“We didn’t have air-conditioning, electric fans or even ice cubes to cool a glass of water, but we survived,” wrote Houston town history writer, Ingrid Julsrud, about growing up in the early 1900s. An evening dip or swim in a river was one relief for those living close enough to a waterway. Sitting on a porch might provide more moving air than was possible inside the house. Shady summer picnics were popular pastimes for all ages.
The Houston ice wagon delivered chunks of ice to town residences that had ice boxes. When children heard the bells of the ice wagon horses approaching a home, they gathered as the blocks of ice would be split apart to fit the size of that particular ice box. There would be pieces of chipped ice they could enjoy eating.
Young folks living in town might walk uptown and buy hot roasted peanuts and candy at the Sanness Brothers confectionary store. “We often sat on the salt barrels in D. C. Dyer’s salt shed, beside his store to enjoy our refreshments,” recalled Julsrud. “Sometimes, we had a sundae at the corner drug store and, if we could afford it, a banana split for 15 cents. Then we were really splurging.” For years, Coralyn Forsyth was known for making “those delightful ice cream sundaes at the drug store.”
Nights might even be more sweltering than daytime; the heat may have abated, but so had the breeze. Sleeping could be a challenge. “We carried our pillow around the house to find a cool spot on the floor below an open window, or by a screen door, or on the porches.”
The hottest places were kitchens where mothers cooked, baked and canned everything the family ate except for some cookies from the store in the summertime. “They came bulk in foot-square boxes with a window in the front, so you could see what kind you wanted.”
Groceries did not come from a “grocery store” but from a section at the rear or side of a general merchandise store. However, in the summer, they shipped in fresh fruit for canning. Mothers also canned what the family picked in the woods, including black caps, green gooseberries and late blackberries. “We usually went to woods belonging to family friends or up in the Onstad hills to gather the wild berries. Our mothers canned everything,” recalled Julsrud. “It seemed like the summer was one long canning season and a very hot kitchen.”
What were known as summer kitchens were common, sometimes in towns, but especially on farms. A few steps away from the main house would be a kitchen in a small building, where cooking and eating occurred all summer. Summer kitchens contained a wood stove, cupboards or shelves on the wall and a table large enough seat about eight people. “There were many people to feed on farms in those days.” Julsrud recalls hearing a woman say, “I can hardly wait to get moved out into the summer house. It keeps the main house neat, clean and cool all summer.”
Outside her grandmother’s summer kitchen was a bench with a pail of water, a wash basin and a can of homemade soft soap. A towel hung nearby on the outside wall. Coming in from the field, the men washed up before coming in to eat. Outside the kitchen door was another large pail with a tight cover. It was called a swill pail, where her grandmother would pour her dishwater. When it was full, one of the men carried it down to the hog pen to mix the contents with buttermilk and ground feed for the hogs. It was gourmet dining for swine. “Grandpa claimed that the homemade soap in the feed kept his hogs healthy, and maybe it did. He prided himself on his big hogs.”
Her grandfather went to town twice a week with his wagon carrying three large wooden barrels, which he would fill with buttermilk from the creamery. “I believe he got it for nothing or very cheap. Farmers bought very little feed for their livestock in those days. They raised it all, and the animals seemed to get along fine.”
Thanks to Ingrid Julsrud for the wealth of information in her 1993 book, “Remembering Old Times, Houston During the Post Card Era.”