Tom Dillard: Heat waves, past and present, sometimes horrendous in Arkansas

I have just come inside after spending three hours hand-watering my vegetable garden and flowery landscape. I garden on the very edge of the Gulf Coastal Plain, where the soil is sandy. It has the advantage of being free of large stones, but the soil has little organic matter, and water drains away swiftly.

With no rain in weeks and blazing daytime temperatures, keeping the plants alive is a challenge. But if I suffer a crop failure, no one is likely to die from starvation. To our rural ancestors, who lived by tilling the soil, droughts and heat waves were serious indeed.

The drought and heat wave I remember best occurred in the summer and autumn of 1980. Rainfall was scant that summer, and temperatures reached 100 degrees on June 30 -- the beginning of 20 consecutive days of 100-degree weather. Record temperatures were recorded across the state, with Alicia in Lawrence County reaching 113 degrees on July 16. Little Rock, where I lived at the time, endured 41 days of 100 degrees or more.

Trees suffered throughout the 1980 heat wave and drought. As the long, hot, and dry days persisted, tree leaves turned yellow before fluttering to the ground. While most healthy trees and shrubs survived the dormancy suddenly thrust upon them, many did not.

This was not a new phenomenon. During the devastating drought of 1934, the Berryville (Carroll County) newspaper reported that "the drought has caused timber to die." According to the editor, "on many mountainsides so many trees are dead, the forests have the appearance of having been ravaged by fires."

Berryville was not the only locale scourged by the drought of 1934. Cattlemen in most of the state faced a dire situation when pastures dried, leaving little for hungry cows. Fortunately, the New Deal stepped in and purchased many of the excess cattle.

During the last week of August 1934, some 2,610 head of cattle were purchased in Benton County alone by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The newspaper at Gentry reported that farmers were "well satisfied with the prices paid."

Interestingly, New Deal aid for farmers became an issue during the Democratic primary of 1934, with incumbent U.S. Rep. Claude Fuller indignantly asking his opponent "... how he could be opposed to a program that had brought relief to ... those who are suffering from the drought."

The 1934 drought was accompanied by a fierce heat wave. On Aug. 12, Ozark in Franklin County set a heat record by suffering through its 54th consecutive day of 100 or more degrees. On July 23, every weather station in Arkansas reported reaching the century mark.

Droughts were rough on cotton, the single most widely grown cash crop in Arkansas prior to World War II. The large network of local correspondents maintained by the Arkansas Gazette kept readers aware of droughts and their impact.

For example, on Sept. 21, 1887, the Gazette reported that cotton production across the state was down -- in Little River County, adjoining Oklahoma and just north of Texarkana, it fell by 50 percent from the previous year.

During that same 1887 drought, the correspondent from Pulaski County noted that cotton production was down by half; however, he wrote that the corn crop -- which matures much earlier than cotton -- offered a good harvest: "The corn crop is good and the prospect for 'hog and hominy" is, if anything, better than last year."

Harder to quantify was the impact of soaring temperatures on the psyche of those enduring it all. Having grown up without air conditioning, I can attest to the fact that unrelenting heat saps one's energy and does not encourage creativity.

The crime reporter for the Gazette wrote in June 1883 about the lack of crime during the ongoing heat wave: "Dull in the police court yesterday. A peculiarity of extreme heat is that it cools the passions of the evil-disposed."

The reporter speculated that "with the thermometer at 100 degrees in the shade, you can't arouse a bummer or a hoodlum unless you fill him with whisky 25 percent above proof."

A much more elegant description of heat indolence came from the pen of highly regarded self-trained ornithologist and Gazette columnist Ruth Thomas in the summer of 1943: "Today the thermometer on our north porch read 106. Hot winds blew, and I closed doors and lowered shades. The house was dark and airless, beyond the windows no sound. All life, I thought, must be drained of will and purpose, reduced to futile breathing."

As the heat wave persisted, Thomas wrote in August 1943: "Weeds and stones of the fields beg for water. Oaks are brown as in autumn; everywhere, waste and premature death. The sun is a monster, and at evening, sinking below the sky, leaves its breath upon the earth."

When I think about our oppressive summer heat, my mind fills with images of all those European immigrants who were lured to Arkansas by misleading, if not false, testimony from land speculators, railroad companies and state government.

"Those who are content to work," one immigration recruiter wrote in 1890, "can here have a comfortable home in a land where there are no violent extremes of heat and cold, and where the farmer can work in comfort every month in the year."

As you might expect, many of the German speakers immigrating to Arkansas found less than the paradise promised in promotional literature. One priest wrote that "during May the heat arrived ... Hot weather is the greatest trial for him who comes from the mild climate of Switzerland. Painful ulcers appeared on my hands and back. To console me, people told me [that] he who had ulcers would not suffer from fever. After all, they said, the heat of May was mild in comparison with temperatures of July and August."

Tom Dillard is a gardener, historian, and retired archivist living near Glen Rose in rural Hot Spring County. Email him at [email protected].

Upcoming Events