My dad used to speak of 1934 with a degree of awe --- as if he had survived a great cataclysm. And in a sense he and hundreds of thousands of other Iowans had, as record-breaking temperatures and drought heated the knife of the Great Depression, plunged into the heart of the state's farm-based economy, to the searing point. Southern Iowa was especially hard hit.
That was the year the state's official heat record --- 118 degrees on July 20 --- was set in Keokuk. Dad, not long out of high school, was working as a farm hand and counting himself lucky that he could find work at all.
The cartoon here was published on Page 1 of the Chariton Herald-Patriot on June 28, 1934. By this time it was becoming clear that the year's crops most likely would fail, but no one could predict just how hot and dry July and August would prove to be.
I've been thinking about this a little lately while complaining about this year's heat --- in the comfort of an air conditioned room. Then going outside to do a little watering (Chariton had only one reservoir to supply its water needs that year and levels were dangerously low).
By July 19, 1934, it was becoming clear that this would be a crisis year. The Herald-Patriot of that date headlined its lead story, "Heat Strikes 111 to Set All-Time Record in City: Seventh Consecutive Day 100 Or Above Is Experienced As Drought Situation Reaches Crisis." Here's how part of that story read:
"An all-time heat record was set in Lucas county today as the mercury officially touched 111 degrees at 3 p.m. This mark, which may go higher before the afternoon ends, exceeds by one degree the previously recorded record of 110. Only twice in 40 years, the second time Sunday, has there been a 110-degree temperature recorded at the local station.
"Today, Weather Statistician C.C. Burr said, is the seventh in a row with temperature of 100 or above.
"The unrelenting heat wave has brought a crisis to the drought situation. With no cool winds Wednesday night the corn remained "curled" and much of it will not even serve for fodder, farm observers declared. Today's torrid winds are continuing the damage and without immediate rains even corn on bottom lands will burn beyond recovery.
"Drought relief plans for Lucas county are under discussion by state and local authorities. What can be done to aid the farmers beyond the decisions that they can make themselves is not definitely determined."
By the following Thursday, July 26, the heat had let up a little --- that day's high was 84, according to Burr. But there still was no rain.
"Clouds, accompanied by a stiff breeze that continued during most of the night (Wednesday), sent the temperature down but brought no rain beyond a short-lived sprinkle near 8:30 a.m. Although rain would have received an enthusiastic welcome the withdrawal of extreme heat which allowed the first comfortable night of sleep in two weeks brought general commendation."
But worse was yet to come.
"Heat Touches 114 As Local Record Is Set," read the headline in the Herald-Patriot of August 9:
"All previous Lucas county heat records went tumbling into oblivion at 3:15 p.m. (on August 9) as the mercury boiled to an official 114-degree peak. The mark is but one degree below the new state record set Wednesday at Ottumwa."
"Off to a sizzling start Sunday with a mercury reading of 109," the Herald-Patriot reported, "August's heat wave is proving more distressing than that which lasted for almost two weeks of July. Since Sunday temperatures have not been below 108. It stayed at that figure Monday and Tuesday and zoomed upward to 112 Wednesday."
Despite the extreme heat, more than 5,000 people had crowded the square that Wednesday to celebrate "Children's Day," a celebration organized by Chariton merchants and others to take everyone's mind off their troubles with a parade, costume contest, games and other activities. Stock tanks filled with ice water were placed on the courthouse lawn to keep the crowd hydrated.
In the absence of air conditioning, many Lucas Countyans moved outside to sleep.
"After suffering through Wednesday's record-breaking heat many Chariton residents looked upon attempts to sleep during the night as rather a futile undertaking. After midnight many dozed off on porch chairs and swings. Others took pillows and bed springs or blankets to spread on their lawns."
"Sleeping on benches was once considered the lot of vagrants. Such beds were welcomed last night, however, and there were complaints this morning of wrinkled and aching backs. As late as 6 a.m. many of the downtown dwellers who slept in the courthouse park were rolling up their blankets. One tired fellow, distributed over two benches at the northeast corner of the park, refused to give way to the first warming rays of the sun. Pulling a cover over his eyes, he continued to sleep."
Workers in the coal mines near Williamson were among the few Lucas Countyans laboring in a cool environment.
"Varied types of cooling systems are being used in stores and offices with just as varied success," The Herald-Patriot reported. "One of the most popular plans is to place a fan behind a large cake of ice. Among the most successful systems is that used by the Lucas County Telephone Co. building where ice water is pumped into the radiators. It takes 600 pounds of ice a day but an inside temperature of around 80 degrees is worth it, Manager A.J. Adams and his staff believe."
A week later, on Wednesday, Aug. 15, the first substantial rain of the summer fell --- three-quarters of an inch in Chariton. The last substantial rainfall recorded in Lucas County had been six-tenths of an inch on May 13.
Both drought and heat-wave were broken, although there would be no crops that year, and The Herald-Patriot was able to report on August 26th: "After a week of cooler weather Lucas county received another favor from the weather man this afternoon. A pounding shower of rain fell near 3 p.m. and the clouds held promise of further moisture.
"Rains now will go a long way toward relieving some of the drought damage here. The principal help will be in revival of pasture areas.
"In the wake of a record heat wave, temperature recently has been below the 90s during the week, touching a low of 65 Monday night."