Going Greene – Caleb Ely and the Birth of Rain Day

By Matthew Cumberledge, GCHS Executive Director
(Article in GreeneScene Magazine-July 27, 2019)

Greene County always has a way of bringing herself to life in very extraordinary ways. Sometimes, these attempts at vitality reach a national stage.  

Rain Day, a holiday unique to Waynesburg and Greene County, has become such a staple of our culture that little needs to be mentioned of the Rain Day celebration, the festivities held on High Street, and the infamous Hat Bet that has drawn attention from all over the country.  

The story goes that in late 1800s an unknown local farmer remarked to pharmacist William Allison that it always rained on his birthday, which fell on July 29th. Mr. Allison started keeping track of the weather on July 29th every year and that gave birth to our signature holiday.

But who was that unknown local farmer? His name was Caleb Ely and this is his story.

Caleb was born July 29, 1829 in Washington County, not too far away from Washington itself. He was a son of Jonas and Euphen (Wilson) Ely. When but a young lad of 14, Caleb came with his family and settled on a farm later owned by J. A. J. Buchanan in what is now West Waynesburg.  The streets in West Waynesburg still are named after these two families.

On August 25th, 1862, a 33-year-old Caleb left his home just west of Waynesburg and traveled the dusty roads into Carmichaels to enlist in Company F, 44th Regiment, 1st Cavalry of the Pennsylvania Volunteers.  

The men of the regiment were recruited from counties all over Pennsylvania, and were of “rural stock” and known to be “well-formed and hardy, good riders and accustomed to the use and care of horses.”  Having been raised on a farm, and having worked with livestock his entire life, Caleb was well suited to the cavalry.  

Caleb quickly ventured south after his enlistment to join the rest of the regiment where it was campaigning in Virginia and Maryland during the Civil War. Action was heavy and consistent for the 44th, before and after Caleb arrived to his unit. But his time in the field would be short lived.   

On October 14, 1863, Caleb was wounded during heavy fighting at Auburn, Virginia. He was sent to the rear, and spent the remainder of his three-year enlistment under more peaceful conditions. By the end of the war, he had returned home. 

On December 5, 1865, Caleb married Miss Elizabeth Patterson, daughter of William and Rhoda (Whitlatch) Patterson, and they had five children that survived to adulthood, 2 sons and 3 daughters. 

Caleb spent the remainder of his life on his farm, making his periodic supply trips into Waynesburg, and making regular visits to the drug store operated by Mr. Allison. It was Caleb, who mentioned in the 1890s to Mr. Allison that it always seemed to rain on his birthday.   

Caleb died in Oak Forest, Center Township on May 4, 1915 at the age of 85 years. He was a well-respected and prosperous farmer and was buried at Fairall United Methodist Church in Whitely Township. His grave marker mentions nothing of his Civil War service and was installed long before the Rain Day festivities became the special occasion known to us today. Though Caleb passed well over a hundred years ago, his memory is still very much alive in with his descendants, many of whom still call Greene County home.

Allison Building circa 1885 (Courtesy Greene Connections)

William Allison’s brother Albert began keeping track of the rain on July 29th when William died on October 1, 1910.  Albert passed away on February 18, 1927 and the duty then passed to Byron Daily.

The Allison’s were the first “Rain Day Prophets” and held the most vital role in the birth of the Rain Day celebration by recording the weather on July 29th in the margins of their store ledger.

From the early 1900s on, Rain Day grew. It started as a small ceremony on the courthouse steps, with the annual Hat Bet between Byron Daily’s son and a regional or national celebrity, but in the 1930s, local reporter John O’Hara, who spent many years collecting stories of Greene Counties facts and folklore began sending stories about Rain Day to other regional and national newspapers. You can even read some of John O’Hara’s Rain Day remembrances in the 1989 book “Fact & Folklore” published by Mary C. Eagon of Waynesburg.

The Waynesburg Borough Special Events Commission was created in 1979 to hold an annual celebration on July 29th, and that same year the Waynesburg Area Chamber of Commerce held the first Annual Miss Rain Day Pageant. Now every year on Rain Day, High Street in Waynesburg is closed down to vehicle traffic and now the annual street festival is known all over the world.

Over the years many well-known celebrities have participated in the Hat Bet, including Willard Scott of the NBC Today Show. Scott promoted the event annually, and even gave a Stetson hat to the Rain Day Festival even though he won the bet and it didn’t rain 1985.  

Rain Day has since become a signature event for the residents of Greene County, an event that brings all of the small communities in the area together and links us all to the history of the 19th century. 

Caleb was just like everyone else of his time, a farmer working hard throughout all the days of his life and keeping his family happy and healthy. Because of that one idle remark made to William Allison so many years ago, Waynesburg and Greene County have the opportunity to be in the spot light every year on July 29th.