22 May 2012

Where Were They? 1936 North American Heat Wave

1936. The country is in the midst of the Great Depression. The Dust Bowl has ravaged the plains states for years. The world is on the verge of war. It must have felt like a never ending armaggedon to some. What could possibly come next?

Goodwell, Okla. Dust Bowl.
Chris Jones/National Geographic/
Getty Images.


It set records, some of which still stand today. Drought was rampant. Crops were destroyed. People died.

My knowledge of the heat wave that moved through that year is limited, so I will summarize from Wikipedia. You can read their article in its entirety here.

By late June, temperatures over the country were already exceeding 100 degrees F. Peaking in July, North Dakota recorded 121 F. Texas, Oklahoma, Arkansas, Kansas, Minnesota, Michigan, North Dakota, South Dakota, Pennsylvania, Louisiana, Nebraska, Wisconsin, West Virginia, New Jersey, Ontario, and Manitoba set still-standing records. The death's numbered in the 5000's.

Where were they?

This heat affected the entire continent, so truly, I could almost profile each and every one of my ancestors who were alive in 1936. That would take a while, however, and I just don't have that much time. So, I'll have to pick just a few.

Oscar F. Brown, my great-great grandfather, died in 1906 in Nebraska, and his wife, Frankie, in 1929. They had six children, and all but one saw the intense heat of '36. Except, none of them lived in the plains anymore. They were all in the Pacific Northwest; Washington, Oregon, and northern California. Bessie probably would have seen the worst of it, living in eastern Washington, near Spokane, versus the western half where her siblings were. She died in 1938, and had three children with her first husband, John R. Frank: William, Frances, and John Oscar. I know that Frances died at age 74, and would have been thirty-six at the time of this event, but I do not yet know when her brothers passed. They, also, would have been young adults, and could have easily moved on from the family home.

Back to Nebraska, looking at the Heerten family, my maternal side. Grandpa Heerten attended high school in 1935 in Keya Paha County, and the 1940 census finds him working on a nearby ranch, not too far from his father's farm. So, I know he was there, as were his siblings, and he was unmarried. Both his parents, John and Emma, would have seen the mercury rise that year. I wonder about their state of mind at this time... crops dead in the field, deep in dust and drought, no financial resources to speak of.

Emma Heerten with her granddaughter.
Abt. 1948, Alabama.
Private holdings of author.

Why didn't they leave? After all this hardship, and the approaching war and growing industry, why stay? Two generations later, and I still have cousins working the land in northern Nebraska.

George Clark Davis, Jr., sixteen in 1936, was bearing the summer in Birmingham, Alabama, with his two siblings: Martha and Patricia. Their parents, George C. Davis, Sr and Ella McGowan had been in Jefferson County since sometime between 1910-1920. He a Confederate sympathizer and she a native of Pittsburgh, would have made an interesting couple.  In his father's household, sentiments of old ran strong.  Would the city environment been worse than out on the plains? Cities generate their own heat; how would the children have gotten through day after day of intense heat and unbearable dryness?  How did a "southern lady", as my grandmother and grand aunt were expected to be, tolerate the temperatures?

So, where were they in the summer of 1936 for this disastrous heat wave? Everywhere. Simply because the heat was everywhere. There was no way to avoid it. Where was your family? I would invite you to share your comments or blog links below.


  1. Great post. My grandmother was raising my mom and her 6 sibilings as a single mom in West Oklahoma. It is interesting to hear the account from the last two sisters. One thought it was awful, the other painted a glowing community spirit. They were not at all alike. Optimist... Pessimist. : ) Guess we are same today. Wonder what they will say about the 2010 drought and fires of Texas?

    1. What a difference! Oil & vinegar! Thanks for sharing, and thanks for reading. A good point regarding current events, what will they say? ~ Jen

  2. I blogged about the 1936 heatwave, and other heat waves last summer at this link http://nutfieldgenealogy.blogspot.com/2011/07/beat-heat.html with photos! My family is in New England, and it was even hot here.

    1. Thanks, Heather, I'll check it out! I have several more ideas for the "Where Were They" category on my blog, it's certainly been educational to compare notes with my individual family.
      Thanks for reading and commenting! ~ Jen

  3. Interesting post. My dad was just a baby and he and his family were living in Los Angeles, CA at the time. My mom wasn't born yet, but her family was living in Brazil.

  4. Thanks, Jana! I appreciate your comments, its always good to hear other aspects of the story. Thanks so much for reading! ~Jen


Please comment! I would love to hear your thoughts!