The Indianapolis Star, Aug. 5, 2011
Hard times in raging heat
1936 temperatures, hardships trump current weather
By Andrew Scoggin
Despite what the record books say, the summers of 1936 and 2011 bear little resemblance.
Yes, Thursday’s high of 90 in Indianapolis did tie the record of 19 consecutive days of 90-and-above temperatures set in 1936. With a high forecast near 90 again for today, there’s a chance that the record could be broken.
But Indiana experienced weather in 1936 that Hoosiers haven’t seen the likes of since.
That summer, residents withstood temperatures of at least 100 degrees a record 12 times, including a nine-day streak. There was a separate 14-day, 90-and-above heat wave earlier in the summer –the fourth-longest on record. And Collegeville hit 116 degrees on July 14 of that year, the highest temperature ever recorded in the state.
The summer of 1936 is the benchmark for heat waves in Indiana, said Ken Scheeringa, an associate state climatologist from the Indiana State Climate Office.
Add in the Great Depression, extreme drought and minimal air conditioning, and 1936 made for a miserable time for many.
As many as 5,000 people died in 1936 nationwide from the extreme heat, said Daniel Johnson, a geography professor at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.
About 500 people died from extreme heat that summer in Detroit alone, he said. Death totals from the heat that year aren’t available for Indiana.
But Ruth Sawyer, 90, lived through it as a 15-year-old on the Eastside.
Her family’s two-story home didn’t have air conditioning or fans, so they often spent nights sleeping on blankets in the backyard, rather than in their upstairs bedrooms. Her father, Emmett Welch, worked as an upholsterer, and she said some days he’d come home sick from the heat.
“Those were some miserable, hot days,” she said. “So many people were poor people at the time. It wasn’t just us.”
Few at the time had refrigeration or air conditioning, and fans came at a premium. Fans ranged from less than $1 to as much as $35, according to Indianapolis Star archives, at a time when the average U.S. household income was about $1,500 a year.
Sawyer said her house had an ice box to keep food cold, and an “iceman” would drop off blocks of ice to store inside it. Kids would chase behind the delivery truck, she said, to get the shards of ice that fell off the back. A Penny Ice Fund, ran by The Indianapolis Star and Salvation Army, raised funds that summer so needy families could buy 25 pounds of ice for 1 cent.
Sawyer and her 11-year-old sister, Blanche, spent most days jumping rope and playing hopscotch in front of the house, staying cool by putting wet washcloths on their necks and heads. Her family often waded in the White River at night, while her dad kept watch by shining the headlights on the family car.
“That was so much fun for us,” Sawyer said. “It was just like a million dollars, to get to do that and cool off a little bit.”
The summer of 1936 came in the heart of the Dust Bowl era, which by that time had spread to Indiana, said Johnson, of IUPUI.
That extreme drought added to the heat, similar to what’s happening now in the lower Great Plains, Scheeringa said.
“When it dries out, it heats up,” he said. “It’s just a big cycle that just kind of feeds on itself. It goes out of control almost.”
While that’s a factor in this year’s heat wave, Scheeringa said there are other elements at play. He said a cooling in ocean temperatures, known as La Nina, can push the jet steam farther north than normal, meaning warm air can spread farther north as well.
Sawyer said she likes the living conditions today more than during that summer of 1936 — at least in terms of the extreme heat. Now, she’s able to stay inside in air-conditioned comfort, like most Americans these days.
But among her favorite memories was a trip that summer to Madison to visit family. Her dad stopped along the way at a gas station and came back to the car with 5-cent Cokes.
“We were a happy family going through hard times,” Sawyer said. “My brother and I often say, ‘Weren’t we the happiest family in the world.’ “