Heat in 1930s Janesville blows July 2012 out of water

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Frank Schultz
Saturday, August 11, 2012

— July was the hottest on record for the lower 48 states, but not for Janesville.

The past month was cruelly hot and dry in southern Wisconsin, but July of 2012 doesn’t measure up to the 1930s in terms of human suffering, according to Gazette weather records.

Federal scientists say July 2012 was the hottest month ever recorded in the lower 48, breaking a record set during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

The average temperature in the lower 48 last month was 77.6 degrees.

But it was hotter in Janesville, at 79.56 degrees, according to Gazette weather records.

Even so, living through a July in the 1930s was worse.

Consider July 1932, when Janesville recorded temperatures of 100 or more for nine days out of a 10-day period. The 10th day’s high was 99.

July 2012 had only three consecutive days in which Janesville’s official temperature was above 100.

Remember that few if any southern Wisconsin residents had air conditioning in the 1930s. Shorts and sandals would have been considered odd garb.

What follows is a sampling from two of the Dust Bowl years of the ’30s and does not purport to be a historical analysis.

The top headlines early in July 1932 were about the raucous national convention in Chicago, where Democrats nominated Franklin Roosevelt for the presidency. Also numerous were Page 1 articles about what would come to be called the Great Depression and Prohibition.

The days of 100-plus heat started July 12, 1932, but got scant attention in the newspaper at first.

Then came a spate of articles on July 21:

“The severe heat of the last week seems to have done no serious (crop) damage here, according to R.T. Glassco, county agent.” That was from a four-sentence story at the bottom of the page.

“SWELTERING CITY AWAITS RELIEF,” read one headline. The heat “played havoc with the ambition of an already wilted public,” according to the writer. “Half a dozen persons spent the night in court house park, seeking a cooling breeze which failed to materialize even in the less heated hours early Thursday morning.”

It sounds as though the writer was one of those trying to sleep in the park.

The lowest temperature recorded at the Gazette during the night was 83 degrees at 4 a.m.

“Thousands crowded the bathing beaches, country roads and lake shores,” the article continued.

Yet another July 21 article detailed a rise in city water usage, up more than 20 percent during the heat wave. City officials, sounding quite modern, assured the public that there was “little likelihood of a shortage of water.”

All in all, local residents seem to have taken July 1932 in stride.

But the heat returned, again and again, that decade.

Janesville’s Julys of ’33 and ’36 were all warmer, on average, than July 2012. July 1934, ’35 and ’37 were all well above average.

July of 1936 was killer, literally.

A skimming of the newspaper in July 1936 revealed front-page lists of those who had died from heat-related illness.

And the word “drouth,” spelled like that, was a frequent visitor on Page 1.

The 1936 three-digit heat wave began July 6. The heat continued for 12 days, the high temperature dipping below 100 only once.

The air felt “cool” when it dipped into the 90s, one reporter remarked.

The temperature climbed to 107 on July 2. The paper’s lead story said: “The greatest activity put forth in the city was by those who sought to escape the heat. Goose Island (today’s Traxler Park) municipal swimming beach Monday had a crowd of 5,000, the largest in its history.”

Another article that same day from Madison:

“Department of agriculture officials noted a change from hopeful optimism to despairing pessimism in reports from county agents and other expert crop observers.”

Then on July 8: “Damage to crops is this area became more serious hourly, street and county paved roads expanded and burst in many spots, and several people were overcome by heat. …

“In many gardens and fields, leaves were entirely dried up and Wednesday were falling off.”

More from July 8, 1936:

-- Janesville banned burning, and firefighters had already battled three grass fires in the city limits.

-- “Truck drivers who service local confectionary stores with ice cream and cool drinks have been seen carrying five times their normal loads into stores daily this week.”

-- “Male swimmers at Goose Island favor trunks, without shirts. … Some swimming trunks are made of old basket ball pants with lining and padding cut away to lighten the weight when soaked with water. To date there has been no objection here to exposing hairy chests, such as has arisen on some beaches in the east.”

The city’s three biggest employers—Parker Pen, Chevrolet and Fisher Body—shut down and sent a combined 2,500 workers home Friday, July 10, when the temperature reached 108, the paper reported.

Then it got worse.

The mercury hit 110 on July 14 and 15.

The Gazette on July 18 reported 43 deaths from the heat in the area in the previous two weeks. Janesville led the list with 16. Beloit and Monroe had five each.

“A majority of the persons stricken were past 50, many of then in the 70s and 80s,” the short article said. “Several children died from the effects of the heat.”

The paper proclaimed on Page 1 of July 13: “Thirteen heat deaths in Janesville and vicinity were recorded over the scorching weekend, and the thousands who remained partially or wholly alive Monday on the eighth day of the 100-degree heat wave have little promise of relief until Wednesday.”

Last updated: 5:11 pm Tuesday, August 27, 2013

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