Home Lifestyle COLUMN: Life before air conditioning

COLUMN: Life before air conditioning

J.A. Bolton sits on a porch enjoying a glass of ice tea.
J.A. Bolton

The months of July and August seem to be the hottest time of the year in the Sandhills of North Carolina. Only a late evening storm or shower seems to cool us off.

Most people around here just jack up their air conditioner units to stay cool but they also hate to see their power bills arrive. A lot of younger people don’t even remember how it was to live without A.C. When old folks say, “That was a nice farmer’s breeze,” they are referring to when a farmer was working outside, all hot and sweaty, and a little wind came up to cool him down.

In prehistoric times, people lived in caves where the temperature stayed about the same all year long. As more people came on the scene, they wanted better living conditions so they started building huts; probably hotter, but let’s face it, caves weren’t everywhere.

In colonial times, here in the South, many rich plantation owners would temporarily move their summer quarters closer to the mountains to avoid the heat and the diseases the hot summers might bring.

When people started settling our western plains states, there was very little wood available to build a house. There they dug out places in the side of small hills and built mud huts. These huts would have grass roofs and dirt floors which keep the huts a little cooler and warmer in the winter storms. 

Some people can remember the good ol’ days when none of our local textile mills had A.C. They did have tall windows that were raised, along with large fans that ran in the summertime. Both helped to bring in some fresh air but with the heat of the machinery running, it wasn’t much.

A lot of the houses built in the 1800s and early 1900s here in the South had large flat rock cornerstones for their foundations. This would raise the height of the house so air could flow under the house and help cool it. Wood was plentiful and builders constructed large rooms with high ceilings which kept the houses cooler but were hard to heat.

As a boy, I remember playing in the cool dirt under my uncle’s front porch in Roberdel. A lot of mill houses had high porches and crawl spaces under the houses. These spaces were used for storage and made a cool place for children to play in the hot summertime.


Another way we found to cool us off in the summertime was to take a dip in the local creeks or farm ponds. Sometimes, you used your bathing suit or shorts and other times, well I reckon we just went skinny dipping. Either way the water felt so refreshing the deeper you got in. 

Take my word for it, iced tea is the major drink here in the South but back in the ‘50s, Kool-Aid was a close second. It came in many different flavors but my favorite was grape and it seemed like every mom or grandma in my neighborhood took turns making the instant drink for all us kids. It was cheap to make and coming up with a nickel to buy a store-bought drink was few and far between.

Eating watermelon that had been pulled from a local patch and placed in a creek to cool for a few hours was also a way to cool off. Sometimes the watermelons were small and you got to eat a whole one right by yourself. Without a knife, you bumped the melon on the ground and burst it open. Then you reached down in the center of the melon and got you a hunk of the heart of the watermelon, salt optional. With the juice running down your chin, you just dug right on in until you had yourself a good bite of that delicious melon.  

Homemade ice cream was usually a Fourth of July or hot Sunday afternoon treat. We always kept an old wooden ice cream churn for these special occasions. Won’t no electric one either, one of them kinds with a long hand crank was very common. 

Mom would make up the ingredients while Dad and I ran up to Dewitt Junction to get a block of ice. Ice came in 50-pound blocks and had to be chipped off with an ice pick. As soon as we got back home, Mom would pour the liquid cream into the metal cylinder and place it in the churn. Then we would pack a layer of ice and a layer of rock salt in the churn. A towel was placed on top of the churn so the person turning the handle could hold it down while turning the handle. Sometimes a kid would sit on top of the churn to hold it down. The neighborhood boys and I would take turns and see who could turn the handle the most before the ice cream froze. You know, I’ve eaten a lot of ice cream in my time but none as good as that homemade churn turned out.

You see, there was life back in the day before air-conditioning, although I don’t think any of us today would want to trade in our A.C. units for a church fan!

J.A. Bolton is author of “Just Passing Time,” co-author of “Just Passing Time Together,” and just released his new book, “Southern Fries: Down-Home Stories,” all of which can be purchased on Amazon. Contact him at ja@jabolton.com.