Despite three digit temperature readings, most folks in America’s South live, work, and sleep in cool comfort. We drive around in chilled vehicles; shop in climate-controlled stores, and sit on pews in cold churches. My grandchildren and great-grandchildren have no clue that homes, businesses, churches, theaters, and schools were once hot boxes filled with sweltering humidity during summer months. My daughters likely remember their early days when we traveled with car windows down and slept under a fan blowing across our beds. But the memory is faint. In fact, it’s dim even for me.
Arkansas historian Tom Dillard wrote recently that the electric fan was invented in 1882. However, most people in rural Arkansas—or rural anywhere—did not have electricity. While I never experienced life without electrical power to our home, I remember summertime when doors and windows were opened wide to capture any breeze that floated through the sultry air. My childhood home had a screened porch and I spent hours trying to beat the heat in our creaking old porch swing. Outside our kitchen, we also had a screened back porch and we moved our dining table to that area for summer meals. Still, we sweated!
Neighbors sat on porches or in lawn chairs in the grass on summer nights. Children played hide and seek and caught lightning bugs to drop in a Mason jar and cover with a metal lid poked with air holes. Sometimes my dad turned the crank on an old-fashioned ice cream freezer—or we had slices of cold watermelon. But then, we had to go inside to sleep. Bed sheets, clammy with humidity, clung to our legs like a damp towel. Some folks moved their beds to a sleeping porch. Still, summer nights stretched over dark hours with little comfortable sleep.
In churches on Sunday, we fanned ourselves with a cardboard square attached to a thin stick—usually with advertisements for our local funeral home printed on the back. Although bare legs were improper for morning worship in my growing up, we younger girls eventually parted with stockings in summer’s worst heat. Yet, I remember my skirt clinging to my sticky, perspiring legs while the back of my dress stuck to the wooden pew. Concentration on the sermon was limited while I hoped that my dad—or my grown-up cousin—would take me to the river to swim that afternoon.
Historian Dillard pointed out that Willis Haviland Carrier, an engineer from New York, first designed and implemented an air-conditioning system that controlled both temperature and humidity. For years, neighbors in Heber Springs owned a propane business and sold Carrier air-conditioning units. I had no clue a man named Carrier actually invented the system. However, the “comfort cooling,” as it was first called applied mostly to businesses. In 1931, freon, a safer and cheaper refrigerant was invented and more stores and theaters advertised their cool air. I remember when the Gem, our local movie house, became air-conditioned. My whole family would go to a movie in the evening just to get cool! As a pre-teen, I visited a great uncle and aunt in Oklahoma City. They had no air-conditioning in their apartment. Aunt Ethel worked each day at a drug store, so Uncle Grover and I were on our own until time to pick her up. We often went to the multi-leveled Sears store and walked around because it had air-conditioning. Still, according to Dillard, as late as 1950, home air-conditioning accounted for only five percent of the nation’s climate-controlled buildings. In 1951, an affordable window unit came on the market. By 1960, about 15 percent of Arkansas homes had at least one window unit. However, not in our home.
Central home air-conditioning was rare in the beginning. I remember the family I mentioned who owned a Carrier dealership were the first ones I knew in town to have an air-conditioned home. The number of Arkansas houses with air-conditioning grew to 71.3 percent by 1980—and we were probably among those statistics. By 1982, we bought our first fifth-wheel RV and would not have considered one without a roof air-conditioning unit. Today, approximately 97 percent of Arkansas families live in air-conditioned houses or apartments. We consider air-conditioning a necessity—and certainly my great-grandchildren would never believe that once we did not have it.
Historian Ray Arsenault summed up the impact cool air has had on Arkansas—and the entire South: “Air conditioning has changed the Southern way of life, influencing everything from architecture to sleeping habits.” Indeed. We are no longer a “porch-sitting” people. We stay inside our homes with windows and doors—and even draperies—closed. We hurry from our cool homes to our cool cars and to our cool restaurants, stores, theaters, schools, and churches. In Heber Springs, our river was dammed, forming Greers Ferry Lake. So if we go for a cooling dip, it’s usually a jump off a cliff into the lake’s deep waters or on a tube pulled behind a boat. No one swings from a cable attached to a riverbank tree and drops into the old swimming hole. Heat plus humidity still spells summer, but air-conditioning has altered our Southern lifestyle.
Traveling in their motorhome several months each year, Arline and her photographer husband, Lee Smith, make their permanent home in Heber Springs, Arkansas. She currently is a presenter for Workamper Rendezvous, sponsored by Workamper News. Arline has dozens of magazine articles published, as well as five books: “Road Work: The Ultimate RVing Adventure” (now available on Kindle); “Road Work II: The RVer’s Ultimate Income Resource Guide”; “Truly Zula; When Heads & Hearts Collide”; and “The Heart of Branson”, a history of the families who started the entertainment town and those who sustain it today. Visit Arline’s personal blog at ArlineChandler.Blogspot.com