Drought, Again

Extreme variations in the weather are something that long-term residents of Howell County have learned to expect. One of those extremes is drought.
In August 1901, the Howell County Gazette published a letter from an over fifty-year resident here recounting a drought he witnessed in 1854. The man was identified as an "old citizen," and the occasion was a long hot, dry spell experienced in the county and areas south. His family was on its way to Texas when they reached Preston in Grayson County, conditions became so hot and dry that they decided to turn around and return to Missouri. After a long hot trip, conditions were no better here.
He wrote, "'The present drought in Missouri recalls to many pioneers the one that existed in the West and South during the year 1854, 'said an old citizen. 'I don't think, however, there are any indications that we will be called upon to endure as great privations as the farmers had to put up with that year. I was about 19 years old. On the 16th or 17th of June, while in camp on the Red River, near Preston, a heavy rain fell, which was general through the country, but it was the last one for that year. Up to that time, the weather had been unusually favorable, and there never had been better prospects for crops.'"
Around this time, large numbers of settlers flooded into Howell County, attracted by selling government lands at low prices. No one could afford to haul a large amount of preserved food in oxen-drawn carts and a few horse-drawn wagons. By winter, the prospect of having to eat seed corn to survive had some thinking of leaving the area.
The writer continued, "As the summer went on without rain, we began to get discouraged, and most of us decided to return to Missouri. All along our route was the dreary picture of drought. (There were)fields of stubble, leafless trees, and dust-white roads. No birds were singing in the trees, and very little sign of animal life anywhere. There was no relieving spectacle anywhere along the whole 700 miles of our homeward journey, which showed the absence of rainfall had been general."
"We reached Missouri about the middle of August and found vegetation on every farm burned up. The corn crop that looked so promising in the early summer was cut for fodder, and that was all that saved the stock. There were no railroads, and it was impossible to get anything in the way of vegetables, fruit, or cereals. We lived on bacon, cornbread, coffee, and molasses (purchased)."
"There was nothing to do on the farm, and people just sat around and looked at the sky. Some of the emigrants who had taken up large tracts of land abandoned it and returned east, under the impression that drought was a regular thing in Missouri."
"Toward the latter part of the summer, a great meeting was held at Antioch Church, and three ministers, who had come a long way for the purpose, prayed for rain. It was on this occasion that an old resident made use of the expression, which has since become famous. He said: 'Brothers, I tell you there ain't a bit of use praying for rain because the wind is in the wrong direction.' I guess he was right, for the rain never came."
"At last, winter set in, and it was hoped early snowfalls would furnish water, and one right good storm came up. But the snow was dry, and it blew away with the dust without even dampening the earth. The dust on the road was frightful on a windy day. You could hardly see a vehicle just ahead of you. Sometimes travelers' throats would become so badly choked that they couldn't talk until they took a drink of water. I guess in those days, most of us ate our allotted 'peck of dirt' or more."
"The spring of 1855 was seasonable, and crops sprang from the ground with renewed vigor. I can keenly remember our first meal with home-grown vegetables on the table, and I've never tasted anything since then that was so good."
As bad as this sounds, Southern Missouri had experienced far worse. Archaeologists tell us beginning around 1350, a mega-drought struck this part of the Ozarks and lasted five hundred years, drying up our rivers. Forests quickly burned off, and the natives living here left. Consequently, early arriving white hunters and explorers encountered a land with few people. The Native Americans that could be found were not indigenous but new arrivals fleeing from the east and south after fighting with whites. The Osage made annual forays into South Central Missouri to hunt but did not live here permanently. Tree ring studies show a period of up to five hundred years when rainfall was sparse and the population practically nonexistent.
The 1854 account is the earliest I'd found mentioned in newspapers, along with several that detail a drought in 1860. A letter from Thomasville in July 1877 tells of a severe drought that year.
At the turn of the century, in 1901, heat combined with drought brought on the second driest year on record. The trend continued into 1904, when the driest month, oddly November, occurred with a statewide average of less than a quarter-inch of precipitation.
1913 was a hot summer; heat is not always accompanied by drought; this year, the rainfall was adequate to make it unusually hot and humid.
1930 ushered in a decade of combined heat and drought in which many records were set. July 1934 was the hottest month recorded in Missouri and the hottest summer on paper. 1936 set a record when June, July, and August became Missouri's driest summer experienced in modern times. The average total precipitation was 3.78 inches. 1940 was unusual, with a summer drought followed by January's coldest month ever recorded.  
Over the years, drought and heat have changed farming practices, and Ozarkers are resilient people. Cotton was grown in Howell County into the 1930s. Corn had prominence for years, was abandoned, and is now seeing a resurgence. In the worst years of drought in the 30s and 50s, wheat planted early in the year yielded bumper crops, but the heat and lack of rain in the 1930s nearly killed an emergent local tomato canning industry. Government programs doled out advice in the depression years, introducing some plants that became pests and are still plaguing us today. When grasshoppers invaded fields in 1936, the recommended solution was bran mash laced with arsenic. 
Wildly fluctuating livestock prices forced farmers to sell, or those able to hold and feed animals through the hard times made good money when a shortage developed, and prices rebounded. Government loans for a short term were sometimes made available, and during the depression, a program to buy livestock from distressed farmers was available for a short time. The real relief came with the return of rain.
On July 16, 1936, the West Plains Journal reported temperatures in town reached the highest ever recorded at 110 degrees on the north side of the courthouse and readings as high as 119 at some homes. On that day, 2,827 deaths were attributed to the heat wave across the Midwest in a time before air conditioning. Storms arriving later in the month provided little relief. The Civilian Conservation Corps was enlisted to help check a growing number of grass and woods fires in August as the heat continued to over 100 degrees into the middle of the month.
The drought years of the 1950s were drier than the 30s. 1953 was the driest year on record, and in July 1954, the hottest temperature ever recorded in Missouri, 118 degrees, cooked the town of Warsaw to our west. June through August 1952  and 1954 were similar, alternating from drought to high temperatures, sometimes both. But in early July, an "unheard of" harvest of wheat was reported in several locations in the county. Relief again came in late July when rainfall finally fell to a half-inch above average level. This drought is the earliest in my memory. I recall my father telling of local farmers (he worked in the dairy industry as a milk inspector) who cut down trees so the cattle could get to the leaves for something to eat. Ponds and small streams dried up, and often herds of cattle were driven to the larger rivers for water.
In the early 1960s, things started to swing in the other direction, with some frigid winters and record monthly snowfalls.
1976 and 1977 had us wondering if we were slipping into a miniature ice age, and the winter of 1978-1979 was the coldest Missouri winter on record.  
In 1980 we had a summer heat wave and a drought in 1988. In the 1990s, winters were milder than they had been for 100 years. In September 1993, Missouri had its wettest month, with flooding and records set on the major rivers and many Ozark streams.
Our most recent drought year was 2012. The Springfield News-Leader reported on December 21, 2012, "Led by the devastation from Hurricane Sandy and the Midwest drought, 2012 will likely be the second-costliest year for weather and climate disasters on record." It was. 
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