Swisher, William B.

One of the most pronounced characteristics of Nebraskans has been an unwillingness to accept a dry year with no protest. Protests have been expressed politically (as in the Populist movement of the 1890s) or through the promotion of irrigation. But the protests that most completely seized the popular imagination have been attempts to increase rain.

Modern attempts at rainmaking, such as cloud seeding, may be more scientific and effective but are considerably less flamboyant than former methods. Louise Pound, an authority on Nebraska folklore, considered the four most noteworthy Plains rainmakers to be Frank Melbourne, Clayton B. Jewell, William F. Wright, and William B. Swisher. Swisher, a pioneer doctor, initiated legal proceedings in Lancaster County in 1893 to try to collect a rainmaking fee. “If a cloud burst wipes away the Lancaster county court house this morning,” said the Nebraska State Journal on January 7, 1893, “there need be no surprise. All of Rainmaker Swisher’s apparatus stands in all its crudity on the table in the county court.”

According to the Journal, Swisher had contracted with J. H. McMurtry of Lincoln to cause rain to fall over the capital city for the sum of five hundred dollars. Swisher set up his apparatus, put it through its paces, and took credit for a “small sized squall” afterward. When McMurtry refused to pay, Swisher sued to collect his fee.

During the legal proceedings, the attorney for McMurtry demanded that Swisher demonstrate his rainmaking ability, but Judge Long ruled that he could not be compelled to do so. Swisher did set up his apparatus in the courtroom. The Journal noted, “The most striking pieces are two stone churns, one about six gallon and the other about four. On each is an inverted funnel, surmounted by a joined tin tube with an elbow at the top. Seven other sections of pipe and two extra elbows are provided. There is also an extra funnel. An oblong box of galvanized iron with hinged cover is carefully wrapped in gunny sacking. A good sized electric battery with which a couple of feet of insulated wire seems on friendly terms, stands on the table. The minor accessories consist of a pair of old balances, a wash basin, a glass funnel, two bottles, a glass dish, a small pitcher and a quart tin cup. Among the weights of the scale is a rattlesnake’s rattle. All this stuff had been packed in straw in a trunk.”

The legal proceedings drew a number of spectators. According to the Journal of January 8, “Professor Ingersoll of the agricultural department of the state university was on hand to testify that the signal service had predicted a rain in this locality on the day Swisher had pre-empted for his shower, and he showed maps to prove that the rain was general, covering a large territory. The rainmaker was put on the stand in rebuttal, and swore positively that he made the rain that fell in Lincoln, but did not give his reasons for so believing.” Judge Long rendered a decision several days later: The plaintiff, W. B. Swisher, was awarded a judgment of fifty dollars.

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