Summer 75 years ago set standard for misery
Anna Mary Landauer remembers that during the hot, dry summer of 1936, calves on adjoining property found Stranger Creek to be no barrier.
“The creek was so low, the neighbor who lived across the creek, his calves would come across the creek and suck our cows dry because they didn’t have anything else to eat,” Landauer said. “When mom went to milk the cows, they would be dry.”
Landauer said her mother, Corline Doege, responded by locking the neighbor’s calves in her barn, a move that touched off a feud that further heated up the summer on the family homestead north of Tonganoxie.
The 1930s collectively have become known as “The Dirty Thirties” for the prolonged drought that exacerbated the deprivations of the Great Depression on the Great Plains. The extreme weather conditions, combined with misguided farming practices, combined to create the Dust Bowl on the High Plains of western Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, Colorado, New Mexico, Nebraska and the Dakotas, chasing thousands of farm families off their land and giving rise to the desperate migration that became the source for John Steinbeck’s novel “The Grapes of Wrath.”
Conditions didn’t get that bad in northeastern Kansas, but the summer of 75 years ago set the bar for misery here and many places in the United States. As of 2006, the record high temperatures in 15 states were set in that summer 75 years ago.
“It was a bad time,” remembers 88-year-old John Lenahan, who spent the 1930s living in a family home on Tonganoxie’s Eighth Street.
A story in the July 2, 1936, Tonganoxie Mirror reported June passed with 0.80 inches of rain. So far that year, Tonganoxie had recorded 10.28 inches of rainfall compared to “the normal” 18.15, the newspaper reported. Most of the rain came in April and May.
The newspaper’s editor, Walt Neibarger, busy in an unsuccessful attempt to wrest the Republican nomination from U.S. Senator Arthur Capper, didn’t report temperatures. Ten miles to the south, the editor of the Eudora News did. There, the summer’s first triple-digit temperatures were recorded in June. Before the three summer months of June, July and August were over, there would be a record 54 days of 100-degree-plus temperatures. Nine days would exceed 110 and the state’s all-time high of 121 degrees was recorded July 18 in Fredonia and July 24 in Alton.
“We used to lie in bed at night and pray for a breeze,” Lenahan said. “There was no air conditioning, of course. We used to climb on a haystack and hope to catch a breeze. We’d spend the night there and pray for some dew.”
Landauer was a business college student in Kansas City, Mo., that summer, sharing a room in a Sisters of Charity rooming house with Tonganoxie schoolmate Anna May Ronan and a young woman from Missouri. She remembers crowding near the windows of the room desperate to catch the elusive cooling breeze.
“We didn’t even have fans,” she said. “I can’t remember anything being cool.”
Weekend nights spent on the family farm were better, she said. The family slept on a southern screened porch with wet sheets catching the cross breeze made from opening the doors to the north, she said.
On July 2, The Mirror was reporting a good wheat harvest but warned that rains were needed soon to save the corn and other fall crops. Still Neibarger dismissed talk of another drought summer such as 1934, noting that July typically produced sufficient rain in Kansas.
When it became clear in the first few weeks of July that those typical rains weren’t coming, State Farm Bureau agents, the Extension agents of the day, advised farmers to put wheat and oat straw away for fodder. That’s what her family did, Landauer said. Her mom and many other farmers soon decided to salvage something from their failing cornfields.
“We didn’t have any corn, and that was all put up for silage,” she said. “Mom usually always worked it out. If we had a lot of feed, we fed good. If not, we feed the cows what we could.
“The pastures were all dried up, too. Walking on grass pastures was like walking on dry straw.”
His father lost his farm early in the Depression, Lenahan said. Still, he kept cows, and it was his son’s job to keep them fed.
“He kept some livestock around where he could find some place to rent,” he said. “I was herding cows anywhere we could find grass. We got the cows through the summer pretty well. It seemed like there was always something for the cows to eat in the grader ditches. Along old (U.S.) 40, it seemed like grass would grow where it wouldn’t anywhere else.
“It was pretty tricky. We had to worry about water, too.”
On July 23, the The Mirror reported many ponds and wells had gone dry and in town residents had given up on lawns, flowerbeds and some gardens. A week later, Tonganoxie Fire Chief Fred Angell asked residents to conserve water, to take all precautions against setting fires and not to burn trash unattended.
Her family was lucky in regard to water supply, Landauer said, because of a well near Stranger Creek, which was later covered over by Leavenworth County Road 5.
“In the dry years, it never went dry,” she said. “Everybody who was short on water would come get water from it. People would come with buckets, water for steam engines, everything.”
The summer was plagued by one other misery often associated with drought — grasshoppers. The Mirror started warning of their arrival in June. By July the paper was reporting clouds of the pests picking over the sun-baked fields and gardens.
“They really put the top on it,” Lenahan said. “They ate my straw hat. I put the hat on a post when I was herding cows. When I got back all that was left was the brim around the bottom.”
Landauer’s family tried to keep grasshoppers out of fields by treating trenches plowed around their edges with poison the Farm Bureau made available.
“It helped some,” she said. “Of course, grasshoppers do a lot of hopping, too.”
Grasshoppers would eat holes on clothes left on the lines too long or curtains if they were brought inside, Landauer said.
As the summer wore on, people looked for ways to cope with the heat. The Aug. 20 issue of The Mirror reported on two attempts: “Tonganoxie business houses have been trying to conquer the week’s oppressive heat in various ways; from a air conditioning system of an electric fan blowing though a box filled with wet excelsior at the Post Office, to Miss Spoor sitting blissfully behind a wet Turkish towel, which is bellowing in the breeze of her fan at Spoor and Wager’s store, and thermometer there hanging in above 100.”
Kansas City, Mo., recorded its highest-ever temperature of 113 on Aug. 14, 1936. The heat drove many to sleep at Swope and Penn Valley parks.
The heat began to lift in September. In its first issue of that month, The Mirror reported .61 of an inch of rain fell on Sept. 1, as much as the entire month of August.
Rains would continue in the fall, even delaying harvest, as the Tonganoxie High School football team would win the Kaw Valley League with an undefeated record. But it was the dry and torrid summer months that combined with the hard times that made an impression on those who lived through them.
“We aren’t seeing bad times, yet, compared to those days,” Lenahan said.