At our house, Carla Offenburger has a rule that we don’t turn on air conditioning before July 1.
Most summers, including this one, we can comply without any misery. But then there comes a run of days in July and August when the temperatures climb into the 90s, the humidity soars and there is little breeze. Life without air conditioning then would be unthinkable. In the midst of one of those heat snaps recently, I went to Wendell Durlam, patron saint of air conditioning installers in Greene County, and asked him when AC became available here and how people ever lived without it.
“My first memory of air conditioning,” said Durlam, 91, as we talked in his Jefferson home, which was cool, “was at the old Iowa Theater in the mid-1930s. We’d go there just to get out of the heat. When it got really hot, we’d go to the theater a lot — it only cost a dime to go to the show back then.”
He remembers that in those mid-’30s, when heat records were set that still stand, it often was a real challenge trying to sleep.
“A lot of us would take a blanket out and sleep in the yard, or go over to Russell Park and sleep on the grass there,” he said. “One time the National Guard guys found out we were out there, came by and threw cold water on all of us.”
After service in World War II, Wendell and his twin brother, Wayne, started Durlam Brothers Electric in 1948. Just a few business offices and stores had air conditioning then; Wendell thinks the first of them was probably Gamble Insurance in about 1942. The brothers added to their electrical service by opening an appliance store in 1952 and then began selling AC systems.
“Almost all of them were window units at first,” Wendell said. “When we’d install them, it’d often require some re-wiring. Most people didn’t have enough electrical power to support air conditioners. A lot of homes were originally wired just for lights. They didn’t have electrical outlets because no one had any appliances. I was already working as an electrician when I put the first electric socket in the house where I grew up and still lived.”
He said other early sellers and installers of AC were Seela Hardware, Strawn Plumbing, Baller Auto (which also had hardware) and Jones Hardware.
By the 1960s and ’70s, most stores and offices not only had air conditioning, but were beginning to move from window units to central AC. Durlam said that “in those years, I remember there’d be ads in the papers from businesses saying ‘Come and shop where it’s cool!’ ” Central air became common in homes in the 1970s, and by the 1980s and ’90s, it was being installed in many schools.
So what was life like when there was little or no AC?
“I don’t think we had enough sense to know how tough it was,” Durlam said. “We didn’t know anything different. We’d just say ‘Wow!’ We’d wipe our brows and hope it’d get cooler. And if it happened to rain, we’d strip down and run out in it.”
Chuck Offenburger is a member of the Greene County Historical Society board of directors. You can write him at chuck@Offenburger.com.