“However, despite the many physical, financial and natural blows dealt to the district inclusive of the period from 1921 to 1926, a completed system was functioning which conclusively demonstrated to its builders that their efforts had not been in vain and that the ultimate success of their early vision was assured.”
By 1926, the founders of the Whitney Irrigation District, facing a massive amount of debt, still had hopes that the creation of the irrigation system would bring prosperity to the region. Historical documents uncovered at the district’s office this spring tell a tale that vacillates between hope and despair as the founders searched for ways to turn the district’s financial hardships around before they wiped out the landowners, the school district and the town.
A history of the irrigation district compiled by George E. Lawrence, mostly in 1941, details the efforts and was among the documents discovered this year in a plastic tote stored at the office. It’s clear that the history was written in an effort to sway federal agencies to consider the Whitney Irrigation District for a rehabilitation project; Lawrence hoped to portray the financial difficulties as those beyond the control of the district, but temporary in nature if only the federal government would invest in the area.
Cost overruns during the construction of the irrigation system, which diverts water from the White River more than six miles through a pipeline to Whitney Lake, buried the district in more debt than the landowners bargained for. Originally estimated to cost $390,870 to construct, the final tally came in at $416,046.
By the late 1920s, it was apparent that the irrigation district faced financial ruin if measures weren’t taken, and in January 1931, the project was refinanced. The terms included one year with no interest but it was still destined to failure. Two years later, the board of directors had to refinance the project again. The 1933 refinancing restructured the bonds in such a way that the district was able to save more than $300,000. However, the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, the government bureau that furnished the funding for this second refinancing, demanded the district foreclose on more than 5,000 acres of land.
With the debt reduced to $101,000, the Whitney Irrigation District board, from 1933-1940, oversaw the replacement of wooden structures in the irrigation system with concrete to save money on future maintenance and upgrades. They also constructed new structures that had been scrapped during the original construction as costs skyrocketed. Those projects added $142,000 to the district’s debt, and as the situation continued to look dire, the board began to seek ways to capitalize on their investment.
One of their efforts involved seeking approval from the Farm Security Administration for a federal rehabilitation project, specifically asking the FSA to relocate to Whitney farmers from Wahoo who lost their land in the construction of a federal project there.
“At this writing, the landowners and other interested parties firmly believe that they have a very opportunistic development which is well worthy of an intensive investigation by parties who might be contemplating a change of location at this time and feel assured that it would result in a betterment of their condition by going into a community which was progressing rather than retrogressing as so many localities are doing on account of the serious subnormal economic and natural conditions,” Lawrence wrote.
He noted the great diversity of agricultural products produced in the Whitney Irrigation District, among them wheat and other cereal grains, corn, sorghum, alfalfa, beans, potatoes, sugar beets and livestock. Landowners, he said, realized the success of the district depended upon diversification of interests. The district also had the advantage of nearby rail and shipping facilities and the water reserves guaranteed that farmers had enough water to produce crops to ship each year. The growing season of 1940 was the lowest rainfall on record from May through July since record keeping at Fort Robinson began in 1887, Lawrence pointed out. But the landowners in the Whitney Irrigation District had sufficient water to raise their crops to completion; in contrast, irrigation districts in other states had just 25 percent of the water needed.
The problems facing the district, at least in Lawrence’s mind stemmed from the facts that the district was forced to foreclose on so much land, thereby removing it from the tax rolls, and a lack of farmers to work that land.
“The district is very seriously underpopulated; there are approximately 30 families, but with a successful termination to the development program which is at present in the organization stage, the probability of an increase to eighty or ninety families is not too much to hope for, and would indeed make of the district a prosperous one such as many others where an intensive program has been instituted.”
In lobbying the FSA, the Whitney board sought the help of Senators George W. Norris and Hugh Butler. Letters to and from the senators, as well as correspondence with the FSA offices in Lincoln and Denver and the Bureau of Reclamation were found with Lawrence’s history.
The earliest letter is dated Feb. 12, 1941, and addressed to Sen. Norris from Lawrence; it outlined the history of the Whitney Irrigation District and requested his support of the FSA project. Norris apparently inquired after the project with the FSA; an April 15 letter from Cal Ward in the FSA office in Lincoln to Sen. Norris indicated that the agency was investigating Whitney as a possible relocation area for the Wahoo farmers. He explained that if a project were to be approved, the FSA would organize a cooperative purchasing and development association made up of the families who would relocate to Whitney. The association would acquire the land and build houses for the families by borrowing money from the FSA. Ward noted that if that occurred, the FSA “would exercise a considerable amount of management control during the period of the loan.”
In July of that year, Lawrence wrote to the Lincoln FSA office, once again requesting that the agency help finance housing on much of the district’s 5,000-plus acres, which he said should be broken up into 80-acre units to make them economically feasible to farm.
“We understand the FSA is in need of good, small farming units to place farm tenants on, it would seem that our project would offer this immediate facility to your department as we have an ample water supply if properly used as well as the very best land that can be had for farm production.”
A follow-up letter in September thanked Ward for sending engineers out to study the district and asked that he read the complete history he had compiled so as to fully understand the financial hardships. Lawrence also extended an invitation for Ward to visit the site himself.
By October, the directors had an inkling that the FSA deemed the Whitney district in a less than desirable light. In an Oct. 9 letter to Lawrence, Sen. Norris included a copy of a letter he received from Ward. The letter outlined perceived problems with the irrigation district: inadequate irrigation water and irrigable land, cost of necessary expansion, diversion and storage of the irrigation system, cost of land leveling for housing and the lack of a domestic water supply.
“It now appears that any plan to accommodate more farm families would involve almost a complete adjustment of the entire project,” Ward wrote. That adjustment, he said, would likely include withdrawing certain land from the irrigation district, the subdivision of large private holdings and additional water diversion and storage. Instead, he suggested the project might be better suited to the Wheeler Case Program and forwarded the information to the area office in Denver for review.
Still, in November, they wrote to Sen. Butler, seeking his help since their application to house Wahoo farmers “seems to have temporarily bogged down.” Lawrence pointed out in that letter that unlike projects at Mirage Flats and Angostura, Whitney’s physical structure is 100 percent complete and 60 percent of the land was under production.
“What we need, and must have is housing and the needed improvement of the approximately 5,600 acres of district owned land, which it acquired by means of the so-called “paper tax sale” method, but which as it is now is merely a weight across the progress of the district.
“Our present farmers are farming much more than they can successfully handle and without the added housing necessary to develop this additional acreage, it is impossible to interest anyone in a ‘contemplated’ development,” he wrote.
About the same time that Lawrence was writing to Sen. Butler, Sen. Norris was composing a letter to Lawrence. From information shared with him, Norris said, the FSA was awaiting an engineer’s report on expanding the Whitney project; that report would be the basis upon which the Reconstruction Finance Corporation would make a decision on loaning money for the project.
“I want to see the Whitney project successful and I want to see those farmers, who will have to be removed from the vicinity of Wahoo, properly cared for. It is, therefore, quite important that the Whitney project be successful as I would not want these farmers from Wahoo moved to Whitney unless it could fairly be expected that their investments would be successful,” Norris said.
Enclosed with his letter was a copy of an October letter Norris received from Albert Strong, the chief of the drainage and irrigation section at the Reconstruction Finance Corporation. Strong’s letter noted that while there are 9,600 acres in the district, the current water supply is adequate for only 5,000 acres. A full 8,000 acres could be irrigated if supplemental water was diverted from the Little Cottonwood Creek. That project, Strong estimated, would cost $12,650 if it was completed as a Works Progress Administration effort. Strong also said his agency didn’t have enough information to determine the cost per acre of the proposed resettlement. That information, he said, would have to come from the Lincoln office of the FSA in the form of a report to the FSA office in Washington, D.C.
In light of Ward’s negative report to Sen. Norris, Lawrence contacted Ward again in mid-November. While he said he appreciated Ward’s referral for the Wheeler-Case program, he hoped the FSA’s decision was reversible. He again reiterated the positive aspects of the Whitney Irrigation District, noting it only lacked additional families and housing. As to the need for additional development, Lawrence said the directors never considered it necessary.
“While the supplementary supply has long been contemplated by the district officers, it was not with the thought of its being necessary or essential to our present structure, but as a means of further development of the adjoining lands of the district which were included in the original survey and later withdrawn until such time as it had been definitely proven that our water supply was ample for additional land.”
Several developments occurred in late November and early December. Sen. Butler apprised Lawrence that the Lincoln Chamber of Commerce agreed to refer tenant farmers in Wahoo to Whitney, and the Denver office of the FSA informed Lawrence that the Department of Agriculture and the Bureau of Reclamation cooperate on all Wheeler-Case applications. The Bureau of Reclamation makes all of the determinations regarding the engineering feasibility, the FSA told Lawrence, and that was being studied.
Within a week, however, the Bureau of Reclamation dashed hopes yet again, saying that a field survey from a year ago determined that the heavy texture of the soils, a lack of people and the scattered location of the irrigated land made the project a difficult one to endorse.
“It was concluded at that time that an improvement of the situation could be obtained by irrigating only the better soils of the district and limiting the land to a more compact area,” said a letter from the Bureau of Reclamation. The letter went on to state that the district’s primary goal of obtaining a loan to construct small homesteads is not the type of work done by the Bureau.
By mid-December, the FSA office in Lincoln was even more direct.
“In our estimation, the possibility of relocating any of these displaced farm families within the Whitney Irrigation District would be very remote, even were developed farms ready for occupancy and available to them. None of the farmers in the Wahoo area have had experience with irrigation and are very much disinclined to move west of their present location.”
The stakeholders in the Whitney Irrigation District refused to give up, however, and indeed by mid-January 1942, they saw their hopes revived.
“It is hoped that within the not too distant future that a concluding paragraph may be written, detailing the successful program of rehabilitation and colonization which is tentatively in operation in conjunction with the Federal Security Administration and other Government Bureaus, may have been successfully concluded with the placing of upwards of forty families on our lands which will furnish sustenance and financial security for themselves and prospective generations,” Lawrence wrote in the district’s comprehensive history in 1941.