Fremont County, Iowa

Cold Winter, 1936
by Evelyn Birkby

View from the Attic ~ A Weekly Series
Fremont County Historical Society
February 3, 2014

How many of you were around in 1936 when the Midwest had what some say is still the coldest winter on record? Yes, Iowa was part of that bitter winter when the temperature was below zero for several weeks. That January began with normal weather, but the blizzard that swept in two weeks later brought polar temperatures that stayed until early March. On many days, even for several weeks, the temperature hit 20 degrees below zero.

Houses were seldom insulated in those days making them very hard to heat even on normal winter days. Windows and doors were not tightly constructed so let drafts in around their edges. Many houses were heated by a stove in the living room that burned wood and cobs with a cooking range in the kitchen adding extra warmth.

If a house had a basement that supplied space for a coal furnace, the pipes would carry the heat up to registers on the first-floor. The only way heat got upstairs, since warm air rises, to bedrooms and bathroom, was through holes in the first floor ceilings. The square holes were filled with ornate registers. That was it.

Children in the houses that had registers would vie over a preferred spot on those heat sources as they dressed on those cold winter mornings.

Imagine what it was like keeping the animals on the farm safe from the cold. Big barns were preferred as shelter, but some of the animals had to brave the cold and huddle together in sheltered spots in the pastures, if buildings were not available. Watering troughs were kept liquid with “Cowboy Stoves” set deep in the water (their tops were above the surface) which the farmer kept filled with wood and cobs to keep a fire going to melt the ice.

And snow, it was a winter of heavy snow. Snow, being light and fluffy, blew with the wind into higher drifts and frequently filled the roads needed for daily activity. No snowplows in those days, roads were usually scooped out by the people who lived next to them. Fortunately, that winter was also a time when the men from the area CCC camps and the WPA crews were available to help with this work.

I can only imagine the problems of school children walking to their country schools or even the ones in town on these below zero days. It is hoped that they had heavy layers of clothes. Long wool underwear was one of the garments of choice back then and I am certain those who wore them were grateful for their warmth.

Shall we talk about the outhouses? Just imagine needing to go outside to the toilet during such cold days. “Slop jars” in the house served the same purpose but then someone would have to empty these out doors at some time during the day no matter what the weather.

The winter of ’36 was followed by the hottest summer to date, but that is another story to share with you some day in our Attic series.

Evelyn Birkby
Honey Hill Books
Sidney, IA

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