Hating the heat? Be glad it’s 2007, not 1936

Sunday, August 19, 2007 | 12:00 a.m. CDT; updated 6:20 p.m. CDT, Monday, July 21, 2008

COLUMBIA-In the summer of 1936, when 44 days topped 100 degrees, closing schools wasn’t even a consideration.

E.P. “Jake” Jacobs, of Columbia, who was 17 at the time, remembers sweating it out in his one-room schoolhouse in rural Boone County. Teachers would open windows, and everyone would hope for a breeze. And though it might seem an ideal setting for fading concentration among the pupils, Jacobs said the teachers didn’t have a problem.

“No, no,” he said. “They kept order.”

That summer, there were more days of 100-plus-degree heat than any other year between 1890 and 2007, said Pat Guinan, MU Extension climatologist with the Commercial Agriculture program. By comparison, the mercury this summer has crested 100 degrees only six days so far.

August 1936 was especially hot: A 16-day stretch from Aug. 12 to 27 brought record-breaking temperatures over 100 degrees, ending an already oppressive summer with more heat. A massive ridge of high pressure caused hot, dry weather throughout the United States and a heat wave and drought that has yet to be equaled in Columbia.

History has given this period monikers such as “The Dirty Thirties” and “The Dust Bowl.” Thousands were driven from their homes in the Plains states, heading west to California. At a time when no one had air-conditioning and few had electricity to power even the simplest of fans, people had to cope with the heat as best they could.

At the time, Jacobs lived with his family on their farm west of Broadway, on what is now Rocheport Gravel Road. It was the Great Depression, and no matter how high the mercury climbed, his family still had to run their farm. They’d get up at 4:30 every morning to milk the cows. Later, they would head out to the fields with a team of mules or horses, clad in big straw hats and long-sleeved cotton shirts.

As for the heat?

“We didn’t worry about it,” he said, adding that they were used to it.

Frank Oncken, a Columbia resident who lived in Hermann at the time, also remembers dealing with the heat. He said they “tried to move fast enough so the wind would cool you off.” He added that their sweat-soaked shirts actually helped with the heat, cooling them when the breeze blew through them.

The water situation was getting desperate. “Deeper pools in stream beds are mostly dry, or are lower than ever known before. Some deep wells are failing,” wrote O.R. Rogers in a July 1936 crop report for the Weather Bureau.

Because of the scarcity of water, Oncken’s family turned to the aid of a water witch. Oncken, who was 6 at the time, remembers his father would cut a green limb from a peach tree and use it to find hidden wells. He’d hold it tight, waiting for it to twist to the ground and reveal buried water.

Jacobs also remembers farmers having to cut limbs from elm trees to feed livestock because the pastures were so parched.

On Thursday, Columbia edged out the 1936 record temperature of 102 degrees, climbing to 103 degrees. But with predicted temperatures for next week in the low 90s, the records of the heat wave and drought of 1936 should remain intact.

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Ellis Smith August 20, 2007 | 5:28 a.m.

As your article notes, the 1936 heat wave was present in several states. We lived for days in our basement during the day, only coming up into the house occasionally, and for very short periods of time.

I'll bet that teacher and her students weren't discussing "Global Warming" at their school in 1936.

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