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Early Weather Reporting

by Sheri Baker

DeKalb County is known for its rich soil and, since its founding in 1837, farming has been an important industry. Early settlers would report “back home” about the opportunities this good land could afford. The county grew and so did the number of farms. Farmers then, as now, were often at the mercy of the weather. Knowing ahead of time what the weather would be could mean a good year or bad year for farmers.

In 1793, when the first issue of Old Farmers’ Almanac (then known as The Farmers’ Almanac) was founded by Robert B. Thomas, weather predictions were a feature many east coast farmers relied upon. “To calculate the Almanac’s weather predictions, Thomas studied solar activity, astronomy cycles and weather patterns, and used his research to develop a secret forecasting formula, which is still in use today.” (1)

Congress passed and President Grant signed a bill authorizing the forerunner of the National Weather Service in 1870. The U. S. Weather Bureau followed in 1890. The earliest organized weather observations in the U. S. came from 22 sites that telegraphed reports to Washington, where four Signal Corps professionals issued what could be called early forecasts. (2)

In 1886, the Signal Service was using trains to disseminate weather information to farming communities away from telegraph centers. Symbols denoting weather that may be expected were attached to trains so that farmers throughout the country could see them and thus get early news of the weather. The Sycamore True Republican newspaper published the notice that, “Mr. C. D. Patch, who keeps a bulletin board in front of the store of Rowe, Norris & Patch, has adopted these symbols” and “you can tell by a glance at the bulletin what to look for in the way of weather.” (3)

The symbols’ color told of moisture (blue) and temperature (red).

  1. Blue sun, general storm,
  2. Blue star, local storm,
  3. Red sun, higher temperature,
  4. Red star, stationary temperature,
  5. Red moon, lower temperature.

In 1876, the Canadian government was also using the “weather trains” to notify the population too far from the Toronto forecast center to receive timely weather reports. “Depending on the forecast, the agents would affix large metal discs about 3 feet in diameter into brackets on the side of the locomotive or to baggage cars appropriate for the region through which the trains leaving that morning would pass. For example, trains headed from Toronto toward the Maritimes received forecasts for eastern regions between Toronto and the Atlantic Coast.” (4)

The Sycamore True Republican reported in its January 4, 1878 edition, “By a new arrangement, the U. S. Signal Service reports of the weather are doubly valuable this year. Hitherto they have been sent by the mail from the Chicago office so that they arrived too late to be of much use. Now they are to be sent by telegraph to all stations early in the morning so that the weather predictions for the day will be posted at the railroad stations early every morning”. (5)

An integral part of weather reporting were the local official weather observers. Rosewell Dow became Sycamore’s first official voluntary weather observer in 1880. In 1900, Miss Edna J. Davis took over the position and served for eleven years. Observations included such things as highest temperature (and dates), lowest temperature, range of temperatures, prevailing wind, precipitation, clear and cloudy days.

After her resignation, George Valentine was appointed as the government weather and corn and wheat observer. The government provided him with alcohol and mercury thermometers, an eight-inch rain gauge, and a house with blinds and wings and other appurtenances. It was also his duty to report the wheat and corn crop condition during the summer months.

In 1904, the DeKalb County Telephone Company, in cooperation with the director of the climate and crop services of the U. S. Weather Bureau stationed in Springfield, IL, began furnishing the daily forecast to all of it subscribers. “The operator at each exchange will give out the report daily, and all that will be required of the subscriber will be a request for the report; and if a special forecast should come it will be sent out as fast as possible.”(6)

Methods of weather observation and forecasting have evolved over the years, as have farmer’s response to it. Specialized crops can now be planted to take into consideration the weather. While weather remains a very important factor in the success of farming, obtaining weather information is much easier and much more accurate than the founding settlers had.


  1. “The Farmers’ Almanac”.
  2. Skilling, Tom. “Ask Tom Why”. The Chicago Tribune February 15, 2000.
  3. Heidorn, Keith C. PhD. “Canada’s Weather Trains.”
  4. Sycamore True Republican January 4, 1878
  5. Sycamore True Republican October 22, 1904.