During another April many years ago in Orlando, Dr. Philip Phillips brought the rainmaker to town. It was 1939, and dark war clouds loomed over Europe, but the real sky remained bright over Central Florida. That meant waterless, worrisome weather for citrus growers.
It's likely that Phillips, the citrus king, knew about Miss Lillie Stoate because of her achievements in Polk County in March that year. Desperate after a five-month dry spell, several citrus growers had implored Florida Citrus Commission Chairman John Maxcy to recruit the Mississippi rainmaker.
'Crazier things than this'
"They asked me to give it a try, and I consented to help make up the $25 that brought her down here," Maxcy said in a newspaper report.
"The citrus industry has tried crazier things than this."
For her pay, Stoate, 67, had asked only for train fare from Oxford, Miss., and for lodgings, according to news reports. She arrived in Frostproof on March 24 and sat on a green park bench on the shore of Lake Reedy. By the night of March 27, a storm dropped more than a half inch of rain on Polk County.
"Citizens of Frostproof made preparations to observe an all-day holiday in honor of Miss Lillie Stoate," the Lakeland Ledger reported.
Some reactions were less celebratory. "Our own belief concerning an individual affecting the weather is that it's impossible," Jacksonville meteorologist Grady Norton told the Associated Press.
Not long after her triumph in Polk, Miss Lillie arrived in Orlando in early April. She made a short radio speech and then "was whisked away in an automobile of Dr. P. Phillips to Sand Lake, where she will seek to induce the elements to relent and pour down water on parched Orange County groves," Orlando's evening paper reported.
When Miss Lillie arrived, "the sun was shining brightly in a fleecy cloud-speckled sky," the paper noted. "Her vigil on Sand Lake may last for several days as she 'projects herself into the firmament' in a quest of moisture and relief for citrus."
'A peculiar power'
During her vigils, the rainmaker occupied herself by reading the paper, eating strawberries or just sitting. No incantations, rain dances or secret potions were involved.
The late Ormund Powers of the Sentinel staff recalled years later that Miss Lillie wasn't an easy interview. Her hearing was so bad that reporters had to write out their questions in advance.
She said she had inherited her uncanny powers from a brother who quit going on fishing trips because every time he headed for the water, the skies opened and it poured.
After the brother's death, Miss Lillie "felt a peculiar power come over her," according to one account. After that, to produce rain, "she would simply go to the drought area, pull out her umbrella and wait." Though she was a good Christian, she didn't pray for rain.
"I just have the power to bring rain, and I can't explain it," she said.
Headlines from the day after Miss Lillie sat by Sand Lake trumpeted the results of her efforts: "Rainmaker's Charms Work in Orlando" and "Rainmaker Brings 'Pennies from Heaven" — a reference to a song especially popular in the Depression years.
"Heavy rains and showers, which growers hailed with delight, poured down on Central Florida last night and today to put . . . a prolonged drought on the run," the evening paper reported.
Miss Lillie died on Dec. 3, 1946, according to a report in Tampa Tribune files, in her hometown of Oxford, Miss., also known as the home of the University of Mississippi and of novelist William Faulkner.
Her story was told in 2002 in a play, "Dr. Phillips and the Rainmaker," by Mark T. Mannette, which was presented at the Orange County Regional History Center. Mannette is now director of theater at Newman University in Wichita, Kan. And the name of Dr. Phillips remains legendary in Orlando through the work of Dr. Phillips Charities.
Joy Wallace Dickinson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or by good old-fashioned letter at the Sentinel, 633 N. Orange Ave., Orlando, FL 32801.