Dale Hoepf of New Riegel made headlines when he cut the message Lord Help Us into his clover field during the 1988 drought, which has been called the worst drought since the Dust Bowl years of the mid-1930s. (Photo courtesy of The Advertiser-Tribune)
DURING THE 1988 DROUGHT, weekly public prayer vigils became the norm at churches from Fostoria to New Riegel to Ottawa. (Photo courtesy of the Tiffin Advertiser-Tribune)

By BRENNA GRITEMAN
LIFE EDITOR

Sure, it’s been a hot, fairly dry summer.

But while farmers and gardeners had their gripes with last month’s levels of precipitation, recent rains are breathing new life into brown patches of grass and stubborn tomato plants.

The mornings and evenings are getting cooler, and the sticky, heavy blanket of July has passed.

Thirty years ago was an entirely different story.

Summer 1988 brought what the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration calls North America’s worst drought since the “Dust Bowl” years of the mid-1930s.

The Weather Channel explains: “The dryness started as early as late winter, and conditions deteriorated through the spring. By early June, many locations from the Canadian border to Texas had received less than 50 percent of normal precipitation, with some areas getting less than 40 percent.”

The drought peaked in early July, reducing the Mississippi River to a trickle.

Dozens of weather stations across the central part of the U.S. marked record-high temperatures, as The Weather Channel reports “45 percent of the nation was experiencing drought or severe drought conditions as defined by the Palmer Drought Severity Index.”

Damage and costs related to the drought reached $40 billion, and there were over 5,000 heat-related casualties reported.

Early optimism

In retrospect, a headline in the June 1, 1988, edition of The Courier proclaiming “Findlay prepared for dry spell” is almost cute in its optimism. The article references hot, dry weather bringing calls for water conservation in neighboring communities, with an assurance from city officials that “No such action will be needed in Findlay, at least for the next several months.”

“The recent dry spell” had left the Blanchard River too low to draw more water into the city reservoirs, but “no water shortage problems” were anticipated.

Water restrictions

By July 11, however, water restrictions were indeed in place in Findlay. Nearly every surrounding village was either considering a similar action or had already passed their own resolutions.

Watering lawns, washing cars and other nonessential uses of water were prohibited in Findlay, and customers were asked to voluntarily cut back on water use inside their homes.

City police and water department employees were given authority to enforce the rules with a first offense earning a warning. A second offense could result in the customer’s water service being shut off.

Some exemptions listed by the Environmental Protection Agency included irrigation for food, maintaining livestock, and flushing sewers and hydrants.

Dave Wobser was the city’s safety-service director and recalls there was grave concern within the city government about the possibility of the city running out of water.

Findlay’s largest reservoir, which typically holds a two-year water supply, was already down heading into the summer due to low precipitation the previous winter.

“We tried to cut out watering your lawn, stuff like that,” says Wobser, 22 years after his retirement. For the most part, people were respectful of the restrictions, although he admits there was one person who “gave us fits about it.”

Most people, it seems, were more concerned with car washes — or the lack thereof — than with watering their lawns.

At its worst, Findlay came within a 90-day reserve of water.

Wobser noted the state was quick to point out other communities had it far worse than Findlay. Some towns’ reservoirs plummeted to within a two-week water supply.

“I don’t know if (Findlay) people were as worried as I was,” Wobser says. “But as it ended up, we came through it OK.”

Precipitation plummets

Readings taken at the Findlay Water Pollution Control Center show 1988 had the fourth-lowest annual precipitation — 24.75 inches — in recorded weather history, which dates to 1894 in Findlay.

In modern times, an average 36.09 inches of precipitation are recorded in Findlay, says center Superintendent Dave Beach.

Precipitation after April 1, 1988, was an average 3.6 inches below normal by early June, and in some areas was 6 to 9 inches below normal. The Findlay weather station recorded 0.86 inch in May, and just 0.56 inch in June.

Young corn and soybean plants were not germinating, and herbicides — activated by water — were not killing weeds.

Dale Hoepf of New Riegel made headlines in early June when he cut the message “Lord Help Us” into his clover field.

“I certainly believe in prayer, and farmers are keeping the faith. … I’m certain prayer helps,” said Hoepf, who farmed about 500 acres in 1988.

Praying for rain

Weekly public prayer vigils became the norm at churches from Fostoria to New Riegel to Ottawa.

Sister Mary Christine Pratt, director of rural life ministries for the Roman Catholic Diocese in Toledo, told reporters the church services were “not a superstition thing,” but rather “a case of the community coming together to support each other.”

On June 14, about 225 gathered for an open-field Mass at a farm owned by Jerry and JoAnn Lowery north of Fostoria, where the Rev. William Martin shook holy water at the crops in all four directions as he blessed the field.

On June 23, a crowd of nearly 200 gathered outside a church near Jenera where the Rev. Paul Frey helped “petition for favorable weather, especially for the gift of rain.”

And on June 19, a florist in Clyde tried something completely foreign to staunchly Christian Midwest farmers: he raised $2,000 to bring a Sioux medicine man named Leonard Crow Dog to town.

Crow Dog and his fellow rainmakers performed a series of thrice-daily prayer ceremonies beginning on a Sunday afternoon in Clyde. He promised rain within four days of his arrival.

On Thursday morning, shocked residents woke up to puddles and tears in their eyes. A quarter-inch of rain had fallen overnight, the first significant rainfall since May 17.

Later that day, a sign along the town’s main thoroughfare said it all: “A miracle happened here. Thanks, Crow Dog.”

Area roasts

Meanwhile, the area continued to roast under record-high temperatures.

“It not only did not rain, but the heat was very, very intense,” recalls Gary Wilson, county agricultural Extension agent at the time.

A 100-degree reading in Findlay tied the record set June 21, 1933. At Pandora, a 101-degree reading on June 21 shattered the town’s previous record by 10 degrees.

Grass was nearly dead in parks and the Hancock Park District was considering reseeding. An article on June 25 said “tinder-dry terrain” had fire chiefs worried.

On July 1, Findlay announced “dry conditions” meant there would be no public fireworks commemorating the Fourth of July. Residents were urged to use “extreme caution” during their home cookouts.

On July 7, a record-high temperature of 98 degrees was seen in Pandora. The very next day, a new record of 101 degrees was recorded.

Hay lifts

Wilson says heat and drought caused terrible headaches for farmers who needed hay for livestock.

Local ag officials ordered two big hay lifts by train that summer, one from New York and another from one of the Carolinas. A formula was devised which would determine hay allotments based on the number of livestock each producer owned.

Farmers are notoriously hesitant to accept a handout. But every corner of every barn in the area had been swept out in search of years-old feed, “and we had farmers lined up,” Wilson says of the hay lift.

He recalls that on the second distribution day, as hay was being rationed out at the Hancock County Fairgrounds, rain began to fall.

It was July 10, and a passing thunderstorm dropped 0.53 inch of rain. It marked the first measurable rainfall since 0.56 inch fell in June.

Nine days later, an inch of rain fell in Findlay. The newspaper ran a picture of two children gleefully playing in the downpour.

On July 15, the federal government declared Ohio and Missouri “disaster areas.” Grain prices skyrocketed, which provided little if any help in easing farmers’ minds.

“Prices just really, really took off,” Wilson says. “All at once prices just doubled. But it didn’t mean anything because we had nothing to sell.”

Farmers got so desperate in July that a support group of sorts formed. If one good thing came out of the summer of 1988, Wilson says, it’s the Ag Council, which still meets monthly at 50 North.

Producers gather to talk and vent about the weather, commodities and more, and Wilson attends to this day. “But it’s not near the amount of stress as that year.”

Too little, too late

Local records show 3.2 inches of rain fell by the end of July, and 4.51 inches came in August. Still, it was too little, too late for many.

A Courier article from Aug. 8 details how one nursery laid off eight landscapers, as the company had been “virtually out of business” since the water restrictions went into effect in July.

On Aug. 12, Oakwoods Nature Preserve closed Shank Lake to fishermen for the remainder of the season, stating that low water levels had caused a decline in spawning areas, limited fish reproduction and made feeding difficult.

Fireflies failed to appear, insect and amphibian life suffered, and raccoon carcasses littered country highways as dried-up streams forced them to seek new water sources far from home.

Coyote complaints spiked, as the wolf-like creatures left their usual range in search of water.

Even the county fairs suffered, with fruit and vegetable entries dismal. The Associated Press, reporting from the Warren County Fair, described empty bowls with large white bows and signs reading “Due to the Drought, No Vegetables.”

At many county fairs, a Polaroid picture of a single flower passed as the flower show.

Drought-relief bill

The federal government in mid-August passed a $3.9 billion drought-relief bill designed to aid hundreds of thousands of farmers and ranchers.

At the time, the legislation was the most expansive measure of its type ever enacted for agriculture.

By the government’s estimates, the country’s corn crop was expected to be down by 29 percent; barley production was down 42 percent; oats were down 43 percent; and spring wheat was down 51 percent from a normal year.

President Ronald Reagan praised the bill after urging the government to act quickly to help America cope with the “worst natural disaster since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.”

Local farmers cheered as well.

The government bailout “honestly saved the farms,” Wilson says.

While rainfall levels returned to normal by the end of summer, some problems did persist.

On Oct. 8, Findlay Mayor Keith Romick mailed letters to the city’s 30 largest water consumers — most of which were industries — asking that they look for ways to reduce their usage.

“The present low water level in our reservoirs is becoming a major concern and without significant rainfall could become a crisis situation,” Romick wrote.

He told the newspaper that the water supply was not at critically low levels, but could be if rainfall remained significantly below normal through the winter.

Conditions did improve in northwest Ohio, and the restrictions placed on watering lawns and washing cars were finally lifted in November.

But the drought continued across parts of the Upper Midwest and northern Great Plains during 1989, not officially ending until 1990.

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