The heat of summer is beginning to fade in the rear-view window, but it is a memory that we can take with us into the fall and winter seasons when staying warm becomes the focus. Keeping cool this summer inspired the storytellers who are past-sixty to tell many tear-jerking stories: “When I was young, we did not have central air, air conditioned cars, and cool places to shop. We were tough.” Truth is, we also did not have vast areas of concrete/paving that make us feel hotter now than then. Folks used lawn chairs, sat under shade trees, and even ate on picnic tables in their own back yards, and children played outside. Hand-held beautiful fans of Spanish dancers perhaps inspired “funeral home” fans with Bible pictures on the front and advertising on the back. Electric fans were all the rage and ranged in size from small to big box fans that sat on the floor. Window fans came into vogue right before air conditioners. Ours fit into our dining room window. We closed all the other windows, and hot air from the outside was blown across the bedrooms when the bedroom windows were lifted halfway.
A couple of stories about these fans illustrate how times have changed. In 1954 several of my friends and I went to Auburn to band camp with Fess Simpkins and other SHS band members. Nan Wooten and I were big friends and roomed together in a new women’s housing building which was not air conditioned. Nan brought along a very small, very old, fan which oscillated and potentially would keep us cooler by giving each of us a momentary breath of air. She neglected to mention that the fan “walked.” The first night we were rudely awakened by the noise made as the fan fell right into the metal trash can beside the bed (before fans had the blade guards added later). The remainder of the week after we recovered from the noisy scare that first night was spent experimenting with methods of stopping the fan from leaving the table.
At our home a window fan in the dining room proved to be the instrument that gave me my first “nursing” experience when my dad inadvertently bumped the switch to the on position while cleaning the blades and sent me escorting my Dad on a walk to the emergency room at Sylacauga Hospital across the lot behind our house. In 1980 at B.B. Comer, there was no air conditioning in my classroom, and room moms brought big noisy fans to give us relief. In the late 40’s and 50’s the school term ended about May 26 and started September 9, and schools did not have to contend with August temps near 100. Too hot inside and too hot outside is tough!
Staying warm was not so easy in those days either, but strangely enough, good memories were made sitting by the fireplace or the “warm morning heater,” and I have no horror stories about how cold we were. We had plenty of quilts for cover. I remember popping corn in that long-handled popper that we shook as we held it over the coals in the fireplace. Sometimes we cracked nuts on the hearth, and the shells popped if you threw them into the fire. I remember my family sitting together there, even the dogs jockeying for position. Fireplaces are messy, and we often did not have wood so Daddy kept a decent amount of coal. A nice pile of coal was delivered to the backyard by Marble City Coal and Ice Company. Ray McDiarmid remembers it was owned by the Barfields. We had a coal scuttle that we would fill and bring into the house for burning coal in the fireplace. The warm morning heater was a small heater with a door for fuel and a top with space like eyes on a stove so that coffee could be percolated and skillets could be used for cooking. It sat in a corner of the kitchen.
After natural gas was finally piped into Sylacauga, Daddy bought a floor furnace from Automatic Gas, and it was installed in the hall floor in the center of our cottage-style house. The gas was turned on by a big key that I still have. The pilot light in the bottom of the furnace was lit by securing a kitchen match to the end of a long wire rod ; since it only had to be lit at the beginning of cold weather, Automatic Gas always did that for us. The burners were controlled by a knob switch, and we could control the temperature, but it was not automatic. We also got a gas water heater from Automatic Gas, and it was contained in a small utility closet in that same hall. At night when it was very cold, we would sit around the furnace to do homework, read the paper, etc. Again I remember our dogs, Jack and Tiny , stretched out as close to the heat as we would allow.
The picture shows the installation of the first gas meter in Sylacauga in the home of W.A. Craig , 301 West Bay Street with city gas engineer, John Shaddix looking on. According to the information there was a waiting list for installation of this equipment, and the date was listed as July 13 when gas was turned into the city system. A conversation I had with Mitch Miller, Manager of the Sylacauga Utilities Board, confirms my suspicion that this date was probably 1949. H. Maxwell, superintendent of B& M Construction looks on as does Tom Wood and J.H. Boykin, Salesman. Ed Howard was Mayor then, and he is pictured also. The furnace was covered by a metal grate, and most everyone who had one remembers at least one burn accident or knew someone who had a family member, usually a child, who received a “checkerboard” burn from falling and touching the hot grate or stepping on it. Automatic Gas delivered tanks and propane gas to rural customers.
We have moved way past those days when staying warm and keeping cool were daily issues involving work, chopping wood, or bringing wood and coal inside. Weather issues when the electricity is off, and the gas furnace does not operate because the electric thermostat does not work remind us of how blessed we are to be so comfortable in our nice homes now. Creature comforts were not available by the flip of a switch in the good ole days, and some people do not have them now. Mr. Miller says there are still floor furnaces being used. It seems that the more comfortable we become , the less we show love and dependence on each other. We cannot do everything, but we can be kind. There was so much good in the good ole days, and it was not so long ago at that!!