Beating the heat of summer before A/C

How did we cope with the extreme heat and humidity before we had air conditioning? I have thought of that more than once during this summer’s unrelenting heat. Well, to begin with we opened the windows and doors wide to let in any breeze that might come through — but only if there were screens on the openings. As it was, the screens would be covered with flies and mosquitoes. Out on the farm, if someone came to the door, my mother would take a big white dishtowel, open the screen door a few inches and then start whipping the towel at the bugs that immediately tried to get in. The visitor would sneak around the lashing towel and step inside. Of course, a few bugs made it in also.

It was especially hard during threshing time — which was usually during the hottest time of the summer — when my mother had to cook for the threshing crew. They were working hard and needed a substantial breakfast, a big noon meal, and a somewhat smaller dinner in the evening. And then, of course, lunches served to them out in the field. This meant that the kitchen wood-burning stove was in full action all day long. Bread was made from scratch, meat, cake and cookies baked in the oven, potatoes, gravy, and vegetables were cooked on top of the stove. There was absolutely no escape from the over-heated kitchen with an already hot temperature outside. In the much earlier days, farms had a summer kitchen, completely separate from the house where the baking and cooking was done. But for some reason that practice did not continue on into the ’30s and ’40s.

Sometimes people would retreat to the basement, but since these were not finished it meant that you sat in the damp surrounded by rock walls, not much light and crawly things on the floor.

Most farms had hammocks hung between two trees in the grove. This was OK, but again, without much of a breeze and constantly swiping away the flying bugs, it was not a real answer — and of course, who had time to lazily lie in a hammock when there was work to be done? One possible diversion from the heat was to have water fights. After the noon meal, my father would lie down on the kitchen floor and take a short nap. That is when I would run out to the stock tank and fill a pail with water, return to the house and wait for my brothers to come outside — then throw the water from the pail on them. Then, they in turn would do the same back to me — and they always caught me even if I ran down the road to escape the “shower.” After we got running water, the person who could get to the hose first was unbeatable. Even though we tried to escape being dunked or sprayed with water, it was also very cooling.

One time the neighbor boy and I decided to make our own swimming pool, so we emptied the stock tank, scrubbed it out, then refilled it with clean water. By the time we had done all of this it was near the end of the day and the cattle returned from the pasture to get a drink from the water tank — and that ended that. We did not live near a lake or a river so we could not escape to the coolness of that water. Time out for swimming or even swimming lessons? No way, we were farm kids and had to do our chores, besides there was no one that could stop work long enough to drive us into town for such a frivolous thing.

When evening came and it was time to go to bed, we found our bedrooms too stifling hot to be able to go to sleep. So we would move out to the open porch (no screens), lie on the floor, or try to lie on the ground outside. There again, we had to fight off the mosquitoes. I often took a saltshaker with me to rub some salt onto the bites, which helped to take way the itch, but certainly was not good for my skin.

So, there just was no way to beat the heat and humidity, no matter how we tried. All we could do was be tough, get through it, and console ourselves with the thought that, “It could always be worse.”