1936 Heat Wave Scorched Northville and the Nation

Week-long temperatures over 100-degrees kept Depression-era residents indoors and in lemons.

While last month’s incessant heat will likely merit more than a footnote in the weather record books, July 2011 pales in comparison to the scorching heat wave of July 1936.

The 1936 heat wave that gripped the nation for at least a week (longer in some sections of the country) caused 5,000 deaths nationwide and some of the worst crop failures on record.

In Detroit, more than 350 deaths were attributed to the heat wave that scorched the city and surrounding areas from July 8-14. Temperatures that week ranged from 100 to 104 degrees.

How did Northville cope with the heat?

The first mention of the heat wave appeared in the July 10, 1936 issue of The Northville Record. The front page article noted that, “Northville residents sweltered in a temperature of 104 degrees Wednesday . . . as the village experienced its hottest day of the year.”

The article further stated, “The chief danger in this area, farmers report, is to corn. Although there are a few fields around where the corn was ‘knee high by the Fourth of July,’ many plots are under normal.” 

With no air conditioning, there was little relief from the oppressive heat.

The Record article pointed out that “soda fountains in town did a rushing business as the drive to seek cool places started. Swimming places around the village have been filled and light, airy costumes have appeared on the streets. No cases of heat or sun stroke have been reported.”

By the following week, the scenario had changed.

“The severest heat wave in Northville’s history — seven consecutive days of temperature over 100 degrees — ended Tuesday, after bringing illness to half a dozen natives and spreading death throughout the nation,” began the front page story in the July 17, 1936 Northville Record.

Local doctors reported at least six cases of “heat prostration and sun stroke in Northville,” though none was dangerous. Dr. Russell M. Atchison, who was village health officer at that time, provided tips for “how to keep healthy when the mercury hovers around the century mark.”

Among Doc Atchison’s recommendations was to “drink lots of cool liquids, except when overheated, stay out of the sun, eat soft, cold foods and be sure they have not been left standing too long.”

The article noted that milk was delivered spoiled in several stores, and that the price of lemons, which were entirely sold out, rose to 60 cents per half dozen (twice the normal price). Lemonade was consumed by the gallons as residents sought to quench their thirst. 

“The heat, in the shade reaching an unofficial high of 103 degrees Monday, stopped or slowed up practically all activity in the village,” the article noted.  “Most men working at construction jobs were laid off, and the few that did brave the oppressive weather were forced to take salt pills to counteract excessive perspiration.”

In a scenario similar to the current downtown streetscape project, the heat wave of 1936 hit during one of the most significant structural changes to Northville’s downtown — the widening of Main and Center streets. Despite the heat, crews poured cement throughout the week to meet a construction deadline.

The Record article mentioned that the five hottest places in Northville during the ’36 heat wave were as follows: The casting room at the Independent foundry - 140 degrees; The boiler room at the laundry – 110 degrees; The bakery – 106 degrees; The Record office – 104 degrees; and The telephone office — 103 degrees.

The icehouse was a cool 42-degrees. Without air conditioning, fans and ice were among the top heat relievers. During the heat wave, several downtown stores advertised refrigerators in The Record. Among those were C.R. Ely & Sons on North Center Street that offered an ice refrigerator — requiring icing only once every 4-7 days — for $34.50. Schrader Bros. on Center Street also was selling ice refrigerators for $10 and up.

The Northville Electric Shop on East Main Street, however, pushed the newest in refrigerator technology . . . the electric refrigerator. The handsome Grunow models sold for $154.50 and up. If customers purchased the appliance in July, the store threw in a free bicycle valued at $37.50!

With August ahead of us, there are still opportunities for temperatures to hit “the century mark.” Should Northville find itself enduring another heat wave, consider Doc Atchison’s safety tips (still relevant today), stay indoors and stock up on lemons.






Marion Grigg August 02, 2011 at 02:30 PM
Well, its been said for a long time, when life gives you lemons, make lemonade!


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