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The Last Days of the Rainbelt

David J. Wishart

Publication Year: 2013

Looking over the vast open plains of eastern Colorado, western Kansas, and southwestern Nebraska, where one can travel miles without seeing a town or even a house, it is hard to imagine the crowded landscape of the last decades of the nineteenth century. In those days farmers, speculators, and town builders flooded the region, believing that rain would follow the plow and that the “Rainbelt” would become their agricultural Eden. It took a mere decade for drought and economic turmoil to drive these dreaming thousands from the land, turning farmland back to rangeland and reducing settlements to ghost towns.

David J. Wishart’s The Last Days of the Rainbelt is the sobering tale of the rapid rise and decline of the settlement of the western Great Plains. History finds its voice in interviews with elderly residents of the region by Civil Works Administration employees in 1933 and 1934. Evidence similarly emerges from land records, climate reports, census records, and diaries, as Wishart deftly tracks the expansion of westward settlement across the central plains and into the Rainbelt. Through an examination of migration patterns, land laws, town-building, and agricultural practices, Wishart re-creates the often-difficult life of settlers in a semiarid region who undertook the daunting task of adapting to a new environment. His book brings this era of American settlement and failure on the western Great Plains fully into the scope of historical memory.

Published by: University of Nebraska Press


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pp. 1-3

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 4-5


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pp. v-vi

List of Illustrations

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pp. vii-x

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pp. xi-xii

I am grateful to the National Endowment for the Humanities for a Fel-lowship that allowed me to get this project started, and to the Universi-ty of Nebraska?Lincoln Research Council and School of Natural Re-sources for small grants that helped me l nish it. I also greatly appreciate the assistance given by Molly Boeka Cannon, who fashioned the maps ...

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Introduction: A Ruined Land

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pp. xiii-xx

In 1899, at the end of a decade blighted by severe drought and econom-ic hardship, J. E. Payne, superintendent of the Agricultural Experiment Station at Cheyenne Wells, made a fact-l nding tour of the surrounding plains of eastern Colorado. Payne, a recent graduate of Kansas Agricul-tural College in Manhattan, drove his spring wagon across thirteen hun-...

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1. The Approach from the East

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pp. 1-37

...he word frontier has fallen into disuse, and for good reason. As phant and ordained American advance into an unimproved wilderness, whereas, to give an example, the Great Plains had been occupied and al-tered by Indians for at least twelve thousand years. Moreover, those mil-lennia had seen countless Indian frontiers of settlement, as when the La-...

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2. Into the Rainbelt

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pp. 38-75

The l rst was the familiar refrain that rainfall was moving west with the settlers. Hydrologist Frederick Newell, a fervent advo-cate of irrigation and a skeptic on rainfall enhancement, described what he called ?the popular delusion? in this way: ?In the extreme east of Col-orado settlements have been made by what are called ?rainbelters? who ...

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3. Life in the Rainbelt

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pp. 76-109

...lvin Steinel, in his authoritative History of Agriculture in Colora-belt from 1886?89 as completely unprepared for life in the semi-arid, shortgrass country. He was right. But that?s not what most Colorado papers said at the time. They frequently pointed out that the newcomers had previously lived in Nebraska and Kansas and were, therefore, pre-...

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4. The Last Days of the Rainbelt

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pp. 110-150

...ollowing the dry year of 1890, and the associated population ex-odus, a very wet year in 1891 and a year of sporadic but general-ly adequate rainfall in 1892 restored faith in the promise of the Rainbelt. In Julesburg, John G. Abbot remembered ?two years of golden harvest? in 1891 and 1892, and similar recollections of halcyon days came ...

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Epilogue: After the Rainbelt

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pp. 151-162

...n many ways, life in the Rainbelt in the century or so following the settlement collapse of the 1890s has not changed much. This is still a sparsely populated land with great distances between settlements. Some areas, like the sand hills north of Wray and the dissected Arikaree valley in Yuma County have remained cattle country, and are so thinly ...


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pp. 163-182


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pp. 183-192


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pp. 193-202

E-ISBN-13: 9780803248540
E-ISBN-10: 0803248547
Print-ISBN-13: 9780803246188

Page Count: 240
Publication Year: 2013