How mid-Missouri residents beat the heat in 1956

Sunday, July 22, 2012 | 8:00 a.m. CDT
These photos of 1950s advertisements, provided by the Missouri State Historical Society, offer a glimpse into Columbia summers of the past.

COLUMBIA – Long-time Columbia resident Janice Rehmer remembers well some of the strategies she had for keeping herself cool during summer heat waves before air-conditioning was common.

"It was so hot from 1956 until about 1963 that before I took a shower, I put all the undergarments in the freezer," Rehmer said while enjoying a recent afternoon at the Columbia Area Senior Center. "Oh, it felt wonderful, oh it was delightful.”

Cooling recollections

"(My keenest memory of dealing with extreme heat is) placing a sprinkler on the roof of the house to cool it down. The sprinkler had some cooling effect with the windows open to allow the cooled air through, much like a swamp cooler. It was a sprinkler that fanned back and forth like seen in most yards."

— Chuck Hamm

"In the 1930s there was no home air-conditioning. When I grew up nearly every home had a basement. We simply moved to the basement, set up surplus World War I army cots and camped out there. ... One difference, other than air-conditioning, between the 1930s and today was that now we don't have all the dust clouds we did then. Hopefully we won't have another Dust Bowl. For years afterwards, folks referred to that time as the 'Dirty Thirties.'"

Ellis Smith

"The hired hand and I were out, he raking and I was baling, when we got so hot we both stopped along the creek under the trees to cool off. As we were sitting there, Dad's truck popped up over the hill. OK, we are in trouble for not getting the hay taken care of. Much to our surprise and delight, my uncle had felt sorry for us and brought us a huge jug of lemonade."

— Alan Hamilton

"From the time I was 4 until I was 13 my family lived in a trailer. It was a two-bedroom oven in the summer. My brother and I spent most every hot summer night sleeping in front of our front door with a box fan blowing on us. Sometimes we slept on the tiny porch."

— Robin Wilcox

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Decades ago, folks had to get a bit creative to find ways to beat the heat. Many recall 1956, the last time drought consumed at least 55 percent of the United States. The 1956 drought consumed 58 percent of the country, whereas 55 percent of the country is in drought as of June 2012, according to a National Climate Data Center report.

Columbia was on its way to breaking the record for most consecutive days with 90 degree temperatures or higher, but now sits tied at second with the years 1980 and 1901 with 27 days after only reaching a high of 88 degrees on Friday. The record was set in 1916 with 33 consecutive days 90 degrees or above. However, high temperatures are set to return with a vengeance early this week with 104 and 105 degree highs.

Beating the heat

In 1956, air conditioning was just starting to gain popularity. In a Missourian article published on June 22, 1956, Joan O'Sullivan offers her insight on the benefits of purchasing air conditioning for the home.

"Whether you're ready for air conditioning or not, it's something to contemplate. I(f) you're considering building a home, it certainly should figure in your calculations."

However, air conditioning remained a foreign concept to most in 1956, so the community had to resort to other solutions. Marjorie Love, a longtime resident of Boonville, said her family had both simple and grand strategies.

"In Boonville we would sit with papers and fan with papers, usually in the dining room with the windows up,” Love said. But the family also would travel to Nova Scotia with her family to escape the heat of the summer.

"We took the trailer and the truck and brought our whole kitchen with us," Love said.

Those who had no escape destination had to endure the heat at home.

“I used to take off everything I could take off to iron that would still leave me decent," Rehmer said. "That’s what you did.”

Eddie Miller of Huntsville said even the nights provided no break from the heat.

“I remember lying there awake one night at 1 o’clock in the morning, windows open, of course we had screen on the windows, and the doors, anything to get some air, and I was just in a pool of sweat,” Miller said.

MU also offered relief by hosting activities in the air-conditioned Memorial Student Union "appealing to interests ranging from dancing and movies to a darkroom available for camera fans," according to a June 22, 1956, Missourian article titled "Students Find Cool Activities."

"The variety of recreational activities and services available at the air-conditioned Union make it a center where students from all schools and departments can meet, enjoy themselves and at the same time escape the heat of summer."

Even the Parker Funeral Home offered respite, as demonstrated by one of its ads in the June 22, 1956 issue of the Missourian.

"Unpleasant summer heat never distracts from the inspiration of funeral services conducted in the Parker Funeral Home. Cooling, modern air conditioning assure a pleasant interior atmosphere, automatically controlled for summer-long comfort."

Residents also frequented streams and other swimming holes, including Hulen's Lake which supplied "swimming, fishing and other summertime recreations," according to a Missourian article titled "Columbia Lake Facilities Offer Watery Recreation," published June 22, 1956.

Hulen's Lake also placed ads in the Missourian, urging residents to come down to Fairview Recreation Park to "keep cool" at the lake that offered fishing, boating, diving boards and a water slide.

In the 1950s, these heat tricks were all people knew when it came to surviving the heat.

“It was just hot and we accepted it," Rehmer said.

Supervising editor is Scott Swafford.

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Michael Williams July 22, 2012 | 12:28 p.m.

As a boy, I had a smaller pillow that I would dampen with water and place on top of my larger pillow. I'd lay in front of an open window and catch any evaporative breeze that happened to waft my way.

To this day, I still remember my first night in our newly built home (summer, 1963). Mom and Dad had actually put in central air.


Thank God for PV=nRT and all it entails.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 22, 2012 | 5:04 p.m.

Thanks for publishing (side bar) my recollections of the heat wave of 1936. I remember that 1954 also saw some very high temperatures. Training had to be suspended for a short time at Fort Leonard Wood. To get cooling in the wooden barracks at night, soldiers filled buckets with cold water and threw the water on the floors. By dawn, the floors were bone dry.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 22, 2012 | 6:40 p.m.

“I used to take off everything I could take off to iron that would still leave me decent,"

Remember the Readers Digest anecdote about the housewife doing ironing in the basement, still became so hot that she stripped off everything. When she could not keep her hair out of her eyes, she donned her sons football helmet. She had not expected the meter reader that stuck his head in the door. His words as he promptly turned and left: "I hope your team wins,maam!"

To my knowledge, the first air conditioning in Columbia was in the old Uptown movie theater, south side Broadway, between 10th and Hitt Sts.

(Report Comment)
Corey Parks July 22, 2012 | 10:23 p.m.

Ellis, Many of us still sleep in those old barracks even today on training weekends with no AC. I think the Columbia Public schools will all get AC before the Army buildings.

(Report Comment)
Ellis Smith July 23, 2012 | 5:42 a.m.



Soldiers pouring water on the barracks floor and there being dry floors the next morning is an example of "evaporative cooling," but not a very EFFICIENT example. Marines, Navy, Air Force and Coast Guard all have "bases." Army installations are "posts." The media have yet to understand this. The term "post" has a long and honorable history.

The names of specific Army posts normally begin with either "Fort" or "Camp." For example, "Fort Bragg," "Fort Carson," "Camp A. P. Hill," "Camp Dodge."

I'm posting that for the benefit of others who might read this.

(Report Comment)
frank christian July 23, 2012 | 8:16 a.m.

Ellis, Corey - My early 50's included an AF, 7 month stay at Bordeaux, France International Air Port. 8 man huts from WW2 were thrown together for us with a pot belly stove in the middle. Also present on the "base" was an unusually large domestic rabbit (kept fat by the plentiful vegetable garbage always available from the mess hall.), seen only occasionally.

A heavy Tech Sgt had put a foot thru the old floor of our hut, but the hole was never repaired.

Here is the snapper. I awoke one Sunday morning with the mentally disturbing sight of a giant rabbit, peering at me from a hole in the floor! Would this not make one wonder about the wines of Bordeaux?

(Report Comment)

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