Print This Article The Wichita Eagle Back to web version
Saturday, July 5, 2014

Kansas: state of skywatchers

BY BECCY TANNER AND STAN FINGER
The Wichita Eagle

“Kansas brags on its thunder and lightning and the boast is well founded. I never before observed a display of celestial pyrotechny so protracted, incessant and vivid.”

— Horace Greeley, editor of the New York Tribune, on his May 1859 visit to Kansas, which turned out to be a dreary, soggy and chilly trip.




Through tornadoes and droughts, floods and blizzards, we Kansans have weathered storms.

Weather has shaped our land.

It has defined us.

The Shamrock Lounge in Wichita has annual “Tornado Bait” parties.

Eureka High School uses “Tornadoes” as its school mascot.

In 150 years of statehood, we have learned to live by the extremes.

The coldest of the cold was recorded Feb. 13, 1905, in Lebanon: minus-40 degrees.

The hottest hot was 121 degrees near Alton in July 1936.

The deepest snowfall?

Thirty inches recorded in Pratt on March 27-28, 2009.

And the strongest winds, at 300 mph, were believed to have occurred during the Greensburg tornado on May 4, 2007.

Other states are known for earthquakes or blizzards.

“I’ll take the tornadoes,” said Jay Price, director of the public history program at Wichita State. “An earthquake can happen anytime. Tornadoes only happen on certain types of days.”

The weather would be enough in 1880 to cause one Salina Journal correspondent to wrote:

“Kansas is herself again. The wind blows and the dust and sand flies, but no rain descends. A newcomer asked one of our fellow townsmen if it always blew this way in Kansas. He replied that there were perhaps two or three days during the year that it did not.”

Talk to most Kansans on any given day, and the conversation almost always rolls around to the weather.

Is it hot enough for you?

Cold enough?

Windy enough?

We are a state of skywatchers.

Fortunes can be made and lost by Kansas weather.

At times, the scent of rain on a spring day becomes a gambling fix.

Only look into the faces of Kansas farmers when fields of golden wheat lie ready to be harvested as dark, green storm clouds march across their horizon.

“Not only are we dependent on the weather, our livelihood depends on what is in the sky,” said Thomas Fox Averill, a Kansas historian and a professor of English at Washburn University in Topeka.

“Anywhere you look in Kansas, two-thirds of the landscape is skyscape. We are always looking at the weather. I’d venture to say there isn’t a single, great Kansas novel that I have read that doesn’t have weather as a character.”

Tornadoes are featured in Gordon Parks’ “Learning Tree,” Langston Hughes’ “Not Without Laughter” and Robert Day’s “The Last Cattle Drive.”

And, of course, it is a central component in L. Frank Baum’s “The Wizard of Oz.”

The weather inspires the poets and artists within us:

“His face was weathered like the calf-hide hung on a nail

In the barn, tanned by wind, sun, rain.

His eyes owned a slit of that sun like brown hickories

Which go to something good beyond the shell,” wrote Sylvia Griffith Wheeler in 1966 for Kansas Magazine.

It inspires the scientists, technicians and farmers within us:

“We Kansans are resilient people because of the weather. We are from pioneer stock who came out here knowing it wasn’t going to be the most boring climate,” said Mike Smith, the senior vice president of AccuWeather Enterprise Solutions and founder of Wichita-based WeatherData.

“We have learned to adapt, prosper and thrive — and, to an extent, to even celebrate the weather extremes.”

When the weather shaped the land

Weather goes beyond what is happening in the here and now.

It goes back millions of years, creating our land and features.

“Weather is what is happening now, climate is long-term,” said Rex Buchanan, interim director of the Kansas Geological Society. “There is no question about it, the visible landscape in Kansas was shaped by geological components that are no longer going on.”

Kansas has experienced both tropical and glacial environments.

There is evidence of glaciers scraping eastern Kansas land.

Inland seas once covered the state’s now most drought-laden western counties.

During the Cretaceous period, when the land was still covered by the ocean, super hurricanes may have swept over the waters, said paleontologist Mike Everhart of Derby, an expert on the Western Interior Sea.

During the Permian period, when Kansas was again covered by a warm edge of the sea, it was hot enough that it evaporated the water and left vast salt deposits, Everhart said.

Some of those sea bottom mineral deposits have helped create today’s oil, gas and gypsum industries.

In the deep weather history of Kansas, there was a time when crocodiles roamed our lands, when pterosaurs, creatures with wingspans of more than 25 feet, flew over our waters.

The land was once home to long-legged camels, 600-pound wolves and saber-tooth tigers.

Kansas has a variety of terrain — hills, valleys and long washed-out gullies where layers of limestone with jagged edges stick out from the sides.

“We have been eroding away for the last 65 million years,” Everhart said. “Wind, rain and spring thaw have steadily been shaping the river valleys. That’s the reason we find fossils today. The land is constantly being torn down and washed away, even with all the conservation efforts. Mother Nature wins in the end.”

When the weather shaped the people

The weather is Kansas: Curse it. Bless it. Pray for it.

It is ever-changing and has always been on the minds of Kansans and those who visit.

Without the aid of today’s radar, barometers and wind gauges, early Kansans took their chances on Mother Nature’s whims.

The settlers learned to fortify themselves with storm cellars.

Some believed weather could be changed and clouds made to produce rain by simply putting the plow to the prairie.

When that didn’t work, western Kansas residents turned to building rugged irrigation canals to bring water to irrigate crops in an area described by explorer Zebulon Pike in 1806 as the “Great American desert.”

Asa T. Soule made a fortune in New York marketing hop-bitters medicine. In the 1880s, he invested $2æmillion in Ford County investments that included a canal project west of Dodge City.

The Eureka Irrigation Canal Company took two years to build a 96-mile canal that inched along the north side of the Arkansas River through Gray and Ford counties.

When it failed, it became known as Soule’s Folly.

Summer 1897 was so hot that the Garden City Herald described one July day as “warm enough to melt tin roofs, render lard out of living hogs and to boil steak.”

Rainmakers promised to tame the clouds into rain.

Men like Frank Melbourne and Clayton B. Jewell promised to be rainmakers but would eventually became known as flimflam men.

Melbourne promised the town of Goodland he could make it rain for $500.

The Dodge City Globe reported that Jewell made nine attempts at rainmaking in Kansas in the spring of 1893, and each time reportedly produced at least one inch of rain within 48 hours.

“It was glorified witchcraft,” said Dick Elder, meteorologist in charge of the National Weather Service in Wichita. “There were definitely a lot of people trying to promote stuff. For years, we didn’t have a formalized weather bureau doing forecasts. People relied on the old weather proverbs.”

“Mare’s tails and mackerel scales make tall ships take in their sails.”

“Clear moon, frost soon.”

“Halo around the sun or moon, rain or snow soon.”

Early Kansans turned to the Bible for forecasts and often looked to the signs of nature to forecast the weather.

Swallows flying low or cattle lying down might indicate a drop in air pressure; cats grooming themselves excessively might indicate static electricity was brewing — or fleas.

Once pioneer settlement began in earnest across the state, Kansas weather captured the nation’s eye.

The granddaddy of all Kansas blizzards arrived in 1886. Nearly 100 people died, as did wildlife and thousands of cattle. It took almost a week to dig out and more than a month to survey all the damage.

Western Kansas was hit hardest. There, people lived in dugouts or crudely constructed sheds that offered little protection. Stranded in their homes, many ran out of fuel and food.

In his book “More True Tales of Old-Time Kansas,” David Dary reported that one Ness County family of seven died in the blizzards.

When searchers reached them, they found the family had not only used up all its fuel, but had also burned all the furniture except for one large bed. All seven had climbed into the bed to try to keep warm, and there they slowly froze to death.

Tornadoes in folklore

The ties binding Kansas and tornadoes apparently go back to 1879 when a large tornado decimated the small town of Irving in northeast Kansas, according to Price, the Kansas historian.

Newspaper accounts of the damage and the suffering by townspeople were “very graphic” and captured the attention of readers back East, Price said.

Baum initially planned to set “The Wizard of Oz” in South Dakota but changed it to Kansas when he was traveling through the state and two tornadoes interrupted his trip.

The image is reinforced in murals depicting the state, Price said — including John Steuart Curry’s mural in the state Capitol.

“You see tornadoes in the background, and a family scrambling from a tornado. People hated that: “Why are we always associated with tornadoes?” Price said.

Even now, after 150 years of statehood and several generations of Kansans, weather is never far away from our consciousness.

The television stations cover vast geographic areas, and programming is commonly interrupted for severe weather updates.

“We test the (tornado) sirens every week. Newcomers go, ‘What is that?’ They’re freaking out,” Price said.

When sirens go off during storms, Kansans have one of two responses: Duck for cover, or go out with a video camera hunting for the tornado, Price said.

“Even if you have never seen one, you know people who have tornado stories. It’s part of our folklore,” Price said.

Price has a photo from El Dorado in 1915 showing people in straw hats, corsets and other Victorian clothing.

“They’re out looking at the tornado,” he said. “It’s very Kansan.”

Reach Beccy Tanner at 316-268-6336 or btanner@wichitaeagle.com.

© 2011 Wichita Eagle and wire service sources. All Rights Reserved. http://www.kansas.com