The highest temperature ever recorded in Kansas City was 113 degrees on Aug. 14, 1936.
A matinee of Katharine Hepburn as “Mary of Scotland” probably was packed. The Strand Theater on Troost Avenue was among the few public places with air conditioning.
That Friday in mid-August marked the 28th day of triple-digit heat since the start of July, and 13 straight days in the 100s would follow.
For a moment the 113-degree mark seemed a blessing because it ushered in glorious rain clouds by late afternoon. Downtown workers leaned out of open office windows to watch the front deliver but a trace of moisture.
“Just a bluff,” said a weather forecaster identified as a Mr. Hamrick, whose name that summer appeared on the front pages several times a week. (Hundreds of people would phone Mr. Hamrick at the weather bureau hourly for updates. The staff would bark out a number — 107, 110, 112 — and hang up.)
The summer of 1936 set more heat records than any season Kansas Citians ever endured.
It was dry, too. Most Kansas counties received fewer than three inches of rain from June though August. The conditions stirred up extra clouds of Dust Bowl dirt and brought another year of financial ruin to farmers.
In late June, hordes of grasshoppers swarmed in and flew greenish circles around the Power & Light skyscraper, their numbers attributed to drought conditions. An alfalfa grower in Lenexa trapped what he estimated to be 1.4 million hoppers in a specially made snare.
Despite the stresses, some Kansas Citians showed a shrugging acceptance. With the Great Depression dragging on and Nazis gaining power in Germany, a sweltering summer was something one could tolerate.
In fact, July 4 that year, at 108 degrees, was reported to be “the hottest and sanest Fourth the city ever had.” No traffic deaths, no serious injuries due to firecrackers — perhaps because the brutal weather “drove many to the shade of trees or kept them in home cellars,” The Kansas City Times reported.
The heat wave generated curious advice to locals who enjoyed golf, Kansas City Blues baseball doubleheaders or other outdoor activities: Just ignore it.
The “cardinal rule on combating the heat is to forget it,” a physician was quoted in a newspaper article. “Remain detached.”
That didn’t prove to be so easy. Across the nation more than 4,500 victims fell to heat-related deaths.
Five deaths were tallied in Kansas City on one day, Aug. 23, when the mercury hit 104. The deceased included Barnhart Stump, just 36 and racing around the area to deliver ice.
He wrecked his vehicle and ran four blocks home to phone for a tow. Stump collapsed as soon as he stepped into his house in Kansas City, Kan.
The Salvation Army raised more than $6,000 to deliver “penny ice” to the poor, a penny per pound. For a quarter, Katz Drug offered a “hot weather luncheon” of barbecued pork, potato salad and a jumbo ice cream soda.
As a teen, Ilus Davis kept a wet rag in his car to rub down a steering wheel too hot to touch. Fifty years later, Davis would recall how his mother spread moist cloths on his bed so it would be cool when he first lay down.
Many other families slept under the stars at Swope Park, Penn Valley Park or the Liberty Memorial.
“It was sort of unreal,” said Davis, a former Kansas City mayor, in 1986. “You just sat around and talked about the heat.”
More hot, dry summers would grip Kansas City, and still, households got by for decades without air conditioning.
That began to change in the middle of 1954, when temperatures hovered near 100 degrees well past nightfall. Local businesses reported selling 15,000 air-conditioning units by summer’s end, bringing the total number of area homes equipped to 30,000.