I don’t think anyone who lived through that will ever forget how hot it was.”

That’s because summers during much of the 1950s were more than a trick of memory. They were deadly, part of the worst drought and heat wave in Texas history – and all before air conditioning.

About the time the fun started, newly married Betty Brantly had just graduated from SMU and moved into a house near what is today the tollway (and was then railroad tracks running to downtown Dallas).

“What we used to do,” she says with a laugh, “was put a wet towel in front of a fan, and then get in front of the fan. And you would take baths before you went to bed and not dry off.”

The past couple of summers may have been record-setting scorchers, with weeks going by without the temperature dropping below 80 degrees and 100-degree highs piling up with depressing regularity, but at least we can retreat to our air-conditioned homes, our air-conditioned cars, our air-conditioned stores, and our air-conditioned restaurants.

In the early 1950s, when all of those heat records we broke in 1998 and 1999 were set, air conditioning was something found in movie theaters. Dallas endured 52 days of 100-plus temperatures in 1953, when Carter slept under the stars, and that was just one part of a statewide heat wave and drought that lasted from 1951 to 1957 and that saw the city come perilously close to running out of water. Parts of White Rock Lake actually dried up, and area cities dug wells throughout the neighborhood to augment the water supply.

“It was miserable,” says 82-year-old Joe Grubbs. “Don’t misunderstand me – you got acclimated to it, because you didn’t have any choice. But now, with air conditioning, I don’t know why anyone would want to go through that again.”

How hot was it? / Those seven summers were parching not just in Dallas, but throughout the state. By one estimate, it was the worst drought in at least 600 years, so awful that even mesquite trees – which don’t need much water – withered and died.

“Most of the summers in the 1950s were miserable, but the heat waves were only part of the disaster,” says former neighborhood resident Johnny D. Boggs, the author of That Terrible Texas Weather: Tales of Storms, Drought, Destruction and Perseverance.

“But what hurt Texas more than 100-degree days was the lack of rain. It rained, of course, but never enough to break the drought. It was a horrible time, virtual hell. And in a lot of ways, especially in West Texas, the land has never fully recovered.”

How hot and dry was it? Consider these numbers:

  • In the Dallas area, there were 52 100-degree days in 1954; 48 in 1956; 44 in 1952; and 40 in 1951. The temperature reached 110 degrees July 12, 1954, setting a record that lasted almost 30 years. Even more amazing, the high Jan. 18, 1952, was 83 degrees – some 30 degrees above normal.
  • In November 1956, 95 percent of the trees at Tenison Park were dead, victims of the drought. All told, some 14,000 trees in the city were killed during the six-year drought.
  • At the end of 1951, after less than a year of drought, the East Fork of the Trinity had dried up, as had the Clear Fork of the Trinity and Cedar Creek. Grubbs remembers walking across a waterless White Rock Lake near the Big Thicket.
  • Rain was almost non-existent. The total in 1952 was one percent of normal. In October 1955, the second wettest month of the year, there was one-half inch of rain. In 1955, there was less rain than normal in 11 of 12 months.

In fact, the weather was so devastating that many people – including a number of experts – were convinced it was the beginning of the end. Toward the end of the drought, many churches held services in which members prayed for rain. One scientist, speaking in 1959 at a Dallas conference, predicted that unless a way was found to control the weather, Texas could become a dust bowl by 1975.

“Thick black clouds of billowing soil may blow east to fall as muddy rain over Kansas City and other centers,” wrote Walter Orr Roberts of the High Altitude Observatory at the University of Colorado.

That, of course, didn’t happen.

One reason, says Skip Ely of the National Weather Service in Fort Worth, was that the heat and drought were part of normal weather patterns. The drought itself may have been exceptional, but the causes weren’t.

In the early 1950s, cooler water in the Pacific Ocean off the west coast (what scientists have since identified as the La Nina effect) apparently caused higher pressure in the southwest and the southern plains between October and April, the wettest part of the year in North Texas. That high pressure – the big H on the TV weather maps – then sat over the region, and blocked any storms from arriving.

To make it even more confusing, Ely says, La Ninas don’t necessarily mean heat and drought. A La Nina in the early 1970s didn’t seem to have any effect on the weather here.

“Some of those years were so hot, all I was able to do was to sit on the porch and rock and fan to get rid of the pests,” says Louise Clark, 85, a Dallas resident for more than 50 years who was pregnant with her second child in 1953.

“It was too hot to even move.”

Looking for water / Worse than the heat, though, was the drought. Dallas started running out of water at the end of 1951, and the crisis wasn’t resolved until torrential, flooding rains arrived in the spring of 1957 (and finally filled the new reservoirs the city had built). One reason why Dallas has so many man-made lakes to draw water from today is that the city fathers were determined to never come that close to running out of water again. And the Dallas area came very, very close.

“I don’t think, today, anyone realizes just how bad it was,” says Charles Stringer, the Dallas water department’s unofficial historian. “It wasn’t so much that it wasn’t raining, which was bad enough, but that use increased because the area was growing.”

It didn’t help that voters had defeated a $6 million bond package to increase capacity at the beginning of 1952. Lake Dallas, then one of the area’s main water sources, didn’t have as much water in it as everyone thought, thanks to silt that had built up faster than anticipated.

All this meant that at the end of 1952, the city had a 159-day supply of water left, and only 25 days at Lake Dallas. On Aug. 20, 1952, the city had consumed 2 million more gallons of water than it pumped in. If there had been a major fire, a city engineer wrote later, there would have no guarantee there would have been enough water to fight it.

These developments meant it was time for serious measures. One was a water use ordinance, passed in March 1953, that restricted lawn sprinkling to twice a month, prohibited washing cars, and made it illegal to have leaky plumbing. (Later, under howls from homeowners, alternate day sprinkling was allowed.)

In addition, the city refurbished the White Rock pumping station and started using the lake’s water for the first time in 23 years. The city also decided to purchase water from the Red River, on the Texas-Oklahoma border, a decision that would have unintended consequences for water meters and many home appliances. The Red River water was very hard and very salty, and mineral deposits built up on meters and the few air conditioners in operation.

“We all said we were drinking mud from the bottom of the Trinity,” says Ann Brown, who has lived in Dallas for much of the past half-century. “They had put so many chemicals in the water, just to make it drinkable, we heard it ruined the enamel on our children’s teeth.”

And the city and residents dug and revitalized wells, dozens all over the city. Two city sites were at Buckner and Northwest Highway and at Anita and Matilda near Stonewall Jackson Elementary school.

Says Grubbs: “You brought your buckets from home, and filled them up. It wasn’t the best tasting water in the world, but a lot of people used it to water their lawns and gardens.”

Keeping cool / The limits on water meant it was that much harder to keep cool. And at the time, air conditioning was still a novelty found in few places outside of assorted public buildings, some downtown offices, and most movie theaters. People flocked to the municipal pool by Davis Park every hour it was open. Window units, the most common in homes despite their bulkiness, cost as much as $300 at a time when a new Cadillac went for a just a couple of thousand dollars. That helps explain why 95 percent of the homes in the Dallas area didn’t have air conditioning. By comparison, 95 percent of the homes do today.

The Brantlys, in fact, became one of the first families in the neighborhood to get central air conditioning. Betty says she thinks it was the third in town; her mother-in-law had the second. There was such a boom in adding air conditionin, in fact, that the electric company was so busy that no one was able to come and install a meter at their home to monitor the system until the fall. And that meant the Brantlys had a summer of free cooling.

Residents tried all kinds of tricks to avoid the heat. Few ate big meals, and cooking was something no one wanted to do. Grubbs used to hose down his asphalt roof to cool it off, and hopefully cool off the house. Brown remembers napping on her hardwood floors during the hottest part of the day, since the floors were cooler than her bed.

Not everyone remembers being miserable, air conditioning or not. Richard Henderson, a vice president at M.B. Kiser Heating and Cooling on Lower Greenville and then a seven-year-old, points out that homes were built differently then, with bigger windows, extra doors, and attic fans, all of which kept air circulating through the house and cooled things off.

“I remember it was very livable, especially at night,” he says.

Still, for most people, the opposite was true.

“You just didn’t want to do anything,” Grubbs says. “The kids would play in sprinklers, but it was too hot to do much else. We didn’t even feel like going to the movies, even though they were air conditioned, because you still had to go out in the heat to get there.”

There are two things that almost everyone who lived through that decade remembers: When they got their first air conditioner, and water coolers, also known as evaporative coolers.

Carter can describe the twin cooling towers on his family’s central air unit, a true rarity at the time. Brown’s family would set up a card table and eat dinner in her baby’s room, the only part of the house that was air conditioned.

“And we went out and bought a second one as soon as we could afford it,” she says.

Meanwhile, most homes had water coolers, which were the size of huge box fans. Each had a hose, which was hooked up to a water supply. The blades would blow water droplets into the room, and theoretically lower the room temperature.

Not everyone was enamored of the water coolers, though, and when technology made air conditioning more affordable at the end of the decade, water coolers quickly vanished.

“I couldn’t wait to get rid of ours,” Clarke says. “All it ever did was make everything humid, and it never seemed to cool anything off. There was no comparison to air conditioning.”

Still a hot topic / Much has changed in Dallas during the past 50 years. The city had fewer than one-half million people then, and Central Expressway stopped at Lovers Lane. One thing that hasn’t changed, though, is the Texas heat.

“Hot is hot,” says Leon Ivey, who was a teenaged helper at M.B. Kiser in the mid-50s and is today the company’s service manager.

“To be honest, I can’t tell any difference between then and now. How can anyone tell the difference between 95 and 103?”

You can’t, unless you crank up the air conditioning.

Click to sign up for the Advocate's weekly news digest and be the first to know what’s happening in Preston Hollow.