The early spring weather of 1894 gave Nebraska farmers some reason to hope that after several successive years of drought and poor crops, this might be the long-awaited year of bountiful harvest. However, an early May frost and barely adequate rainfall in June and early July gave their hopes a setback. Then on July 26 a hot, dry wind from the southeast entered the state. Within three days most of the state’s corn crop was destroyed.
Hardest hit were farmers of central and western counties, many of them recently established homesteaders who eked out a marginal existence and who were faced with almost total crop loss. Clearly what was needed was assistance on a large scale. Outgoing Governor Lorenzo Crounse appointed a relief commission to channel aid to those Nebraskans deemed most in need.
W. N. Nason of Omaha was named head of the State Relief Commission in November 1894, but much of the real responsibility fell on commission secretary Luther P. Ludden. Commission members certainly realized the extent of the disaster, but their first fumbling efforts to gather supplies in the quantities needed were only partially successful. And they were soon overwhelmed by the logistical problem of getting these supplies to so many widely separated people, most of whom lived miles from railroads. Not surprisingly, charges of bureaucratic bungling, neglect, and favoritism were soon leveled at the commission.
“Inasmuch as there have been numerous complaints against the commission,” said the Nebraska State Journal on February 7, 1895, “the [state] senate decided to call for a weekly report of receipts and disbursements of supplies in order that a check may be kept on the commission and its work.” The Journal‘s review of commission secretary Ludden’s first such report, submitted February 4, included a list, itemized by county, of relief supplies sent out between January 7 and February 1 of 1895. Cash donations totaling $10,572.20 had also been received. Ludden acknowledged the “largest donation that the commission has received . . . has been that of the free billing of supplies by the several railroad companies.”
Also included in the report was a defense of commission members and their efforts: “Only those intimately associated with the work can form any conception of its vastness or the many annoying features. Much of the delay charged upon the commission has been due directly to causes utterly beyond our control and for which we were not in any way responsible.” Ludden concluded with a description of the commission’s newly reorganized working force, divided into departments, “and it is on this plan and basis that the commission expects to continue its work until it shall be completed.”