Those of you that read this regular series know that I am from Hackett, Arkansas, just a mile or so from the Oklahoma border, and just about 10 miles south of the Arkansas River. It was a rural sort of place that did not particularly appreciate education, and just zoom onto my previous posts to understand a bit about it.
Since the summer solstice just occurred a couple of hours ago, I thought it might be interesting to see how we kept cool(ish) in the summer all those years ago. At that time, residential central air conditioning was just about unknown in my part of the country, with only the very newest homes sometimes having it.
It gets brutally hot in the summer in west central Arkansas. As the summer progresses, pay attention to the national weather maps on the news and note that very often the temperatures there are comparable with (and connected to) those in the very hot areas of the desert southwest part of the country.
As a matter of fact, there are several flora and fauna characteristic of the desert southwest that are native to the Hackett area. Roadrunners are quite common, and I have found many a tarantula. Prickly pear cactus is also abundant.
However, there is one profound difference from the desert southwest. In addition to being very hot, the relative humidity is often in excess of 80%. Even with lower relative humidities the heat index can be high. For example, at 96 degrees F and a RH of only 65%, the heat index is 121 degrees!
By far the most common means of trying to keep cool in the day was to open the house and use fans. We were fortunate enough to have a big old Fedders window unit in our living room and we used it during the day. My grandmum, however, just had some fans. She had one fan that fit into a window and that could be set either to pull air out of the house or to pull air into it. She, like most other folks, also had some box fans that she could move around the house depending on what she was doing.
We used box fans to push the cool air from the living room to the kitchen when we were cooking and eating, so we were fairly comfortable. When we got downright miserable, we would go to the living room and cool off for a while.
For some reason, kids playing outside do not feel the heat. I remember when I was in early grade school coming in from recess and feeling fine, then just melting after taking my seat. Part of it had to do with just not noticing the heat whilst playing, but lots of time we were either on the swing set, the merry go round, or on the slide. The motion from these devices provided airflow, with its cooling effect, even in high humidity.
The heat was really hard on the older folks, and it was not unknown for someone to die because of it. Some people at the time did not have electricity, so fans were not an option for them except for hand fans. They looked like this, except most of them were imprinted with mortuary adverts. Those were the kind that the mortuaries would give to the various churches for services when it was hot, and the churches would often give them in turn to people without electricity.
When my mum was a girl those were the only fans available for rural people because there was not such a thing as electricity except in the larger towns like Fort Smith. Most people then just did without any method for cooling except hand fans.
There is one exception: the creek. That sounds good, but in our area the creeks were mostly wet weather ones, either drying up or getting so warm that they were no help in trying to cool off at all. However, the year round ground temperature in that area is 59 degrees F, so one alternative was to draw a bucket of water at that temperature from the well and pour it on oneself. I am sure that this early application of geothermal cooling saved many a life. Interestingly, this concept is being used more and more for high end residential and commercial air conditioning. That might be a good topic for Pique the Geek sometime.
By the way, my grandmum would keep the milk, eggs, and butter in a sealed bucket in the well. It had to be sealed because if milk spilt into the well it would ruin the water for days, until it could be drawn out and replaced with new water. A few people were lucky enough to live where there were actual springs (water coming directly from the ground, usually on the side of a hill) built a spring house around it and used it to keep their perishables cool and to come in and cool off themselves when it got really miserable. The problem with spring houses is that the RH is 100%.
When I was a kid John Mackey had a little store where he sold candy, soda, odds and ends like batteries and such, and where the old guys would come to sit in front and chew the fat. John sold something else: ice. Not ice in plastic bags, but the big blocks of ice that used to be common for ice boxes (not refrigerators). People without electricity would get a 100 pound block and put it in the icebox to keep things cold.
To store these large blocks of ice, John had an ice house. It was just a heavily insulated wooden stud building, painted white, with a drain to allow the meltwater to escape. There was no refrigeration in the building, the ice inside providing all of the cooling necessary. He got his ice from the Wards Ice Company in Fort Smith. They had a truck that would deliver it to him once or twice a week.
His store was only a couple of blocks up the street from my house and close to my grandmum's house too. She and John were, as they said at the time, "sweet on" each other (they married later) and she trusted John implicitly. Sometimes I would go to the store when it was really hot and get inside the icehouse! It was dark and damp, but boy was it cool!
Since our big Fedder only cooled a couple of rooms downstairs, at night we had to use different tactics. Our house had an attic fan, and it would pull lots of air into the bedrooms (we only used two unless there was company). We positioned the beds so that at least one window was is such a place that a good flow of air would pass over the sleepers. In the summer it usually got into the 70s at night (sometimes when it was really hot it would get into the low 80s), but the problem was that the RH would go to near 100%. Indeed, what is why dew forms on grass in the summertime: the grass radiates out some heat, making it colder than the dew point, so atmospheric moisture condenses.
Regardless, the attic fan worked pretty well, especially if you were relatively cool before going to bed. This may be the reason that many people in warmer areas of the nation tend to bathe at night rather than in the morning. Bathing with cool water cools you off in the first place, so the barely cool and humid air does not have to cool you, just KEEP you cool.
One time I was spending the night with my cousin across the street and we had decided to get up in the middle of the night and eat some watermelon in the refrigerator. We were afraid that the light might awaken his parents, so we closed the door to the kitchen. That door was what allowed their attic fan to pull air over them, and in just a few minutes my aunt was in the kitchen, sweating profusely. If we had left the door open they would probably not have awakened, but cutting off their cooling air surely did! Remember, the RH was nearly 100%, so without a continuous flow of air they got hot fast.
My grandmum finally bought a window unit air conditioner and her sitting room became the center of activity for her and her neighbors. Window units at the time were not very efficient, but electricity was dirt cheap. Remember, in those days gasoline could be had for 19.9 cents per gallon, so energy was really low cost and the electricity bill was not really a big factor for most people.
My parents finally upgraded the house with central heat and air. Retrofitting a large, two story house built in 1913 is not a trivial matter. The house had 10 foot ceilings (high ceilings allow the hottest air to accumulate above where the people are) and transoms over all of the entry doors except the front door. For those of you who are unfamiliar, a transom is a window over a door that can be opened to allow for ventilation. They are usually the same width as the door, but short enough that a grown person can not get through it. It can be opened when it is hot to allow the warmer air near the ceiling to escape. You have to remember that when the house was built that all cooking was done on wood burning ranges with hot fluepipes taking out the smoke. The kitchen in our house had four transoms, one over each door. Two of those doors were not entry doors, but the kitchen was always the hottest room in summer, so it was OK to release some heat to other parts of the house to make the kitchen bearable.
Since it was a two story house, my parents opted to install two independent systems. That way they did not have to keep the unused floor as cool as the rest of the house, but rather adjust the temperature of the different floors according to occupancy. That added to the upfront cost, but the energy savings (by that time energy costs were much higher than when I was little) paid for it after a couple of years. I am guessing that I was around 17 or so when they added central heat and air.
To tell you the truth, it took me a while to get used to central air, especially at night. After a lifetime of relatively warm, humid air passing over my bed, I was uncomfortably cold with the cooler and much drier atmosphere for quite some time. I also missed the low hum of the attic fan and was awakened more than once when the central unit would cycle on and make a strange, high pitched sound. The attic fan stayed on all night, but the central unit would cycle and make that noise. Also, the central unit's vent was placed just so that the cold air hit me right in the face! As I said, retrofitting an old house was not easy, so downstairs all of the registers were on the floor because they had to come from the crawlspace. Upstairs all of the registers were overhead since the only option was to use the attic for access.
There is one really funny story about keeping cool that involves my father. As I have said before, he traveled as a automotive parts factory representative as far back as I can remember until he retired. At one time, part of his territory was in central Oklahoma. It gets hot there but the humidity was much lower. He was at some customer's store and it was really cool there. Dad was always curious, so he asked the owner what kind of an air conditioner he had. The guy showed him an evaporative cooler and explained to Dad that it used lots less electricity than an air conditioner. Dad got dollar signs for pupils and went out and bought one, hoping to replace the Fedders with something cheaper to operate, even though power was cheap then. Dad was cheaper!
He brought it home and installed it. After a couple of weeks my mum insisted that he take it out because it did not work. Since Dad was on the road most of the time, and they used the attic fan at night when he was home, he never noticed. He insisted that she keep using it, and she put her foot down (almost literally). She took him the the closet under the stairway where she kept her shoes, and they all were covered with a curious shade of blue green mold!
What Dad did not know was that evaporative coolers work very well indeed where the temperatures are quite hot but the RH is very low. Actually, they are often a energy saving and thus green choice for people who live in the true desert, or near it. There the humidity is uncomfortably low, and pushing air through a mat of inert material saturated with water not only cools the air by evaporation, it also humidifies the air to a comfortable level, around 40% or so. But in Hackett, where the humidity was already over 65%, all that they do is help to bring that RH closer to 100% with very little cooling. Basically, all they do in humid environments is increase the heat index inside the house! The warm temperatures and high humidity gave the mold a perfect set of conditions to ruin my mum's shoes! It went to his shop (he tried it a few more times before he decided that it really did make things worse) and the big, old Fedders went back into the window.
Those of you in, say, the Phoenix area might want to consider such a cooler. They use much less electricity than regular air conditioning, and you might like the higher RH in your house. But for those of us who live where the RH is above around 30 \ -35% need to stay with standard air conditioning.
Personally, I am quite the cheapskate when it comes to creature comforts. Since I live alone, I have no one but myself to please. In winter I keep my thermostat at 58 degrees or lower when I am awake and wear long underwear and layers of clothes. At night I lower it to 50 degrees or lower, turn up the temperature on my waterbed, and use lots of comforters. In summer I keep the thermostat at 80 degrees or above and as soon as it gets cooler outside than inside I open my screen doors and windows and use a powerful fan to pull cooler inside air into the house. The air conditioning goes off then, not to be restarted until it gets warmer inside than outside. The last thing that I do before being abed is to turn off the fan and close the windows and doors to trap the coolest air that I can have.
My electricity bill last month was $39.01. Although I live in a very low electricity rate area, that was a third less than last year, and the average temperature was a couple of degrees higher. This strategy works, but you have to keep an eye on the outdoor/indoor thermometer and make the transition at the right time. Right now it is 9:00 PM Eastern (I am actually writing this on Tuesday evening) and it is half a degree warmer outside than inside. Within 15 minutes I shall turn off the AC, open the doors and windows, and start up my high velocity Haier fan to ventilate the place.
I know that I have digressed a bit because I added bits that occurred after I left My Little Town. However, perhaps some of those observations might be good tips for some of my readers to cut their cooling bills this year. I am here to serve.
Please feel free to add your memories about growing up, whether or not in a little town. I know that I enjoy reading your stories, and from the comments that they receive, many other readers enjoy them as well.
Doc, aka Dr. David W. Smith