Enough damage has been caused by lightning to haystacks, barns, farm animals, and houses to make Nebraska farmers aware of the danger. During a thunderstorm overhanging clouds carry a negative electrical charge, and the ground carries a positive charge. When the cloud becomes overloaded, a charge of electricity jumps from the negative field above to the highest point in the positive field below. One protective device was the lightning rod, a pointed metal rod mounted on the highest point of a building and connected by an insulated, low-resistance cable to a ground post. This cable is usually made of copper, because it provides an inviting path for current to reach the ground instead of tearing through the supporting structure or setting fire to it. It also conducts electricity from the ground into the air and disseminates it.
In the 1880s when Nebraska farmers were moving out of their sod homes and into frame houses, it was desirable and even a status symbol to have lightning rods on one’s house. Although they could be bought from local merchants, the settler might live from twenty to forty miles from a town where they were available. This created an opportunity for peddlers. Probably many were honest, but the fact that they did not have a fixed place of business cast some doubt on the itinerants.
Some lightning rod salesmen undoubtedly were swindlers. In one scheme, a salesman appeared and stated that he was introducing lightning rods in the community and offered to put up one as a showpiece. The buyer usually succumbed to the schemer’s flattery that his building had been selected and gave his consent. A second man followed the first, put up the rod, and asked the victim to sign a note, promising that a rebate of twenty dollars or so would be made by the inspector when he came to look at the job. The inspector never came. Another scheme was to sell a lightning rod to the farmer and when the device had been installed, inform him that more was due for such extras as decorative balls, iron-pointed spears, and braces. The Nebraska Farmer said of such salesmen: “Our advice to farmers as well as anyone else owning a building is to put on a good-sized pair of boots and kick the day-lights out of any man who attempts to sell you a lightning rod, for you can rest assured he is a fraud.”