BEATING THE HEAT 1

Historic Summers in Chesterfield

Ironically, we think of summer as a time for fun and relaxation when kids are free from the restraints of school and homework.  However, for many of Chesterfield’s early residents in the farm trade, summer was the season of the most work.  In fact, children today have the children of early farmers to thank for having summers of freedom.  Summers were a time when families needed every pair of hands to help with labor-intensive farm work.  Since most of the country’s small towns revolved around agriculture, schools found it easier just to stop the school year for several months until farm work tapered off after the harvest.

That doesn’t mean that people didn’t take a bit of time for relaxation, even though some pleasures of summer were born out of necessity.  Picnics to us seem a nostalgic luxury. Years ago, they were a means to beat the heat, since homes without air-conditioning could often be stifling; if cooking was taking place in the home, the temperatures could rise even more.  Can you imagine the humid, often-oppressive heat of a St. Louis summer with no air-conditioning and then being required to light a fire in a wood burning stove to cook every meal?  For this reason, it was common for homes years ago to have a “summer kitchen.”  My great-grandparents’ farm had one, as did many of the neighboring farms. It was a small but completely separate building with a kitchen that allowed the heat from a wood cook stove to remain removed from the main house; outdoor kitchens also prevented entire homes from burning down in the event of a kitchen fire.

Communities, families or courting couples would gather for picnics to take advantage of any natural outdoor breeze.  Fish fries were also a frequent event—a community potluck picnic born out of someone’s good fortune fishing in the nearby Missouri River. I even remember these events from my childhood, when adults would gather to talk and children to play. In fact, it always seemed a little surprising that my dad and the rest of the farmers would actually take an afternoon off from work.

What would a picnic be without ice cream? In the early days having ice cream at home meant the laborious process of making it yourself. Many homes had hand-crank ice cream machines.  A mixture of eggs, cream, sugar, and vanilla were placed in a central cylinder with a paddle inside. The outer chamber was filled with ice and salt, which would drop the temperature of the custard mixture.  In the very early years, because it required ice, it was more likely to be an early summer treat, while ice was still available from the icehouse. No matter how well constructed an icehouse might be, it rarely kept ice fully intact throughout an entire summer.  People would take turns turning a large crank to keep the mixture from completely freezing to the sides of the metal cylinder. This process often turned into a social event of its own.  Of course, anyone who has tried homemade ice cream after cranking that handle and patiently waiting knows that every quickly-melting mouthful is worth it.

Similar to today, quick weekend getaways were popular, particularly in the years after farming became more mechanized and recreation became a bit more commonplace. Swimming, grilling out, fishing or taking a boat out on one of Missouri’s many lakes were all popular activities.  In the 1930s, my grandparents spent many such days with friends.  In the swimming photo of my grandma and two of her friends, if you look closely, you’ll notice the gentleman on the right is wearing a one-piece suit—likely made of wool! Creve Coeur Lake made for a closer day on the water and it was a destination of its own with boat races and summer festivals dating back to 1881. It touted itself as a summer resort and attracted families from throughout the St. Louis area.

Technology and fashions may have changed. Most of us know the pleasures of an air-conditioned home. Now we can have ice cream from electric ice cream makers or a quick trip to the grocery store. However, it doesn’t mean we should take away the simple summer joys of gathering with friends for a summertime picnic or meeting them for a dip in the neighborhood pool.  I challenge you to try a hand-crank ice cream churn at your next get together.

If you have memories, comments or suggestions for future topics, please email Aimee at aimee@thehistorychick.com