It’s July. It’s Illinois. It’s hot. It’s normal.
But 75 years ago, summer 1936 was anything but normal for Springfield and the rest of the Midwest.
Four of Springfield’s 10 hottest days ever came during July 1936, including a then-all-time high of 110 degrees on July 14. That record was broken on the same date in 1954, which registered a high of 112.
The temperature reached triple digits on 29 days that year, including 12 consecutive days from July 4 through 14.
Nationwide, the years 1930 through 1936 were the country’s Dust Bowl years, when drought, extreme temperatures, and poor farming practices turned much of the middle of the country into a wasteland. Those years also brought heat — some of the hottest summers on record — to the country’s midsection.
In the Upper Mississippi River Valley, the hottest temperatures of the period, including many record highs, were recorded during the first few weeks of July.
50 deaths locally
The sweltering, dry days also were deadly. Approximately 5,000 deaths were associated with the heat nationally. Thirty people died in Springfield as a direct result of the heat, according to the climate summary for that month. The high temperatures contributed to another 20 deaths in the city.
Randy Hoover lived in Springfield for more than 20 years before moving to the St. Louis area, but remembers his late mother telling him about “that horribly hot summer of 1936.”
“According to her, to try to combat the heat, everyone in her house would sleep outside overnight,” Hoover wrote in an email. “Of course there was no air-conditioning at that time in homes.”
“She also told me that, to try to get even cooler overnight, they would soak their bed sheets in cold water, hang these wet bed sheets over the clotheslines and then sleep under these wet sheets to try to find any little bit of relief from the awful heat,” he said.
“And now my kids and grandkids just can’t get along without AC, right?”
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry Wallace, on a tour of drought-affected areas, cited “freakish” weather extremes over the past seven years and said the weather change might make the United States arid.
The good news was that Walgreen’s was selling 8-inch “Sea-Gull” electric fans for $1.59.
The heat set an all-time record for the Fourth of July when the thermometer reached 104.8 degrees at 3:30 p.m., the Journal said.
On July 5, it reached a high of 102.8, and 3,400 people visited the Lake Springfield Beach to try and cool off.
The next day, it was 102 again and was still 98 degrees at 7 p.m.
Sunny side up
Edward Strebel, a city policeman, drowned in the lake while swimming in an attempt to keep cool.
As the temperatures continued in triple digits, the city on July 7 announced that the beach would stay open until 10 p.m. until further notice (it usually closed at 3 p.m.). Springfield residents used 12.3 million gallons of water in the 24-hour period ending July 7, a record for water usage at the time.
Lumberyards advertised “rock wool insulate” as a means of keeping your house cooler.
Low temperatures were in the 80s almost every day during the heat wave. July 13 and 14 of 1936 had lows of 84 degrees, the hottest nights on record in Springfield.
The July 12 Illinois State Journal had a picture of fry cook Paul Burke frying an egg on an iron cellar door on South Sixth Street. He “cooked one sunny side up,” the caption read.
On July 14, as the heat reached its peak, the Journal had arranged — perhaps belatedly — for Dr. William Brady to begin a series of hot weather-related articles in his Personal Health Service column on the editorial page.
In addition to the 110-degree temperature recorded in Springfield, Pana had 110, Jacksonville 111, Havana 112 and Beardstown recorded 114 degrees, the newspaper said.
The newspaper had kept the weather on the front page each day of the heat wave, and on July 15 trumpeted, “Heavy Rain and Storm Rout Heat Wave.”
A storm that began about 1:30 a.m. July 15 cooled things off, at least somewhat. A second storm followed the next day – but the thermometer reached 100 again on July 17.
Officials said the Illinois corn crop would be cut in half that year, with losses estimated at $30 million.
Lack of vegetation
Several factors contributed to the deadly heat wave of July 1936, according to the National Weather Service Weather Forecast Office.
A series of droughts that struck the United States during the early 1930s parched the earth and killed vegetation, especially across the Plains states. Poor land management furthered the impact of the drought, with lush wheat fields becoming barren.
Without the vegetation and soil moisture, the Great Plains heated up like a furnace. Then a strong ridge of high pressure set up over the West Coast and funneled the heat northward across the Upper Midwest and Great Lakes.
A focus on soil conservation and new farming methods developed as a result of the Dust Bowl days have since minimized the effects of long-term droughts in the U.S.
Some of the Springfield weather records from the summer of 1936 that still stand:
- Four of the city’s 10 hottest days on record occurred during July 1936, including what was then the all-time high of 110 degrees on July 14, 1936 (that record was broken on July 14, 1954, with a high of 112).
Highs reached at least 100 degrees on 29 different days that year, including a record 12 consecutive days from July 4-15. By comparison, Springfield has not recorded a 100-degree day in the last 15 years.
Low temperatures were in excess of 80 degrees nearly every day from July 7-14, 1936. July 13 and 14, as well as July 26, had lows of only 84 degrees. These were the hottest nights on record in Springfield.
The Weather Bureau climate summary for that month reported that 30 people in Springfield died directly from the heat and heat was a contributing factor in 20 other deaths.
Source: National Weather Service
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