The Heat Wave of 1934


The early thirties were not good times for most Nebraskans. Aftershocks from the stock market crash had spread across the country, and the nation was in the grip of the Great Depression. However in Adams County, it isn't the economic depression that stands out in the memories of those who lived through 1934, but the drought, dust storms and heat. Its unbelievable temperatures and freak storms have been the subject of reminiscence for generations.

The drought began in 1933 with Nebraska's driest year in 57 years and unusual extremes in temperatures, resulting in depleted subsoil moisture. January through May, 1934 saw almost no moisture, and in May unusually high temperatures began. Nebraska's highest May temperature, 102 degrees was recorded on May 29, 1934, and on Memorial Day the temperature registered 100 degrees. In early June almost two inches of rain fell, but following the rain, high temperatures returned, and from June 19 until the end of the month, the region sweltered. One-third of June's days the temperature topped 100 degrees. July opened with a 103 degree day, and it was to be followed by the hottest month in Nebraska history. For 18 consecutive days from July 8 through July 25, temperatures over 100 degrees were recorded.

Adams County was declared an emergency drought area. Each day with front-page headlines, the Hastings Tribune printed the previous day's temperatures and the number of days thus far over 100 degrees. On July 14, the Tribune, under a headline "Heat Makes Folks Know Each Other," told of people sleeping outdoors, on porches, on lawns, even in parks, to escape the heat in houses. On Sunday, July 15, the mercury soared to 112 degrees, establishing a new record which didn't last long, for on July 19 the official high was 113 degrees. That day Hastings also set a new electric record of 42,616 kilowatt hours generated to operate fans and electric refrigerators, and a new record for water usage, 5,440,000 gallons.

No known Adams County deaths resulted from the heat, and heat prostrations were lower than expected due to the low humidity. July 20, under a headline "Don't give Up the Fight." The Tribune urged Hastings residents to water their trees. "Trees of Hastings are wilting and turning yellow . . . Because folks have found it impossible to keep grass green they have abandoned watering of lawns. Grass is dying and so are the trees." July 21 the Tribune described the streets and sidewalks as burning hot. Finally on July 25 clouds and scattered showers appeared. For the first time in three weeks the temperature at 9 a.m. was below 90 degrees. But the heat wave wasn't over. August recorded 10 consecutive days of over 100 degree heat, with the mercury soaring to 110 degrees on August 5. In all 46 days topped 100 degrees and 13 days the temperature topped 105 degrees.

The unrelenting heat was bad in town, but for those on farms it was even worse. Most farms were without electricity to power fans, refrigerators or water systems. Edna Kline Trausch was living on her parent's farm north east of Trumbull and remembers the heat: "The house was so hot, and it didn't cool down at night because we had to cook with a cook stove, which made it hotter inside. We slept on the board sidewalk that ran from the house to the wash-house. Towards morning if it cooled off a little, we got up and went inside. We were just so miserable from the heat, and the wind blowing dirt around all the time. We just worked and sweated."

Bert Trausch lived on a farm southwest of Hastings in 1934 and remembered similar conditions: "The heat continued day and night. The humidity got so low, furniture and wood in houses cracked. We couldn't stand it in the house at night. We went out by the windmill, sat on the ground and drank cool water. We wet cloth and put it over our heads to let the wind blow through."

As bad as it was, the effects of the heat were surpassed by the miserable dust, which gave the "Dirty Thirties" their name. There had been small dust storms in 1932 and 1933, but in 1935 huge swirling blizzards of dust blew across the country. Bert Trausch recalls the April dust storm which "came up from the northwest about 5 o'clock in the evening. My Brother Charles and I were in the barn when the dust hit, we couldn't see the house from the barn." On April 23 the Tribune reported that: "a heavy deposit of dust covers the city . . . The sun made a feeble attempt to shine but a red blur in the east was the only result."

On May 9 and 10, a monstrous dust storm swept across the plains states, east as far as Washington D.C. and on into the Atlantic Ocean. A United Press story in the May 11 Tribune reported: "A gigantic cloud of dust 1,500 miles long, 900 miles across and two miles high buffeted and smothered almost one-third of the nation today. For more than 36 hours arid winds from the plains of western Canada swirled tons of sand and grit eastward. Cattle in parched fields sickened and died as dust blanketed grass and fodder. Thousands of persons suffered from eye and nose irritations." No matter how well constructed, houses could not keep out the fine wind-driven dust. Housewives stuffed wet cloth or newspapers around doors and windows in vain attempts to keep the dust out.

The heat, drought and dust resulted in complete crop failures in 1934. As early as May 10th, the wheat crop was declared a total loss and by mid-July farmers reported the corn crop was so badly burned it would be useless even for fodder. To help devastated farmers remain on the land the Federal Farm Administration distributed $59,240,000 to Nebraska farmers in the form of federal crop loans and benefit payments for crop losses. In July the federal government began to purchase cattle in Adams County, necessitated by the lack of feed. The first sale was held in Roseland on July 19 when 261 head were purchased. 219 head were shipped to slaughter and 42 head weakened by starvation were destroyed and buried. Prices paid ranged from $4 for calves to $20 a head for the best beef cattle. Cattle sales continued through December, with 6,086 head sold for $78,652 in federal payments.

Drought and depression also brought critical difficulties to Adams County banks. Borrowers could not meet their obligations and land did not bring enough at foreclosure sales to cover the indebtedness. By January 1934 the following Adams County banks had closed: Nebraska National Bank and First National Bank in Hastings; Farmers Bank of Ayr; State Bank of Holstein; Bank of Pauline; Hansen State Bank; First State Bank of Kenesaw; and Roseland State Bank. The bank of Hayland closed in February. It and the Hansen bank, which had been liquidated in 1931, were the only Adams County banks to pay their depositors one hundred percent, and that only at a considerable loss to stockholders. City National Bank of Hastings opened in January 1934 succeeding the Nebraska National Bank. The Bank of Juniata and Prosser State Bank consolidated and formed the Adams County Bank of Kenesaw, which opened in April 1934. The Roseland State Bank also reorganized, leaving only two banks in the county outside Hastings.

Despite dreadful weather and severe economic conditions, life went on. In January the City of Hastings purchased the First National Bank building at Second and Hastings for $75,000. Remodeling was completed by mid-year and most city offices including the water and light department, moved in. Three new service stations were erected; Phillips Petroleum at Burlington and First, Standard Oil at Second and St. Joe, and Lippincott Oil at Third and Burlington. Nebraska Culvert Manufacturing Co. erected a new factory near South and Kansas, and Coca Cola Bottling added a second story to its new location at 201 South Hastings. Montgomery Ward moved its department store from 333 West Second Street into the Stein Building, more than tripling its floor space. Both Bloom Cigar Company and Kipp Cigar Company reported increased sales.

Fire destroyed the Hastings armory at 103 North Lexington in February, and severely damaged the Tribune building at 115 North Burlington in April. In June the Tribune moved to the Stitt Building at Third and St. Joseph. Despite the fire and the move, the Tribune never missed an issue.

In Juniata an old landmark, the GAR hall, was demolished. By then all the old Civil War soldiers had gone to their reward, and the hall had fallen into disrepair. In August a new GAR memorial was dedicated in Geary Park, former site of the hall.

The Adams County Fair was held in August. But due to hard times, admission to the fair and grandstand was free. Record crowds attended, but agricultural exhibits were woefully lacking and the stock barns were practically empty.

Bad weather dominated the news in 1934, but other front page news stories in the Tribune included Roosevelt and the New Deal programs, Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, and the European arms race. Local news included paving on Highway 6, the County Supervisors' denial of Lib Phillips request to hold Sunday dances at the Hastings Amusement Park on North Baltimore, and police raids on illegal liquor stills and hootch joints. But the big news was the Zephyr. Thousands gathered on May 26 along the Burlington mainline to watch the silver Denver Zephyr streak by on its way to set a world record on the Denver to Chicago run. A crowd estimated at 15,000 arrived in Hastings on June 13 to see the Zephyr on its first formal visit. Several hundred people even got to inspect the interior during its three-hour stay.

Fisher Fountain. which had been built for the 1932 county fair and electrical exposition, was another popular attraction in 1934. It was relocated in 1933 near the Utilities Building at the head of Denver Avenue and named in honor of Jacob Fisher, oldest living Hastings mayor. At a time when lack of rainfall made water so important, people came to the beautiful lighted fountain, to be cooled by its moist breeze and entertained at the same time. During those hot, dusty months of 1934, the fountain became a symbol of hope.

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