In the Waynesburg Borough building on High Street, there’s a chart on an office window dotted with rain drops and suns — and more rain drops.
It’s the Southwestern Pa. municipality’s Rain Day record chart, a visual reminder of whether it rained each and every July 29 since 1874.
It may seem odd to keep a chart commemorating dozens of soggy days, but not 50-some miles south of Pittsburgh in Waynesburg, where July 29 is a treasured holiday like no other.
Rain Day is a “part of Waynesburg,” said Athena Bowman, who has been helping plan the borough’s festivities since 2004. “It’s a piece of history here in Greene County.”
Here’s what it is and how it started, as recorded in Don Yoder’s book Groundhog Day. In 1879, an unknown farmer was having a conversation with drugstore clerk William Allison about how it “always seemed to rain on July 29.”
William jotted this down in his daybook and determined to check it out. His brother Albert recorded what happened each year on that date and invited local townsmen to an all-night vigil around a keg of beer as they waited for the raindrops. One of the crowd customarily made a bet that no rain would arrive, and if he lost, he paid for the beer.
Byron Daily took over the record keeping in the 1920s when he became the proprietor of the drugstore, Yoder writes. He originated a tradition of wagering hats that was carried on by his son John.
Celebrations officially began in 1939, and the Waynesburg Borough Special Events Commission was created in 1979 to keep it going.
This year’s festivities begin Friday with a celebration on High Street from 5 to 8 p.m. that features performances, the Wonders Unicycle Club and a diaper derby for crawling babies. Baby Rain Day (not to be confused with (Miss Rain Day) will be crowned at 7 p.m.
Saturday’s events include:
- An umbrella design contest
- Live music and entertainment from 11:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.
- Children’s activities including a petting zoo and balloon art
Bowman said only lightning would cause organizers to call off the outdoor event.
“I can tell you that in years past, the rain doesn’t deter people from attending,” she said. “I can remember the streets being filled and it’s pouring down rain out there.
“You have to bring an umbrella at the Rain Day festival.”
The hat bet
In almost every year since 1939, a representative of the city has made a bet with a famous person about whether or not it will rain.
Waynesburg, as you can guess, bets on the rain. Celebrities like Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Muhammad Ali have all been on the losing end of the gamble.
Even the president lost his hat on Rain Day.
Then real-estate mogul Donald Trump lost the Rain Day bet in 2005 and had to give up a cap to the town (no, it did not say Make America Great Again). More than a decade later, Trump won Greene County by more than 6,300 votes and became president of the United States.
According to Bowman, you should be able to find Trump’s Rain Day hat on display at 5 Kidz Kandy on High Street.
So how weird is it that it’s rained 114 times on July 29 in the past 143 years in one Pennsylvania town?
“It’s unusual,” Lee Hendricks, a meteorologist and hydrologist for the National Weather Service in Pittsburgh, said. “The mean for the summertime in Southwest Pennsylvania is generally about 1,100th of an inch [of rain] a day.”
But, he added, the good people of Waynesburg consider even a drop of precipitation enough to declare July 29 a successful Rain Day: “It qualifies for Rain Day if you get a brief sprinkle.”
Hendricks is right — and it’s a controversial point.
In 2005, for example, five witnesses reported feeling drops of rain at 2:43 p.m., but the Observer-Reporter noted that the declaration was not without skeptics.
“One of the witnesses said she felt three drops land on her shirt, and the others said they saw the drops, as well,” Hawfield said. One of these witnesses, District Judge Lou Dayich, said he felt a raindrop on the balding part of his head.
“I have no doubt that these people are credible and they have nothing to gain by claiming it rained,” he said. “Even Miss Rain Day said she felt rain, but I did not count her because she is biased.”
Hawfield said he would rather have declared seeing a UFO because of the controversy the rain-no rain decision might cause.
“Based on my observation, it did not rain, but based on my investigation, I have no choice other than to say it rained, even if there were just a few drops in a very limited location,” he said.
Hawfield said he was not offered any doughnuts or any “other type of bribes” that would have swayed his investigation and subsequent decision.
You can find mention of the controversy back as far as the 1960s.
“Sometimes it’s only been a drop or two that has kept the tradition alive, a mere spattering here or there while the rest of the town was dry,” the Observer-Reporter reported in 1967, “and it has been that controversial aspect which has spiced Rain Day interest through the years.”
The good news for Waynesburg: There probably won’t be any controversy this year.
As as of Thursday afternoon, the Weather Channel reported an 80 percent chance of morning rain.
Bowman joked, “We do want the rain,” but maybe not as much as is currently forecast.
Hendricks put that sentiment in technical weather terms. “I think people are going to wish it wasn’t Rain Day and that it was a sun day.”