Summer Heat on the Farm–Ice Houses, Long Johns & Drive-in Movies

Summer heat can still be dangerous for farmers and others working in the sun, but technology has changed the “thermostat setting” in many ways during the past 50 years. A farmer might turn up the air conditioning in the tractor cab, adjust the fans in the climate-controlled hog confinement building, and then send a precision drone out to check for growth problems in the middle of a 100-acre cornfield.
Things were different in the 1960s when I was a kid growing up on a Midwest farm. We knew the heat was on when the old timers finally put away their long underwear. As Dad says, “Long-sleeved, loose-fitting denim shirts and bib overalls were the uniform of those days. One neighbor never did shed his long johns. He’d just switch from wool to cotton in the heat of the summer.”
We kids wore T-shirts, baseball caps, and shorts when we’d weed soybean fields, but long pants were a necessity when baling hay. Not much concern about sunburn then—peeling skin, poison ivy rashes, and sweat-filled days just came with the territory.
When a real heat wave hit, Mom would set blocks of ice in front of a fan in the kitchen; and if we finished enough work around the place, we’d hop in the car with our cousins and head to the Hubbard swimming pool. Seven or eight of us then rode home in a hot, dusty station wagon with no air conditioning. The popsicles we bought at the concession stand dripped onto our wrists, and flies buzzed–but we had jumped off the high board and played “gonzo keep away” in the pool, so we felt refreshed.
Dad says we had it easy compared to the days when he was a kid. “Refrigeration was in its early stages, and the work was more manual. But we learned to adapt and live with the heat.” Here are some of his recollections:
–The Dettbarn family used to shock oats by moonlight. They wrapped a gallon crock jug full of water with a soaked burlap bag and stored it under an oats shock.
–Location was important. You could take a break while haying by lying in shade under the hayrack; corn crib alleys usually provided a cool breeze; and horses might submerge their heads in the stock tank while farmers sloshed their arms and necks under the well pump spout.
–Old Martin’s family had an ice house. The boys sawed 100-pound ice blocks from a local pond in winter and stored them in an insulated building packed with sawdust and canvass. Ice cream, cool drinks, and food storage. I loved walking into the bigger ice house in Zearing. A cool blanket of air and Abbey Roberts would hand us a few ice chips to chomp on. Occasionally, Abbey and Dad would share a cold bottle of Grain Belt beer.
–Farm work was tough—no cabs on tractors, but farmers had some protection from straw hats or an umbrella clamped to the binder’s cast-iron seat. Kitchens were also blast furnaces, but some folks had “summer kitchens,” small attached rooms that provided more air flow while the wood or coal stoves were baking meat or cherry pies.
–After a day of pitching hay, some guys headed for a swim at the local creek or gravel pit before stretching out to sleep under the stars in the backyard. On weekends an evening breeze might cool the kids eating popcorn and sitting on folding chairs while watching a Tom Mix western at the outdoor movie located on Main Street. We usually had enough money left over from the dime movie and nickel popcorn to buy a cold Coke at Harry Martin’s café, where a big, slow ceiling fan kept the air moving.
Dad’s right. By the time I was a kid, air conditioning was coming in, and technology–like grain augers and milking machines–was making life a bit easier. But we still used some of the old techniques from Dad’s era—with modifications: we joined other teens at the gravel pit to play rock music and do loops off the rope swing into deep, cold water; we went to outdoor movies equipped with cars, window speakers, and teenage hormones; and we occasionally shared a cold bottle of something that came from the Land of Sky Blue Waters.
by dan gogerty (top pic from; bottom pic from

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