall towers he needed to be assembled.   Finally, he sent his chemical mixture skyward and sat back to wait. Sure enough, it worked.  Sort of.  There seem to be differing accounts of what actually happened though one newspaper story states that, out of the forty-four days that his system was in operation, rain fell on thirty-six days.   Hatfield collected his fee though skeptics continued to argue over whether he was causing the rainfall or taking credit for favourable weather that might have occurred anyway.  

"I am anxious to demonstrate the system I employ, "  he said in one interview.   "and to do a work of lasting benefit to my country and more particularly to those dry and arid placed throughout the Southwestern States.  I stand ready at any time to produce rain for the Government, State, or nation and I hold myself in readiness to prove to the Federal officials the truth of my statements and the value of my system."   

Which still left the pesky issue of what he actually did to cause his rain magic.  All that he would say was that "by powerful electrical apparatus in combination with patent chemical changes, my system produces rainfall over wide areas;  it is simply an artificial application of nature's method which brings out the necessary condition for rain precipitation. "   Since electricity still had an almost mystical reputation courtesy of the work of scientists such as Oliver Lodge and inventors like Thomas Edison and Nikola Tesla, the idea that Hatfield had somehow found a new use for electricity didn't seem all that far-fetched to willing customers.

But the "cloud coaxer" would have other challenges ahead of him that weren't so easy to deal with....

To be continued.


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