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Odd Wisconsin Archive

Heat Waves Past and Present

The current heat wave prompted us to investigate how our ancestors coped with oppressive conditions like these. Today, towns all over the country have opened air-conditioned cooling centers in their public libraries. Their municipal pools and parks are providing relief to thousands. Some have even trucked free bottled water into poor neighborhoods.

But what did people do before solutions like these existed?

A heat wave fairly similar to today's descended on the nation during the summer of 1897. Reports provide some gruesome answers to that question.

Heat Wave of 1897

On July 10, 1897, the National Weather Service issued a bulletin that sounds remarkably like the ones we've been hearing lately: "The heat wave continues over the central portion of the country, as far east as the Appalachian Mountains… Since July 1 the maximum temperature has ranged from 90 to 98 over the lower Missouri and lower Mississippi valleys and as far east as Alabama and Tennessee, with extreme temperatures from 100 to 102…"

Throughout the Upper Midwest, temperatures ranged from 95 to 110 in the shade that July, accompanied (in the words of the Stevens Point Journal) "by such high humidity that intense suffering prevailed. Prostrations occurred by the hundreds and there were scores of fatal cases. In many cities factories and mills were forced to suspend operations because their men could not stand the heat, while in the country many farmers abandoned their fields."

Human Toll

Air conditioning had not been invented yet, and urban residents literally died from exposure. The Journal went on:

"The heat, aided by the high humidity, caused many deaths in Wisconsin Friday. In this city [Milwaukee] nine prostrations and one death occurred… At Appleton the thermometer marked 100 degrees, and three deaths and several prostrations resulted: at Racine, one death and one prostration; at Milton, 100 degrees and two prostrations; Whitewater, 100 degrees, one prostration and work suspended; Oshkosh reports one death and three prostrations… William Tepz, a stone cutter, of Milwaukee, aged 20 years, was overcome with the heat and died at a hospital. William Weinke, a mall carrier, was overcome and is in a critical condition."

That account doesn't mention the collateral suffering, since every reader at the time would have implicitly recognized it. A factory shut down from the heat meant hundreds of families who couldn't make ends meet. A worker sidelined by heatstroke lost wages until he or she could return to the job. Employees who missed too much time from heat-related illness, like the mail carrier in critical condition, could be dismissed.


The 1897 heat wave sparked a drought that lasted all summer. In the Wisconsin countryside, ponds and creeks dried up, meadows turned brown, and many farmers' wells went dry. Essential crops perished in the fields. Hay and alfalfa failed, and many farmers cut their immature corn to feed it to their cows. Milk production decreased and dairy prices shot up.

In the cities, demand for water exceeded the supply. Pressure from central reservoirs diminished so much that residents in apartments above the second floor often could get no water at all.


In 1897, the social safety net that we take for granted had not been invented. No governor could declare a disaster area and get federal funds. There was no USDA Disaster Assistance Program to help farmers, no FEMA to provide drinking water in poor neighborhoods, no unemployment compensation to cover lost wages, and no Medicaid or Medicare ensure emergency treatment for children or the elderly. Wealthy people traveled to resorts at the mountains or the shore to escape the heat. Ordinary people simply suffered and, frequently, died in their homes.

A few showers finally came to Wisconsin on Sept. 10th, but the first soaking rains only arrived in mid-October. By then, the heat wave and drought of 1897 had caused or contributed to farm failures, bankruptcies, unemployment, food shortages, and inflation, to say nothing of their more immediate effects on thousands of people's ability to survive.

Still Vulnerable

Despite the improvements of modern society, we can still be equally vulnerable. From July 12-15, 1995, the Midwest was subjected to a deadly outbreak of hot and humid weather responsible for 141 deaths in Wisconsin.

According to the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel, this was the "greatest single event of weather-related deaths in Wisconsin history." Most of the fatalities happened in the urban southeast counties of the state, and at one point several Milwaukee-area hospitals were unable to admit more patients. Some communities reported temperatures as high as 108. Heat Index values were 120-130 degrees. NOAA's report on the outbreak is available at

[Sources: Stevens Point Journal 7-10-1897; Oshkosh Northwestern 9-10-1897; Waukesha Freeman 10-14-1897]

:: Posted in Curiosities on July 5, 2012
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