David Wishart’s The Last Days of the Rainbelt focuses on the settlement boom and bust periods of the late nineteenth century on the short grass plains of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and southwestern Nebraska. Although the geographic region examined may seem limited, the study could easily be extended to many other states throughout the Great Plains ranging from the western Dakotas and eastern Montana in the north to Texas and New Mexico in the south. The reason, however, for his limited regional scope rests with the discovery of Civil Works Administration (CWA) interviews conducted in the early 1930s regarding this tristate region and now housed by the Colorado Historical Society. In 1933 and 1934, the CWA interviewed numerous individuals who recalled their experiences in what became known as the Rainbelt region and whose testimonies are included throughout the book. While the interviews serve as the basis for the book, a number of additional sources such as weather reports and census records give the reader a detailed account of life in the Rainbelt.
The Last Days of the Rainbelt is divided into only four chapters; however, the chapters aptly tell the story of the Rainbelt region. The first chapter focuses on the westward movement of settlers into Kansas, Nebraska, and Colorado who “were drawn mainly from a wide belt in the midsection of the United States” (9). While the first chapter provides a good introduction to westward settlement, the second chapter, “Into the Rainbelt,” begins with the contrast of how ranchers and farmers differed in their perceptions of what the Rainbelt had to offer. More specifically, ranchers viewed the Rainbelt as a region with grasslands adequate for their herds, whereas homesteaders and town builders soon became dismayed by the dry conditions. [End Page 134] Chapter three focuses on the challenges of life in the Rainbelt such as the lack of water and timber, blizzards, dust storms, and prairie fires. The final chapter covers the period from 1890–96, which were especially dry and challenging years. The section discussing the practices of rainmakers will surely bring a smile to many a reader.
In his introduction, Wishart explains that the term Rainbelt did not refer to a geographic region where rain fell regularly. Rather, the term Rainbelt referred to the arid region of the Great Plains where late nineteenth-century settlers hoped to increase rainfall through a variety of practices. Unfortunately, such practices only served to give a glimmer of hope in a region that experienced regular aridity if not prolonged drought. As such, The Last Days of the Rainbelt is “an attempt to bring this period of American settlement and failure on the western Great Plains more fully into historical memory” (xvii). Indeed, the Rainbelt witnessed a cycle of settlement, hope, drought, depression, and abandonment only to be followed by renewed hope that had similar results. According to Willard Johnson of the United State Geological Survey, attempts to transform the Rainbelt into a productive agricultural region resulted in “total failure” (xvi). This failure is highlighted often as the author mixes the stories of those interviewed by the CWA with other historical sources such as land records. Such records shed light on the rapid migration into and out of the Rainbelt region.
Anybody who is familiar with western land legislation and pioneer settlement will appreciate Wishart’s brief explanation of how land could be acquired. As government officials surveyed and opened new lands for settlement in the Rainbelt during the 1880s and 1890s, a variety of options awaited settlers who eagerly sought to file claims. In addition to buying claims outright with cash, settlers also took advantage of military bounty land warrants, the Preemption Act, the Homestead Act, and the Morrill Act. Each of these, along with an optimism that the western Great Plains could be transformed into a Rainbelt, contributed to boom periods of settlement, but as Wishart notes, land office records often reflect that settlement was not always the intent. In fact, land investors, whose sole purpose was to acquire title and then sell the land, created a...