Drought decimated Lincoln Parish in 1896

By Wesley Harris

Turn on a newscast and you are likely to hear the term “climate change.” Some call it “the most existential threat of our times.” Naysayers deny it exists. In April, the Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin stated, “no nation can find lasting security without addressing the climate crisis. We face all kinds of threats in our line of work, but few of them truly deserve to be called existential. The climate crisis does.” He added, “climate change is making the world more unsafe, and we need to act.”

The Secretary named off several recent incidents as evidence of climate change including a hurricane, severe flooding, wildfires, and typhoons. But those have occurred for centuries along with droughts, blizzards, dust storms,  and tornadoes. Are we experiencing “climate change” or simply ever-changing weather patterns?

That’s a question for the scientists, but even they can’t agree. What is true is serious weather events have occurred in our area. Many long forgotten, others just a memory.

What was once a small village in south Claiborne Parish is little more than an intersection now. But its name, Hurricane—and that’s pronounced “Hurra-cun” by the locals—is the only remnant of a great storm that passed through the area sometime in the 1800s. Even the exact day has faded away as if the storm was just one of many weather events not worth recording in detail.

Another Louisiana weather event lost to history is the Great Drought of 1896. 

Although Louisiana boasts thousands of miles of creeks, bayous, and rivers and vast wetlands, the state experiences occasional drought conditions. A drought may include direct effects on local economic and water resources and may cause secondary issues such as wildfires. Northern Louisiana parishes have been prone to agricultural droughts that affect crop production.

The 1896 drought remains Louisiana’s driest spell in the past 200 years. Especially hard hit by the drought were the north central parishes of Lincoln, Bienville, Claiborne, Jackson, Union, and Webster, but much of Louisiana and adjoining states suffered as well.  

Farmers planted their fields and gardens in the spring like any other year. Cotton to sell for cash, corn for the livestock, and vegetables to can and store to feed families through the winter. 

The rain stopped in April. By June, farmers realized yields would be low even if the rains came soon. They didn’t.

Dogs died of heat exhaustion. Rattlesnakes squirmed their way into homes to find relief. Even the birds flew away.

Wildfires covered the region. Much of the dense woods around Natchitoches burned for weeks.     

Cotton, the region’s cash crop, withered and struggled to produce its precious fibers. Instead of one acre providing its normal bale of cotton, it took ten acres to make one. Without cotton to sell, farmers would lack cash until the sale of the next year’s crop, a disaster for them and the merchants, bankers, and creditors who relied on the sale of the harvest.

Sweltering heat magnified the lack of rain. Daily summer temperatures in 1896 routinely climbed past 100°. Construction projects in the cities ground to a halt because the heat exhausted workers. Parched corn stalks produced virtually nothing. Gardens grew barely enough vegetables to justify the effort. Creeks dried up and farmers struggled to water their stock. Farm families subsisted on cornbread and milk, going without meat or vegetables for weeks.

In early August, a Shreveport Times writer declared, “If this drought continues much longer, Shreveport will be entirely without wholesome drinking water.” 

People gathered in meetings to discuss the calamity. Long before the days of FEMA and other government assistance, communities sought ways to care for themselves. The only solution offered was to ask for help and take care of one another until it came.

In the fall, businessmen arranged for corn to be shipped in from Midwest harvests, offering it at reduced rates to the drought sufferers.

It did not rain again in north Louisiana until mid-September but too late to make much difference. Enough precipitation to break the drought did not arrive until December.  

The rains did not bring relief. Any chance to grow food for the winter was long gone. Cattle and other stock were starving. Families that had refused assistance out of pride now begged for help. Lincoln Parish farm kids were going to bed hungry.

A grant of aid by the governor, a first for Louisiana state government and corn from the Midwest averted widespread starvation.  

One survivor of the drought described it as “worse than the Depression. We didn’t have any money in the 1930s but at least we had a little food and plenty of water,” something they didn’t have in the summer of 1896.

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