HOT AS HELL
By Dr. Earl Trevathan
Recently, my granddaughter asked me, “Papa, what was it like long ago without air conditioning?” My thought was, “Has it been that long?” I started thinking of the many ways we tried to “beat the heat” in those days, when all the doors and windows were screened and open, the ice was in an “Icebox” on the back porch, and those living in town had an oscillating electric fan sitting near a window.
This was before Roosevelt gave the rural people electricity in the early 1930s. Ice came from the “icehouse” in big blocks about three feet by a foot and a half, wrapped in a heavy canvas blankets and delivered on the back of a pick-up truck or wagon. The driver took his ice pick and chipped out a block about a foot and a half square and with his tongs brought the ice to the back porch, slinging it into the icebox. It was fun to follow the wagon and pick up the chips that fell to the pavement and then cool off by sucking on the ice.
I think children endured the heat better than adults. As a child we stayed outdoors all day. If not weeding the garden or working in tobacco, we played hard most of the day. After lunch my mother required us to rest an hour, during which time we were to read. Perhaps some of you remember Jack London and “Call of the Wild” and “The Five Little Peppers and How They Grew.” Everybody knew where the swimming holes in our creeks were. This was before swimming pools were built in our towns. Swimming holes were the best relief from the summer heat anywhere. If nature didn’t provide vines from a large tree to swing out over the water, then someone would hang a large hemp rope to accomplish the same purpose. Cheap recreation.
Sleeping on hot nights was a problem. The humming of an electric fan and movement of air helped. No bed cover was needed. Many homes had a large fan in the upper story or attic, moving the air to the outside. Too hot to sleep, adults often moved from the bed to the porch where the night air was getting a bit cooler, to get relief. The most common device for moving air was the hand fan. Every woman had a pleated, colorful fan in her pocketbook. Fans, with advertisements on them, were available everywhere.
In our church every pew had fans provided by Farmville Funeral Home, and they were put to good use in July and August. In the rural areas the Primitive Baptist Churches had large windows, and their services went on for two or three hours with every worshiper flapping their fans, trying to get some relief from the heat. Remember, in the early days there was no electricity. Fans served another purpose also. They kept the flies away.
People in the country usually had a shallow well that served many purposes. Well diggers dug about 15 to 20 feet down before reaching a pure cool water vein. The well was wood framed with a shingle roof and shelf space where the galvanized metal bucket rested. On a nail hook was a metal or gourd dipper for cold water, and that was a treat. The cold water in the well served as the refrigerator. In a half gallon mason jar filled with milk, one would tie a strong cord around the top and lower it into the water, preserving fresh milk for a few days. The icebox required attention. The melting ice dripped down through a small pipe and into a metal pan. Before it overflowed, it had to be emptied or else you had a mess.
After World War II, many vets married and returned to school. The University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill brought army barracks onto campus, creating eight apartments in each building. They wouldn’t pass for human habitation today, but at that time of meager means, my wife and I thought it was heavenly. The housing people supplied us with an icebox for the kitchen. We were on the second floor and could just about see our neighbors through the cracks in the floor below.
There was another problem we had to deal with. The icebox came with a pan to place underneath to catch the water from the melting ice. As busy as we were as new students, we would forget to empty the pan of water. Below, the Williams family would take their broom and bang on the ceiling under the icebox when it was overflowing and dripping on their kitchen table. We remained good neighbors, though.
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FPC’s men’s trip to Canada, 1939, with Jim Jefferson, Earl Trevathan, Gibbs Johnson, Ed Owens, Rev. Courtney