Keeping Cool in the Old West

I lived in Nevada desert without benefit of air conditioning for 22 years. We lived on a generator and since we didn’t run the gen during the heat of the day, there was no way to cool down the house. We lived in the northern part of the state, so the hot, hot weather only lasted for three to four months and then it was time to get ready for the cold, cold months. I loved that house, and our isolation, but summer months could be trying.

To deal with the heat, we’d shut down the house by pulling blinds and keeping windows and doors shut after 10 a.m. We opened the house back up at 9 or 10 p.m. to let the cool(er) air blow through. Most importantly, we slept in the basement instead of our actual bedroom for at least two months every summer.  I lived in loose fitting dresses. My husband, who hated shorts, wore shorts. Once the sun started to go down, we escaped the now super hot house and hung out in the shade of our favorite tree. And we drank a lot of water.

So how did people with no electricity for AC units and swamp coolers keep cool(er) in the Old West?

In the Southwest, Native Americans taught settlers to build homes with shady breezeways to keep air circulating. Wind and moving air was the one thing that could ease stifling heat. Some people soaked blankets with water and hung them over windows to create a swamp cooler effect when the wind blew.

Many houses were made with thick walls to keep out the heat–adobe houses  in the southwest, and sod houses on the Great Plains. Also, people understood the benefit of cool earth. I’ve read of people that had “caves” or earthen places to escape to. I think I would have sat in the cellar, if I’d had one.

During the height of the summer, people slept outside if possible. If it was impracticable, or too dangerous to sleep outside, they would damped their bed sheets with water to cool them before going to sleep.

According to True West magazine, one shouldn’t believe all the pictures showing people in dark heavy clothing during the summer months. People wore lighter colors and looser clothing to deal with the heat when necessary.

And, of course, people tended to work in the morning and evening to avoid the super hot part of the day. They sought out shade and drank a lot of water.

Have you heard of any ways that people kept cool back before AC and electricity? If so, please share. I’m going fishing tomorrow (waving at Laura Drake) but will check in as soon as possible. I’m hoping to learn some stuff.

Cheers,

Jeannie

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Jeannie Watt raises cattle in Montana and loves all things western. When she's not writing, Jeannie enjoys sewing, making mosaic mirrors, riding her horses and buying hay. Lots and lots of hay.

29 thoughts on “Keeping Cool in the Old West”

  1. Other than the examples you’ve discussed, I haven’t heard of other ways.

    In the East, larger properties had spring houses for food stores, and the old farmhouse my aunt lived in had one attached to the house. Some older homes had an attached summer house and the family would move to that side in summer months. But, that’s East Coast life.

  2. Catch big ones, Jeannie! Heat is one thing, but the humidity – I often wonder WHY settlers hit the Houston area and said, ‘Here. Here is the perfect place we’ve been looking for.’

    • Excellent point, Laura. Humidity is the worst. There must be people who can handle it or there are places that would have never been settled. And I didn’t even get a strike, but it was great being out on the water.

    • The lizard technique, Debra! Yes. I do that in the heat. I tried to explain it to my editor when Toronto was having a heat wave and now she calls me her lizard author.

  3. I’ve heard that the big meal of the day was the lunch (requiring more prep, more heat) and the evening meal was a lighter meal requiring less prep (less cooking). So taller trees for more shade around the house.

  4. Oh, I remember hot days while growing up, Jeannie! We had electricity, of course, but no AC. And only one fan. My mother would fill a big kettle (dutch oven size) with ice water and set the pot in front of the fan in their bedroom. Then us kids would sleep on the floor right in front of the fan, which would blow that cool ice water air right over us.

    It’s actually a fond memory, being lulled to sleep by that gentle whirring fan. The fan didn’t oscillate, of course. Not even sure they were invented yet. LOL. But we didn’t know any better, and no one we knew had AC, either. Each one of us survived just fine.

    Enjoy your relaxing day of fishing – and stay cool!!

  5. I have no idea how they did it out west! I know what FL is like in the summer with no A/C, though! And, you wouldn’t want to let in all the mosquitoes, so windows were closed unless you had screens! You’d also have shade trees, though.

    • I cannot fathom what Florida would be like in the summer with no A/C. Heat, humidity, bugs. Someone told me about a guy who tried to start a dairy on an island off the coast and had to call it quits because the cows couldn’t deal with the mosquitoes.

  6. Jeannie, it gets plenty hot (and cold) in Oklahoma, too, and my mom used to talk about how, when she was a kid during the 20’s and 30’s, of course there was no a/c–but my grandmother would take a big bottle with a cork stopper and punch holes in the cork, then she could fill the bottle with water and come in during the night and sprinkle the kids’ sheets to cool them off. I remember when we’d go to visit my grandparents and we’d carry out a bed into the front yard for all the kids to sleep on–what an adventure. Kept us cool, gave us such a thrill, and let the adults have some peace and quiet–it was a small town, no worries or dangers back then. During my growing up years (60’s and 70’s) we had 2 window a/c units–one in the kitchen and one in the living room which we used very sparingly. But we had box fans everywhere and an attic fan we used at night. I remember my dad’s parents had a swamp cooler and they’d hang damp dishtowels in front of it to cool the air. Mainly, I think a lot of water and shade were the best ways people had of cooling off in the old west. I see why the “sleeping porch” became so popular!

  7. Jeannie, very interesting. I don’t know you stood it living in the Nevada desert. Oh my! Growing up, we didn’t have an A/C or anything. It’s funny but I don’t remember getting that hot. My little sister and I lived outside back then. I think you just get accustomed to it and don’t think anything about it. We’ve gotten soft. Ha! Good luck fishing.

    • Thanks, Linda. I think you’re right about getting accustomed to it. Kids especially seem to accept the circumstances and look for a way to have fun.

  8. I too lived in Nevada. I spent a good majority of my youth there. I lived just outside Lovelock if you know where that is and my other growing up years in Arizona and Southern Utah. It was brutal. Combine the severe heat and cold with an allergy to sage brush that often turned into pneumonia and it was miserable for me. I really, really hated it fairly often. Fever in the summer… yeah, terrible. Water was our friend. We often had mountain lions (once a sick one terrorizing people and killing animals), packs of dogs, snakes, or coyotes and we couldn’t sleep outside when it was particularly bad, but we did sleep outside off and on. Water was a friend. In the body, on the body with rags or pouring a canteen or cup of water over you, and swimming. Layering with very thin layers was important. Hats were helpful. We used a lot, a lot of things to stay cool and also warm. Staying cool was always harder for me.

    • What a vivid description, Kristen! I can relate. I know Lovelock well. My husband worked just outside of Lovelock and we lived in Winnemucca and Paradise Valley. Small world!

  9. I have never lived in a house with air conditioning. If we get the temperatures predicted for this weekend,110 plus, I may wish I did have more than just fans. Our house is built into a hill so the downstairs stays fairly cool. I have often wondered what it must have been like for my husband’s grandmother with 4children in a tiny house (it is still standing so I know how small it was) and the big iron kitchen stove that took up a fourth of the kitchen floor space. The only tree wasn’t big enough to give much shade. The summer of 1910 she baked bread every day for a railroad construction crew working a quarter mile south of her house. How hot that little house must have been. They did have a barrel of water on a stand outside rigged for taking a shower at the end of the day. The water would be warmed by the sun. Just think, if someone hadn’t lived through those hot days air conditioners and fans wouldn’t have been invented.

    • My goodness, Alice. Your grandmother sounds amazing. Summers must have been so challenging! I hope you don’t get the temps in the 110 range. I’ll be thinking of you.

  10. Jeannie, great post! Reminded me of growing up sometimes without a swamp cooler and other times with one. The one thing that truly stuck with me, compared to today’s AC, is how wonderful it was to raise the windows at night and smell the wonder clean outside air. Thanks for a great blog. Hugs, Phyliss

  11. Jeannie, Have fun fishing! I’ve grown up in the toasty, Texas humidity. I can’t image surviving without a/c.

  12. From our time in Colorado, we learned that staying in the shade is critical in the heat of the day. Siesta was instituted for a good reason. Being out in the heat of the day isn’t safe or productive. There is a big difference between dry heat and humid heat. Humid heat is very difficult to escape except with air conditioning. The corner of our porch is shaded by large trees and catches the breeze from two directions. If the breeze is blowing, it is comfortable, even on a muggy day. I lived in the tropics for three years with no air conditioning. You get used to it and learn to dress in light, lose fitting clothing. However, during the rainy season when it is in the 80’s and 90’s and the humidity is 80 to 100%, there isn’t much you can do but sit there and drip. I did learn to bring my shade along with me. I think I used my umbrella for protection from the sun more than I did for protection from the rain.
    Enjoy your fishing trip and stay cool.

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