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Keeping cool in early Bakersfield
By: George Gilbert Lynch

Topics: local history, heat, hot, bakersfield, summer
Posted by citizenjournalist Mon Mar 24, 2008 17:00:51 PDT
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Home refrigeration, swamp coolers and automatic ice cube makers were a luxury to come in the distant future for Bakersfield's pioneers and the blistering heat of summer was just as it is today. How could they have coped with such extreme temperatures?

Planting thousands of trees for shade was an approach used extensively by the land owners and Kern County Land Company was a leader in this practice. They began their tree plantings to afford shade for the large cattle herds as well as using them to strenghten the canal banks against erosion.
Beautiful tree lined streets can be seen in early photographs of Jewett Lane and lush, cool, tree covered yards were the norm city wide. The nature approach to keeping a cool environment was the only game in town back then.

The old Victorian hand held fan was the earliest form of relief until the first kerosene and alcohol fans were introduced in the mid 1800's. These used heat convection to turn the fan blade but were expensive so they found limited use. When electricity finally arrived in Bakersfield, fans became as popular as incandescent lights. Fans and other appliances, when first introduced in the the late 1800's, utilized screw in plugs on the cords end because only screw in bulb sockets were available, later on two blade receptacles were introduced.

In the later 1800's, Bakersfield's houses were constructed with double wooden floors and fourteen foot ceilings which helped air circulation and insulation from the heat. Tall foundations, placing the house four to six feet above the ground, afforded air circulation as well as flood protection. Screened porches were a luxury because they afforded a family cooler summer sleeping plus protection from insects, especially the disease carrying mosquitoes, (back then, local mosquitoes carried malaria as well as encephalitis). Most residents, in those days, slept out in their back yards on hot nights. Bug repellent, ("skeeter dope" as it was called ), was used if mosquitoes were bothersome. Smelly kerosene or eucalyptus oil was often used as a rub on repellent until commercial preparations became available. Downtown hotels utilized their two to four story design to elevate patrons high enough to catch any breeze through the windows and the balconies provided a place to sleep out if desired.

Many families owned or rented mountain retreats to visit during the hot Bakersfield summers. Breckenridge was the closest high mountain settlement and was very popular because a lodge and store were located there. Greenhorn, Tehachapi, all were extensively visited for relief from the Valley heat.

Ice was the magical cooling substance and was always a lucrative commercial enterprise. Without ice, the methods of cooling perishables was storage in a cellar or a "desert cooler", which was a wooden cabinet draped with wet burlap or canvas which cooled by evaporation. Cold beer was a necessity for the towns saloons and the owners went to great lengths to buy ice from any source. A news article from The Weekly Courier, April 24, 1875 boasted," The James Hotel is opening an ice cream parlor this week, ice will be brought in from the mountains". Ice cream was the summer favorite of everyone and without ice it couldn't be made.

Before arrival of the railroad into Bakersfield in 1874, ice had to be hauled from nearby mountains. In July 1876, Charles Jewett, youngest of the Jewett brothers, purchased the Amos Lucas Ranch on Breckenridge Mountain for $2000. It included a business of harvesting ice from a spring fed lake . He, his wife and sons lived on the mountain where he sawed the ice from the pond in winter, stored about 300 tons per year in a sawdust insulated ice house, then through the summer, brought loads down to town by freight wagon. The steep grade and a ton of ice on his wagon made it necessary to lock the brakes and drag a large log behind in order to ascend the crooked dirt road from the 7000 foot mountain. But daily trips were made to satisfy Bakersfield's demand for ice. His price of two cents per pound was accepted by the locals as fair.

Arrival of the railroad into Bakersfield brought carloads of ice from large commercial enterprises in Truckee California and their lower prices soon squeezed any local mountain producers out of the ice business. In 1894 C. Raphael of Los Angeles constructed a steam powered ice plant in Bakersfield. In 1898 Kern Land Co. built a large ice plant at Chester Ave and 33rd St. The SP Railroad also built a spur track for loading the ice and appropriately named the siding "Nome".

The Morning Echo of July 30, 1892 included a front page story titled,"A Cold Wreck". At 1:20 AM this morning, freight train number 21 while approaching town near Chester Avenue, plowed into a herd of cattle. The train killed a number of cows and derailed the engine and fourteen cars of the fifteen car train. The cars and engine were piled one upon the other, the whole wreck covering only about 150 feet. The fireman and two hobos were killed. The train consisted of seven carloads of ICE, one of beer, one of wine and five of merchandise. The fireman was scalded by steam and the hobos were crushed beneath tons of ice. Ice was scattered over the ground in every direction. This illustrates how ice was a priority item, being shipped to Bakersfield by first class freight.

In 1902, Kern County Land Company formed "The Union Ice Company", headquartered in San Francisco. They began building ice making plants statewide. The Union Ice Company of Bakersfield was built in 1910 at 33rd St. and Chester Ave. It replaced the smaller Kern Land Co. Plant. It was a large modern steam powered plant and could charge what price the public would stand until in 1916 A City Charter listed it as a public utility so the price of ice could be kept at a fair value, averaging fifty cents per hundred. This enterprise furnished ample ice for Kern County along with many other ice plants owned by oil companies as well as private concerns in outlying areas. The railroads also had ice plants that sold their surplus to private consumers.

The old "ice Box" was our only means of preserving the milk, butter, pies and meats. Most good ice boxes needed about 25 to 50 pounds of ice per week to cool our perishables. A drip pan underneath caught the melt water or most people drilled a hole in the floor to pipe the water out. The home ice delivery man drove by two or three times a week and if we needed ice we placed an "ice card" in the window facing the street, with the number of pounds needed pointing up. When the ice man stopped we kids would snitch a small piece of ice from the floor of the truck which we would hold in a piece of newspaper while we chewed on the cold treat. I now know the ice man chipped off these small pieces especially for the kids to snitch. We paid cash or bought an economy ice ticket which he punched each delivery, ice was cheaper with the punch ticket.

Electric refrigerators for private home use began to appear around Bakersfield in the late 1920's. I saw my first one in 1936, it was a General Electric that looked like an ice box with a wire basket setting on top. When the purchase price became low enough most all households bought a refrigerator but the old ice box still stuck around through the 1950's till home ice delivery finally ended.

Attempts at air conditioning began to appear around Bakersfield in the late 1800's. Theaters were the first to try cooling because it had already proven successful on the Atlantic Coast and Europe. In 1909 Chester Avenue was noted as "theater row" where Morley's, Parra's, Scribner's, Grogg's, The Empire and The Lyceum offered flickering movies, vaudeville, concerts, slide shows and any other entertainment they could book. As electric power became available at the turn of the century the first relief from the heat in these theaters were electric fans which blew out some of the tobacco smoke but did little in the way of cooling the air. In 1909 Henry Jastro's Union Theater installed a swamp cooler system in the basement and boasted,"30 cubic feet per minute to each seat" and 18 degree cooler air. Most theaters tried this system which worked as long as the humidity was low otherwise it was a steam bath. The "Aerodrome Theater", advertised," Inhale the cool breeze as you enjoy the show", it was an outdoor theater East of town, open after sundown.

In 1915 Parra's Theater proudly announced, "Only Ice Cooled Theater In Town". The system they installed used tons of ice placed under the floor with fans circulating air over it and discharging into the theater. Now that's real Northern Comfort. Within a few years mechanical refrigeration was adopted by most theaters and they became THE PLACE to pass the hot day in cool comfort.

In 1927, Egger's Department Store was the first local merchant to install an evaporative cooler. The cooling unit was purchased from Pioneer Mercantile Hardware Co. Customers were amazed at the comfortable cooling this factory built unit produced. The trend of installing this type cooler into private homes around town was begun at this period. It is a generally accepted fact that the first fan powered, evaporative coolers were built in, (you guessed it), Needles California. After the turn of the century, a steam locomotive engineer had for years, in order to sleep, covered himself with wet sheets after getting home from a 200 degree baking inside a steamer cab. One day He hung the sheets over an open window and set a fan to draw air through the wet cloth, "Eureka". The next day the local carpenter shop built him a box that he draped with burlap cloth to which he attached a water hose and inside the box, he installed a large fan. After that the carpenter shop never stopped making cooler boxes which other manufacturers later copied with steel boxes, the commercial swamp cooler was born. After WW2 mechanical refrigeration in private homes began but was slow in progression due to the high initial cost and higher operating costs than swamp coolers.

The Kern County Courthouse was without cooling until July, 1939. A local engineer devised a unique cooling system which performed very well. A pump delivered 500 gallons of water per minute from a well to a heat exchanger on the roof. The well water was 68 degrees making the air discharge into the courthouse about 70 degrees. The water was then returned to a separate distant well. This economical system operated for years.

As it is today, swimming was always the favorite cooling off treat and it was our good fortune to have Kern River and scores of canals available, legal and free of cost for swimming. Families flocked to the river and canals for relief of the intense heat during summer. It was common to see hundreds swimming in the downtown Mill Pond and all the canals around the city. I remember having to hunt for a parking spot along South "H" Street Canal in the hottest periods of the year. And "Doubles" weir at Brundage Lane and Union Avenue was always filled with families enjoying a cool dip every afternoon. All the shallows along the river while driving to Kern River Park were teaming with swimmers and picnickers daily. And the many city, county and commercial pools were used extensively.

The next sweltering day we have, just remember how much has changed since shade trees and umbrellas were our only relief from the intense Valley heat and our ice was hauled down from Breckenridge instead of popping from your automatic ice maker.

(C) by George Gilbert Lynch
Feb. 2005

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