When Conversation Runs Dry…

We are witnessing firsthand the distress a drought causes in an agricultural community. With record temperatures and minimal rainfall, there is little that farmers can do but watch their crops burn to a crisp. Combine that with the current national economy and tough financial times seem unavoidable. But Nebraskans have a history of resilience, and the current situation is far from the worst we have survived.

Devastation was facing Nebraskan farmers in January of 1895. After several years in a row of disaster from hail, fire, grasshoppers, and a severe drought, Nebraskans were going into the winter of 1895 with nothing left, and many months to go before any hope of income. In a time without crop insurance or significant irrigation, their livelihood was at the mercy of the environment.

Nellie Bly, a famous investigative journalist for the New York World, heard of the impoverished conditions in Nebraska and came to research them for herself. She traveled for miles to individual houses in several rural parts of Nebraska and South Dakota, recording the stories of people who lived there. The Spring 1986 issue of Nebraska History reviews what she found, and it was nothing short of tragic.

Nellie Bly in 1890 - five years before her visit to Nebraska. Public domain photo taken from Wikimedia Commons.

The complete lack of food was the most striking need. Of one family Bly found that: “The man and his wife and six children have had absolutely nothing for months but flour. It is hard to realize the full extent of that statement. Only flour! That means not even little things like salt, pepper, yeast.” Without any income, many families had been forced to destroy their investments in order to live. Many had eaten their seed corn, as well as most of their starving animals. At the time Nellie Bly visited, it was estimated that in six weeks, 80 percent of Boyd County’s population would be in need of food. The situation in Cherry and Butte County wasn’t any better. People were literally starving to death, as well as many dying from illnesses caused by a diet of almost only flour.

“People are ailing with all sorts of complaints. They do not know what is wrong with them, but the doctor does. He tells me it is all due to insufficient food. If the people were Eastern people they would have died long ago, but the inhabitants here are like their horses – they can last a long time on fresh air.”

Weather was another concern. “Hundreds of families will starve and cattle will freeze if there comes a snowstorm,” Bly wrote, “To the mildness of the winter is due the fact that human beings and stock have so far been able to live on pure air and scenery.” Still, the lack of snow did not mean warmth.

January 21, 1895, Bly wrote: “I saw a little of Nebraska weather. Saturday when I drove around to see the destitute people the air was as soft and warm as a day in September; Sunday it was 8 degrees below zero.”

Bly seemed to be expecting this kind of weather by the time she reached Butte, Nebraska: “When I got up for the day I found the water that had stood by my bedside was frozen solid. As for myself – well, I was cheered by being told it was only 20 degrees below zero. Only? I could not believe it.”

One man tried to support his family by selling firewood, but by the time he had traveled to get it, cut it into manageable pieces and taken it to town, he received 75 cents (about 20 dollars in today’s currency) for three days of work. Still, with no food, no clothes, and no prospects, Nebraskans did not ask for aid until they had nothing left. Unfortunately, the aid provided was pathetically insufficient. With no railroads to reach most of the areas that needed help, what little food was donated was left in warehouses with no way to distribute it efficiently. One of the biggest outcomes of Bly’s visit was her effort to improve aid to Nebraska after she returned east.

Thankfully, the effects of this year’s drought were nothing like those of the 1895 disaster. Advancements in communication and transportation alone mean that areas suffering from natural disasters can receive help from the rest of the country. Irrigation has greatly reduced the fragility of crops, and crop insurance provides some financial security from the unexpected. We are recipients of the produce from decades of hard work generations before us. This fall, Nebraskans have many, many things to be thankful for despite the tough weather.

In an upcoming post, we’ll revisit another historic drought that brought President Franklin Roosevelt to Nebraska’s Panhandle.

- Joy Carey, Editorial Assistant

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