For our Fourth of July family gathering on the farm, we set up the barbecue in the corn crib alley. Must be the concrete floors or the way air flows through the old grain storage structure, but it felt like refrigeration compared to the 100 degrees in the sun. “Always been the coolest building on the farm,” Dad said. He pointed to the nearby house, now air-conditioned and filled with his grandkids and great-grandkids. “It used to have a screened porch on the west side, shaded by trees. In the 30s we could survive the heat by sleeping there. Other families I knew slept in their yards just trying to catch a breeze.”
This year’s Big Heat has Midwest farmers worried about crop production and shifting weather patterns. It also brings out stories of ice houses, cool basements, and survival in the pre-AC era. Records are falling, but many still use the 1930s as the example of iconic heat. Farm work had to continue even in the dust and ruin of the Depression Era droughts. Dad was a young witness: “Old Clyde told me they were threshing oats on a beastly hot day, when one of their work horses suddenly shivered a few times, buckled at the knees, and collapsed to the ground. Heat killed him.”
Occasionally, farmers bought ice blocks from the ice house in town, but most would cool milk, water, and maybe homemade beer in well pits or storm cellars. Dad remembers, “Farmers might use those thick old crockery jugs to take water out to the fields. They’d wrap wet burlap around the jar and place it in the shade of an oat shock to keep the water drinkable.”
Members of my generation also knew old timers with peculiar techniques. We baled hay for a farmer who wore flannel shirts and pants tied with baling twine at the cuffs to “keep out the heat and help produce sweat that would cool by evaporation.” A few others wore long underwear through most of the summer heat. They were also the characters most likely to spin the heat-induced yarns. “Mighty warm in the barn yesterday. Old Bossy’s udder was so hot I had to use pot holders to milk her, and she only produced evaporated milk anyway.”
Some of the true stories were about as strange as the whoppers. Dad told us what happened to a farmer one hot summer night. “Myron’s father took the horse out to cultivate late at night because the daytime heat was too severe. He sat on the undulating seat behind the horse, above the waist-high corn, a full moon streaming down on the tops of the corn stalks. The wind rippled along the rows, producing a wave effect in the light, and Myron’s father became moon sick. Nausea got him and he had to quit for the night.”
Air-conditioned tractor cabs and climate-controlled barns have changed farming during the dog days of summer. When I was a kid working the fields, we’d try to adjust the canvas umbrella strapped to the tractor seat as we sipped ice water from thermos jugs. During chore time in the late afternoon heat, we’d throw bales from stifling haymows or maybe climb into a claustrophobic grain bin to shovel shelled corn into feed buckets.
When I was even younger, we had a small chicken coop near the barn, and in the summer it featured the rank smell of damp feathers, downy fluff hovering in the humid air, and hens clucking lethargically if at all. Maybe the heat’s getting to me, but I’d swear that a few of the eggs they laid during those summer hot spells came out hard-boiled and ready to eat. Must be time for a cool change. by dan gogerty