Another Drought Cycle in the 50s

Droughts come in cycles, and the 1950s saw a series of dry years that caused farmers to dig thousands of new irrigation wells, hastened development of center pivot irrigation systems and caused a crisis as underground aquifers fell.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration maintains a database of rainfall amounts going back to 1895. From those statistics, they calculate how much rainfall is normal for each region of the USA. Then, they can map drought conditions year by year. Anything at an index of -4 or below is an extreme drought.

What the maps to the left show is a prolonged cycle of dry years in the 1950s and, to a lesser extent, in the 1960s. Beginning in the Southwest and Texas in 1950 and ’51, the drought spread across much of the U.S. in the mid-50s. By 1956, parts of central Nebraska reached an index of -7, three points below the “extreme drought” index.

The drought was so bad it caught the attention of artists and playwrights. N. Richard Nash wrote “The Rainmaker” after traveling through drought-stricken Texas in the early 50s. The play opened on Broadway in 1954 – at the height of the dry years – and was later made into a movie with Burt Lancaster and Katherine Hepburn who won an Oscar for her performance.

film_obermier_RWhile the drought of the 50s was not as long-lasting or quite as wide spread as the dry years of the 1930s, it put severe stress on farmers in the most productive regions of America. It can take several wet years to make up for a series of drought years, so most of the country was hurting for most of the 50s and 60s.The Rainmaker

Thousands of farmers like Virgil Obermier (left) of York, Nebraska, were forced to invest in expensive irrigation systems to insure that they could survive through dry years. For Virgil, buying the system – at first a movable pipe and sprinkler system – was only the beginning. Then he had to start getting up at 5:00 a.m. to move irrigation pipes, start the pump, and then come back to move the entire system at noon – irrigating five acres at a time. He says, “Well, you know, eight foot corn [laughs] moving sprinkler, hot and dry – it was quite a job.”

Beulah Gocke (right) saw neighbors forced out of farming by the drought years in the 1950s. “If you didn’t have equity [in your land and equipment],” she remembers, “you were out. And so, consequently there was a mass exocus again of young farmers.” Beulah says that the dry years produced a rash of well drilling. film_gocke_L“They were putting wells down, probably one or two a week. They were punching a lot of holes.”film_daugherty_R

Robert Daugherty (left) was one man who understood the promise that center pivot irrigation systems posed. In the 50s, he was the owner of a small company that decided to get into the irrigation business. He heard about an inventor named Frank Zybach who had built the first center pivot irrigation system. Zybach was struggling to get a company going and sell his systems to farmers. Daugherty bought out Zybach’s patent and slowly refined his Valley pivot systems, making them more reliable until the company – Valmont Industries – became the biggest producer of irrigation systems worldwide.

film_luebbe_LWilliam Luebbe (right) of York remembers the drought of the 50s as well as that in the 30s. The 50s, he says, “weren’t nearly as severe. During the 50s there more [government] programs for what might take plae.” He thinks that rural America learned something from the Great Depression of the 30s. “There’s a survival process always that takes place. Those that survive, they live to tell the story. Those that don’t, they go do something else. That’s the way it works in our culture.”

One note – the maps above are based on what’s known as the Palmer Drought Severity Index (PDSI). It attempts to measure the duration and intensity of the long-term, drought-inducing circulation patterns. Long-term drought is cumulative, so the intensity of drought during the current month is dependent on the current weather patterns plus the cumulative patterns of previous months. Since weather patterns can change almost literally overnight from a long-term drought pattern to a long-term wet pattern, the PDSI (PDI) can respond fairly rapidly. The PDSI scale does NOT measure inches of precipitation, but is instead a statistical index. So, the impact of an “extreme drought” in a semi-arid area will be equivalent to an extreme drought in a semi-tropical area.

Written by Bill Ganzel, the Ganzel Group. First published in 2006. A partial bibliography of sources is here.

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