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The great heat wave of 1936

July 31, 2016
Kevin Williams - Grundy County Conservation Director , Reinbeck Courier

As we began to experience and hopefully prepare for last week's blast of high temperatures, it got me thinking about my grandfather, Roy Warrick. I called him Pappy. He was probably the most resourceful man I will ever be blessed to know. I don't think that there was anything that he couldn't figure out how to accomplish when faced with a challenge on the farm. And he demonstrated that resourcefulness to me on many occasions as I had opportunities to work alongside him. When faced with a challenge, I pride myself in the thought that there is a little bit of that man and his resourceful nature in me.

I start out saying this because there were many times that as we worked, he would tell me stories of his past. I know that I am not alone in feeling remorse that in my youth I did not pay closer attention to the details. And I find now that my brother and I can remember the same story differently years later. I wish each of those stories could (would) have been written down.

Which finally gets me to the topic of the week. The hot weather. Pappy experienced the Great Heat Wave of 1936. And most of what I heard of that year is lost save for bits and pieces. People in that time period not only experienced that horrific summer but a decade of drought and heat (and extreme record cold winters to boot). It was the Dust Bowl era.

In 1936, Pappy was 22 years old and had welcomed his first child into the home the previous year. His dream of pursuing veterinary medicine after graduation in 1932 had been dashed as he watched his father lose the farm during the Great Depression. All I can think is that young people of that day had to have an incredible amount of resourcefulness and faith starting out life and families then.

So, I went about searching for some information on that summer of 1936.

And I found that seventeen states broke or equaled their all-time record absolute maximum temperatures during the summer of 1936 (still standing records).

Things began in late June. July 1936 in particular was pure misery. It was the hottest month in Iowa history. In Des Moines, 13 daily records for high temperatures in July were set in 1936. The capital endured a stretch of 15 days in a row of temperatures 100 degrees or greater. The summer of 1936 was the hottest on record in Iowa. It was also the second-driest. The 1936 heat wave devastated not only Iowa but the nation. As many as 5,000 people died because of the heat.

Around July 8-10 the heat wave saw virtually every absolute maximum temperature record broken for most sites in the Ohio Valley, Upper Midwest, and Great Plains, as well all the way to the East coast. During that time, Atlantic and Logan, Iowa tied with 117 degrees for their all-time highs. Des Moines was just a balmy 110 degrees. On July 15th the average high temperature for all 113 weather stations in Iowa measured 108.7 degrees.

And to add to the misery, the nighttime low temperatures were also remarkably warm. In Lincoln, Nebraska, the temperature on July 25 never fell below 91 degrees.

The only saving grace was that humidities were low as a result of the ongoing and prolonged drought which had been affecting almost all of the central part of the country for several years come the summer of 1936.

Then, after a very short reprieve, Iowa and Missouri saw high temperatures back to 100 degrees on Aug. 9. On 15 of the next 18 days, the high would be at least 100. It was 103 or hotter 11 times! On Aug. 18, it was 106. And rainfall through July and August that year - 1.5 inches.

In a 1979 interview, Rose Stoops of Grinnell recalled having some of her hens walk from the house to the (water) pump and die on the way. Sadly, I cannot go back and fill in the forgotten parts of Pappy's stories of that Great Heat Wave of 1936. But I have a greater appreciation of it and him.



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