It comes but once a year

July 24, 2013

WAYNESBURG – Rain Day is a good example of what can happen when a little history teams up with a little imagination and human nature.

It’s only natural to notice if it always seems to rain on one special day of the year. When an unknown farmer ambled into Roger’s Drugstore on High Street in 1876 and informed pharmacist William Allison it would rain the next day, he had a lifetime of observation to call upon.

How did he know it would rain? Because, he is said to have replied, “It’s my birthday.”

In the 19th century, a lot depended on a farmer’s observations of the seasons and their patterns. Rain at the end of July meant that harvests would be planned accordingly. Then, as now, farmers practiced the serious but social business of “talking about the weather” whenever they got the chance.

It is really no wonder Allison’s curiosity would be piqued and he would make a notation in his ledger, “July 29 – rain.”

It must have been a real conversation piece from the beginning. It’s said that the first hat bets were lost by traveling salesmen not believing the odds of Rain Day.

Allison’s yearly notations were carried on by his brother, C. Albert. Byron Daily inherited the records when he and Carl M. Spragg bought the drugstore in 1909. By now, calling for rain July 29 was a tradition, and C. Albert kept the count until his death in 1927.

When Daily took over, he became the Rain Day prophet. By the 1930s, his son, John, was continuing the rain watch and having some fun with it. Local author John O’Hara, then a young freelance reporter who worked many years at the Observer-Reporter, put the story out to wire services and metropolitan newspapers. John Daily began betting his hat with celebrities that it would rain. There was always a taker.

Rain Day’s global prominence grew during World War II as homesick Greene County boys made bets and sent letters home inquiring about the weather.

The men who philosophized on chairs outside Spragg and Daily’s drugstore were the core group of fans sometimes called the July 29 Club, also referred to as the Cloudcatchers.

In 1944, the tradition of ringing the courthouse bell 29 times was born. Somewhere that year, in a foxhole on a beachhead in France, a young man remembered it might rain in Greene County.

The July 29 Club would start the rain watch at midnight. From around the county, others would come to town and join them with their umbrellas open.

The occasional rain machine was built. The fun was starting to grow.

By the end of the 1950s, it was becoming more like a festival, with games and food and entertainment. High Street was closed for an all-day party. By 1980, it had its own special commission and a full schedule of events.

• In 1975, the Old Farmer’s Almanac noted “July 29. Most always rains in Waynesburg, Pa.”

• In 1980, CBS newsman Charles Kuralt stopped by to tape a portion of Rain Day for his “On the Road” news show. People magazine took notice in 1992 when a 116-foot-long ice cream sundae was made in a foil-lined gutter and consumed during the festivities.

Now in its 139th year, it just wouldn’t be summer in Waynesburg without Rain Day, and so what if science says there’s no good reason for it?

So, how many years has it rained? How about 113 out of the last 138 years, unofficially. The dry years have been 1930, 1937, 1946, 1949, 1950, 1951, 1953, 1955, 1956, 1957, 1960, 1982, 1983, 1984,1985, 1987, 1988, 1989,1990, 1997, 2003, 2004, 2006, 2008 and 2012.

Albert Allison’s great-nephew, attorney Albert Sayers, summed up the Rain Day phenomenon in O’Hara’s book, “Fact and Folklore.”

“A legend lives without and in spite of statistics. It draws its appeal from the accumulated memories of its adherents and from the force of hearsay and gossip, all of which are root and branch of the affairs of any small town.”

Jon Stevens was the Observer-Reporter’s Greene County bureau chief. During his 41 years with the O-R, he covered county government, courts and politics, and won statewide and regional writing awards.

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