Summer of 1936 set new records for heat in Wellington County

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015. Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

The hot weather in June and July of 2005 reopened the debate over global warming and the environmental effects of burning fossil fuels and other human activities.

Though their arguments are increasingly strained, there are still some observers who claim that weather patterns of the past few years do not deviate from those of the past.

On the other side are those who point out that summer average temperatures are increasing, and at a rate much faster than can be linked to natural phenomena.

Whatever the merits of those arguments, everyone knows the summer of 2005 was a very hot one. As this is being written (July 23, 2005) there seems little doubt that July 2005 will be the hottest ever in this area, and probably by a good margin.

In this part of Ontario in a typical year, there are four days when the thermometer hits 32 degrees (90 Fahrenheit) over the whole summer. In 2005 we hit that mark frequently.

Historically, the typical heat wave here lasts four or five days until a cooler front sweeps through. That has rarely happened in 2005, as hot days have followed one another with no sign of relief in sight.

Looking back historically, the summer that most closely matches this one was 1936. Certainly some of the oldtimers who read this paper will remember that summer.

The summer of 1936 began with a warm, dry spell in May. Temperatures that month averaged 4 degrees (7F) above normal. It was also very dry. Rainfall was less than half the average for the month.

The warm, dry weather allowed farmers to get their ploughing and planting done in good time, but they needed some rain as well to get the crops started. In late May temperatures dropped well below normal for a week.

A welcome rain fell on June 1, falling lightly and lasting all night. Then it started coming down harder.

The total varied considerably around Wellington, but at the Ontario Agricultural College, which then had an official weather observatory, it measured 5.8 centimeters (2.35 inches). That was almost the average rainfall for a whole month.

After that deluge, June’s weather shaped up as close to normal for a couple of weeks. There was another rain in mid-month, but then the thermometer took a dive, touching 3 degrees (38F) in Fergus on several nights.

Frost struck heavily in West Luther, and sporadically at other points in north Wellington on June 21 and 22.

The cool days made work easier as farmers started their haying. But then another problem appeared. A massive invasion of insects, and particularly the potato bug, started to devour vegetable gardens.

All that was just a prelude to the big heat wave.

Temperatures in western Canada and the United States set records in late June, and in the first days of July the hot air moved into southern Ontario. For the first week thermometers ranged in the high 20s (high 80s) most days, but on July 8 the high in much of the county was 36 (97F).

Reports of temperatures varied widely, obviously due to unreliable and uncalibrated thermometers.

Most weekly newspapers reported highs in the 38 to 40 degree range (up to 110 F), but those measurements differ substantially from the official measurements taken at the OAC weather station.

Farmers were finishing their haying as the worst of the heat wave struck. Most reported good hay that summer. On the other hand, they began to worry about the grain. There had been no rain since June 16, and drought conditions were aggravated greatly by the extreme heat after July 7.

Raspberries dried on the canes, and root crops suffered greatly during the second week of July, and lawns turned brown, crunching under foot. The strawberry crop was short and meagre.

Lawn and garden watering pushed water systems beyond capacity. Fergus pumped 283,000 gallons on July 8, beating the old record by 50,000 gallons. Council there, as in all other towns, instituted emergency watering restrictions.

The heat impacted on motorists too. Boiling radiators could be spotted everywhere, and in a number of locations concrete roadways buckled. One local motorist lost some golf balls – they melted in the back window of his motor car.

By July 10 bush fires had broken out in the Luther Marsh, sending clouds of smoke over neighbouring municipalities. There was no movement to fight the blazes except when they endangered barns or houses.

The extreme heat, with daily highs of 35 degrees (95F) or more, lasted only seven days, from July 8 to July 14, and temperatures above normal persisted from July 5 to 17.

The effects of that heat wave were made more extreme by the hot nights. It did cool down in the evenings, but not sufficiently to permit people to sleep well. Some resorted to resting on cots set up on porches or in tents, and even on lawns in some cases.

Hugh Templin, whose thermometer closely matched that of the official one at the OAC, reported temperatures between 95F and 99F between July 8 and 14 at Fergus. The highest official reading at Toronto was 40.6 (105 F).

Domestic air conditioning did not exist in 1936, and commercial installations were few – a handful of offices and stores, and some motion picture theatres.

Motorists stayed off the roads in daytime. Salesmen made calls in the evening, and some people drove around at night simply to try to cool off.

In the factories in the towns across Wellington, managers scheduled reduced hours, and in some cases shut down altogether. The heat affected not only humans, but some machinery as well.

Business slowed to a standstill. Most people wanted only to sit or lie in the shade, or perhaps go for a swim. At the Fergus swimming pool new admission records were set daily as bathers and swimmers lined up at the door. The only merchants reporting brisk sales were those selling cold soft drinks and ice cream.

Farmers were not immune from conditions either. At least three in Eramosa Township collapsed from heat stroke as they tried to carry on with regular chores. The heat and drought threatened the grain crops, which matured early, and promised to give small yields. And even those yields were threatened if no rain came soon.

Railways had a few air conditioned cars, mostly used for first class passengers on long runs. Most of those operated by blowing air over melting bunkers of ice. For other travellers, a rail trip meant suffocating in the stifling heat, whether or not they opened a window.

Despite the heat, Orangemen ventured to the big July 12 celebration, held in Grand Valley that year. The parade marched at a much slower speed than usual, and the heat kept all other activity at a minimum.

Locally, only one death seems to be directly linked to the weather – Mrs. John Davis, who died at the age of 80.

During the week of extreme heat, authorities estimated that 550 people died in Ontario, about half in Toronto. That exceeded the death rate at the peak of the 1918 influenza epidemic. Most of those who perished from the heat, or heat-induced complications, were the elderly and babies.

Robert Kerr, the Fergus conservationist who had been recording the weather and watching the environment for more than half a century, believed that the 1936 heat wave was exceeded only by one in 1880 that persisted, off and on, for six weeks. That year, clouds of smoke from bush fires as far away as Michigan had obscured the sky for days at a time.

Relief came on the evening of July 14. The temperature dropped below 25 degrees (60F) that night, permitting a good night’s sleep for the first time in more than a week. Temperatures for the next few days were still much above average – in the 28 to 30 degree range (82 to 87F) – but that seemed cool compared to the previous week.

On July 20 the overnight temperature dropped to 10 degrees (50F) in parts of the county, but the drought continued, and the fires in Luther lingered, burning their way through the parched swampland.

Rain finally arrived on the evening of July 22, the first in five weeks, and it fell lightly all night.

The moisture quickly showed its effects on vegetation. Some plants perked up considerably the next morning, and gardeners rejoiced that their root crops were saved. Farmers noted that the effects of the heat and drought varied greatly from field to field. Generally, those on heavier soils seemed to fare better.

The last week of July 1936 saw a return to more seasonal averages in temperature, but other than the rains of July 22, there was no further precipitation that month other than some isolated showers that did little more than settle the dust. And the summer wasn’t over yet.

[Next week: the heat returns, the drought continues, and low water produces a crisis.]

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on July 29, 2005.



Stephen Thorning - 1949-2015