How HOT Was It?

Remembering record-breaking heat in “the good old days” before electricity came to the farm.

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Adobe Stock/Martin Bergsma

The summer of 1936 was considered one of the warmest on record. The extremely hot July was the hottest on record. The archives of the National Weather Service show that during the period of July 4, 1936 to July 17, 1936, daytime temperatures in Burlington, Iowa, averaged over 106 degrees, with temperatures of 111 degrees on July 14-15.  My mother, Marcella Vittetoe, kept a daily diary of her life here in Washington, Iowa. Excerpts from that stretch of days:

June 29: Got very hot and windy, burning everything up.

July 2: Went to celebration, not quite so hot today.

July 4: Went to town for parade. Large crowd. Hot as usual.

July 5: Very warm again. Went to church, then home for the day.

July 6: Another hot day. I washed; air very dry.

July 7: Ed (her husband) cutting oats, got finished in the afternoon. I ironed.

July 9: Ed sold hogs for $10.15, delivered in evening, very hot.

July 10: Putting up hay at folks’. Hot as usual.

July 11: Too hot to do any baking. Ed helping folks put up hay.

July 12: Went to early church at 7 a.m. Very warm, 112 degrees.

July 13: Still hot, up to 112 degrees again. I washed; baked cupcakes.

July 14: Very hot, 110 degrees. Had to borrow pumpjack and engine from Ed’s brother Francis to pump water as there was no wind for the windmill.

July 15: More heat, 108 degrees. Men started threshing in the afternoon. Lost three big sows to heat.

July 16: Ed went threshing. Baked cookies in the morning (on a wood-fire stove!).

July 17-18: Men threshing oats.

July 20-21: Ed threshing at neighbors’.

July 22: Ed gone threshing. Machine came here, had the men stayovernight.

July 23: Threshing here this morning. Got finished with the last job at 10 p.m.

July 25: Got a good rain last night. Mud looked good.

July 26: Way warm again, 108 degrees. Homer (the landlord) walked out from town as the road was too muddy to drive on.

I can remember that July 15 incident like it was yesterday. Dad came home from threshing, and seeing the overheated sows, told Leo and me to get our buckets, which we had made from 5-quart oil cans with wire handles. We dipped water from the horse tank, and Dad used a 5-gallon bucket. We poured water on and under the sows to try to cool them off. We kept it up for more than hour but to no avail. They got weaker and weaker; gasping for breath, they died before our eyes. What a trauma! That night at supper, I remember Dad and Mom discussing how they would tell the landlord that three sows died. They were 50-50 partners with him on the hogs.

It appears that they endured at least 20 days of very hot weather, with men working out in the hot sun, threshing in temperatures consistently above 100 degrees. No electricity. No fans. No air conditioning. Everybody just had to bear it.

I remember Dad coming down that road after threshing all day, harness tugs jingling, the steel wheels kicking up powdery dust as they crunched along. When he pulled into the lot, Leo and I would unhook the tugs and Dad would drop the neck yoke and unhook the lines. The horses would make a beeline for the water tank, plunge in their heads, come up for air, and then do it all over again. What thirst they had! After they were fed and the harnesses taken off, Dad would let them in the lot and they would roll and roll in the dirt, upside down on their backs. Later, we’d sometimes see them laying on their sides, resting for the night.

Meanwhile, Dad had chores to do, milking cows and feeding hogs and cattle. Supper was always late with such unbearable heat in the house. What a tough life it was for Mom and Dad! Us kids knew no difference; we thought this was normal.

That is what a 7-year-old boy remembers of that hottest summer. Nowadays, when we hear the nostalgia about “the good old days,” we forget all the good that has come with progress, like air conditioning in our houses, cars, tractors and just about everywhere that we work and play. Our animals now have fans, water misters and drip coolers, making hot weather more of an inconvenience than a disaster. What a change from losing three of our 20 sows in 1936! It makes it hard to keep quiet when you hear people talking about how great farming was “in the good old days”! FC

Wilfrid Vittetoe lives in Washington, Iowa. Call him at (319) 653-2720.

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