Drought Survivors of 1930 Recall the Ultimate Dry Spell

by Eugene Scheel
A Waterford historian and mapmaker.

History of the 1930 drought »

The drought of 2007 is not the worst to have hit Loudoun County, but one has to go back 77 years to find a drier spell.

In 1930, the Virginia Piedmont counties of Loudoun, Fauquier and Culpeper all registered less than 21 inches of rain for the year -- less than the 22.5 inches that has fallen this year at Dulles International Airport. (The average annual rainfall for the area is 42 inches.)

Loudoun had the least rain among the three counties in 1930 -- 20.08 inches at Bentley Gregg's rain gauge in Lincoln. Leesburg got even less than that, said Jules R. Lintner, the county extension agent at the time.

July through November was by far the driest stretch. None of the rain gauges in the Piedmont registered more than 1.6 inches for that five-month period.

Records suggest that the region went through two extremely harsh droughts in the 19th century, but we have no statistics for either one. Lintner, speaking at the Planters Club in September 1930, stated that "the county is a barren waste, not seen since the drought of 1816-1817." And the 1885 minutes of the Catoctin Farmers Club mention a "severe draught" that year; grass for grazing stock was scarce by June, and in late August, club members spoke of wheat harvests averaging a bushel an acre. A typical harvest netted 15 bushels an acre at the time.

To help us imagine the catastrophe of 1930, we have not only a rich historical record but the recollections of area residents who are still alive.

The Piedmont's three largest rivers -- the Potomac, Rappahannock and Rapidan -- were reduced that year to a series of fetid puddles, malodorous from dead fish, algae and the droppings from animals, who in the middle months of the drought had jockeyed for position as they lapped up the last drinkable pools.

Just west of the old Brunswick bridge, the Potomac was so dry that Loudouners placed boards across the mud banks and drove their buggies and autos across to Maryland, thereby saving a dime to a quarter in one-way bridge tolls.

Clint Cunningham, a 91-year-old Culpeper County resident, recalls that in November 1930, he could stop the flow of the Rappahannock downstream from Fauquier Springs with his hand.

After six months of little or no rain, "what was left of the river was brown from sap and water that came out of the roots" of trees, Cunningham told me. Normally the mix would rise up the trunk and into the limbs. "It took two or three years before [the river] came back," he said.

He was 14 that year. Like many farmers' children, he would drive a wagon to one of the few flowing springs, usually at the base of the mountains or hills, and bring back a barrel of water for the livestock and a bucket or two for household consumption.

In the towns, only a few wells issued potable water. The goodwill of the wells' owners allowed neighbors to pump a few buckets a day. In Leesburg, residents on well water began lining up at Florence and Henry Harrison's house at Rock Spring, west of town, to dip their buckets and siphon water. The limestone spring had an estimated capacity of 350,000 gallons. In early September, when Leesburg Mayor Charles Harrison announced that the town water tank had run dry, the queue for the spring water reached the Loudoun Street house of Emory Plaster a quarter-mile away, Plaster told me several years ago.

Of the 30 or so water-powered mills operating in the northern Piedmont in 1930, one of the few that continued running during the drought was Palmer's on Panther Skin Creek, east of Upperville -- in the heart of the agriculturally rich Loudoun Valley and upper Fauquier. Palmer's had a mile-long race through a wooden sluice, which held water better than the typical mill race. And at the end was a turbine that used far less water than the standard water wheel. The mill still stands and is being restored.

Agriculture, the staple of the Piedmont's economy, was hardest hit. By the end of July, with no rain for six weeks and a run of 100-degree-plus days, corn was about two feet high, tasseled out and withered. The normal corn crop in Loudoun and Fauquier, 1.5 million bushels, had shrunk to 5,000 bushels. Yields averaged a bushel an acre, rather than the typical 20 to 25 bushels an acre. All the small-grain seedings were lost.

By early July, farmers who had bought 400-pound cattle in the spring for 15 cents a pound were selling 600-pound stock at eight cents a pound to beat anticipated late-summer sell-offs. For someone with a modest herd of 20 or 30 cows, that loss represented a third of a year's income.

Karlton Monroe, who farmed near Unison, was a stockman who bucked the trend of selling out. In a typed reminiscence he mailed me years ago, he related how he and his farm help raked up dead corn leaves and added them to silage to feed cattle.

"We would ordinarily cut 300 to 900 tons," he wrote. "That year we did not get fifty . . . We cut trees and bushes along creek beds so that the cattle could eat the twigs."

By August, pastures were barren. Seventy-five percent of the hay crop was lost. Fat cattle, which had sold for 11 to 13 cents a pound in 1928 and 1929, were down to 4 1/2 cents a pound.

Arcola's Eugene Ferne Marshall told me some time ago that stock handlers aboard a train bound for Baltimore wouldn't accept a load of cattle because they knew the market price wouldn't meet the cost of shipping.

Waterford's Leroy Chamberlin told the Catoctin Farmers Club in August 1930 that some cattle, when moved from a dry pasture to water, "died from bloat immediately after drinking too much water."

Obed J. Pierpont of Paeonian Springs, a Catoctin member since 1874, said in early July 1930 that he couldn't remember a time when "all prices on farm produce were as low as now."

Lintner told the club in early August that "hogs seemed to be the only good property in farm animals," with prices maintaining fairly well. He recommended trying a late crop of alfalfa, musing that "you have nothing to lose but the cost of the seed." Those who took his advice lost the cost of the seed.

On Aug. 11, farmers and businessmen rode to Winchester, where an estimated 45,000 gathered in front of the Frederick County courthouse as every church bell pealed forth a call to prayer. The Fauquier Democrat newspaper reported that after ministers sermonized, "the entire throng seemed to second with one accord the beliefs expressed that 'repentance of sin' was the need of the hour."

In September, Lintner and Fauquier County extension agent Sam O'Sullivan estimated that the loss for farmers in Loudoun and Fauquier totaled $6 million (equivalent to $110 million today). They said that about 300 farmers in each county needed relief. But by early 1931, only 26 Loudoun farmers and 22 Fauquier farmers were able to get a loan of up to $200 on the basis of five dollars an arable acre. The county agents said $5,000 worth of credit for each county was a pittance; $100,000 was needed.

The minutes of the old Purcellville National Bank board from January 1931 contain this observation: "No stockholder present could recall such a trying agricultural state . . . the unsettled and depressed world situation together with an unprecedented drought extending from the Central States eastward have made a condition that is indeed trying the souls of men."

That month, Lintner addressed the Catoctin club and said no farmer had given up agriculture as far as he knew, which he called "a tribute to the farmers of the county."

November 2007 by Eugene Scheel is a historian and mapmaker who lives in Waterford.