Sunday, August 01, 1999

In summer of '34, cool was hard to find

Seniors recall sleeping outside during city's worst heat wave

The Cincinnati Enquirer

        When the worst heat wave in Cincinnati history hit in 1934, families slept outside on the grass along Central Parkway.

        Ethel McCreary, 91, lived in the West End then, when the grass was watered by automatic sprinklers. Police officers would walk the street each morning to wake the sleepy masses.

        “It was a regular beat for them,” Mrs. McCreary said. “They'd wake them up before the sprinklers went off.”

        Sleeping outdoors — a safe adventure then — was among many ways Cincinnati residents stayed cool during the heat wave of 1934. Temperatures got as high as 108 degrees that July, and the stifling heat blanketed the Midwest and Central Plains for 10 days. Almost 1,400 people died across the country, 89 in the Cincinnati area. In a time before the modern inventions of keeping cool, the heat could take a devastating toll.

        Air conditioning had only just been invented, and electric fans were a luxury, according to six residents of Maple Knoll, a retirement village in Springdale with air conditioning.

        They shared stories about keeping cool back when every home, store and office was hot.

        “Not having air conditioning, your body sort of adjusted to the heat,” Mrs. McCreary said.

        “We expected to be hot and miserable in the summer, and we just grinned and bore it,” Martha Daniels said.

        Mrs. Daniels, 92, was pregnant in August 1934, and it was impossible for her to cool off. After her husband went to work each morning, she would lay a white sheet on the floor of their home in Bond Hill.

        “I would make perspiration angels on the sheet,” she said, laughing.

        Many people kept cool by sleeping on a screened porch or as close as possible to an open window or door.

        Dee Davis, 81, said people with deep, cool basements would eat dinner there and sleep there.

        Martha L. Gray, 86, was a 21-year-old nurse at The Christ Hospital in August 1934. Heart patients couldn't stand the heat, and many died, she said.

        Nurses tried to cool patients' rooms by setting buckets of ice in front of fans, Ms. Gray said.

        Mrs. McCreary worked through that August at Strietmans Bakery downtown, which had five ovens and no fans. It did have fire sprinklers.

        “Those sprinklers were set to break at 145 degrees, and they did every day,” she said. “The fireman would come and shove the water down the elevator shaft.”

        Ethel Knabb, 90, would start work at 2 a.m. on her family's farm in Springdale to avoid the hottest afternoon hours. She, her sisters and her father would take a break during the midday heat, then resume work in the late afternoon.

        Ingenuity was the key to beating the heat.

        Virginia Gasper, 76, bought makeup and painted “stockings” on her legs each morning so she didn't have to put on her heavy cotton stockings. She worked in the stockroom at Halle Brothers department store in Cleveland the summer she was 18, and she wasn't allowed to come to work with bare legs.

        “I would sweat, and the cosmetics would run down my legs,” she said. “My supervisor would stare, but she never let me go.”

        Mrs. McCreary's family moved the stove each summer from the farm house to a building outside.

        Wet towels hung in the windows of Mrs. Knabb's bedroom kept her cool after she had surgery in the summer of 1936.

        Families would hang canvas bags full of water on their car radiators to cool the air in their cars on trips, Mr. Davis said. They would travel at night with windows open.

        “The wind blew in, the dust blew in, the rain blew in,” he said. “When you got out, you could hardly hear from the roar.”

        Daily salt tablets helped workers in a Cincinnati foundry cope with the heat, said Ms. Gray, who worked as a nurse there after leaving Christ Hospital.

        Other rituals of summer included collecting ice chips that fell from the ice man's buggy.

        Mrs. Knabb pulled a little red wagon to fetch ice from the icehouse every summer. Her family would eat watermelons cooled in one of their farm's spring-fed wells. Children would run through wet sheets drying on clotheslines.

        Cincinnati parks filled with families during summer evenings, Mrs. McCreary said. “It was a ritual. You went outdoors.”

        Although they got used to the heat back then, they don't wish to return to the days before air conditioning.

        “It's baloney to say, "the good old days,'” Mr. Davis said.

        A drenching rain marked the end of the heat wave, Mrs. McCreary said. Families poured outsideand stood, cooling themselves in the rain.

        “We just went outdoors and stood there and let it rain on us,” she said.

        “We lived through it,” Mrs. Daniels said. “I wouldn't want to go through it again.”


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