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Excelsior! We Conquer Heat

Letters and e-mails from readers keep coming in to The Journal:

Dear Mr. Cook,

I just heard on CNN that scientists think the amount of sunlight reaching the earth has diminished. How is this going to affect us here in Arizona?

– Pete in Parker

Bad science, Pete, probably financed by people who sell light bulbs.

The Wickenburg Institute For Factual Diversity measures sunlight daily. Just today, I took my magnifying glass outside and focused the sun on a shake shingle to see if I could set it afire.

The magnifying glass caught fire in two and half minutes, the same elapsed time as on this date the last three years.

Dear Jim,

You must be older than dirt. Can you tell us how people coped with this heat before there was air conditioning?

– Dave, Paradise Valley

Dave, I’m older than e-mail jokes, and yes, I can answer your question. One example: Early in the 20th century, Cleveland Brashford of Phoenix thought up numerous pranks to scare his wife.

Once he made himself up as a cadaver. Another time, he threatened to run for governor.

One day he climbed to the roof of the Hotel Adams, carrying a pair of home-made wings and clucking like a chicken. He said he knew how to fly.

Cleve did these things out of love for his wife, Irma. Irma said, “Cleve’s stunts just make my blood run cold.”

Less devoted husbands were buying their wives kerosene stoves, so they didn’t have to slave over wood-burning stoves.

Factory-built evaporative coolers came on the market the year before I was born, but it would be years before we could afford one.

The principles of evaporative cooling were known long before that. The most common example of evaporative cooling is sweat.

However, it took a long time for people to figure out how to draw hot air through a wet medium with an electric fan.

I’ve talked to old-timers who used the gasoline motors from Maytag washing machines to draw air through wet bedsheets. One family used an old steam-powered threshing machine to draw air through wet bales of hay. All they managed to do was ruin the hay.

Finally, people started using electric motors to draw air through wet wood shavings called excelsior. Until that time, houses in desert towns collected heat during the day, and held onto it most of the night. Many people slept outdoors, on the lawn or on the roof.

One character in Casa Grande, Coot Humberry, tied himself to the upper branches of a sycamore tree every night.

The lawn sleepers hurried indoors around dawn, so they didn’t become too well acquainted with their neighbors, the milkman or the paperboy.

You didn’t have that many secrets from folks sleeping on the lawn next door, especially if you overslept, or a thunderstorm caught you unawares.

Men in the Brashfords’ neighborhood talked for years about how appealing Irma looked in a wet nightgown, illuminated by lightning as she dashed for her house. Cleveland was chagrined, but glad that the rain had cooled off his Irma.

Kids liked to cool off in the open irrigation ditches that crisscrossed the valleys, a dangerous pastime. Young adults water skied on the main irrigation canals, an equally dangerous sport.

My dad and his brothers made water skis from the narrow running boards of a 1915 Model T Ford town car. One brother would strap on the skis and another would tow him, driving a newer 1923 Ford runabout on the access road that ran alongside the canal.

It was imperative that the skier turn loose of the tow rope before he reached one of the bridges that crossed the canal at one-mile intervals.

Dear Mr. Cook:

How did Adobe Mountain in north Phoenix get its name? It looks to me like it’s made of volcanic rock, not adobe.

– Jessica in Jerome

Dear Jessica,

It’s uncanny how slickly your question fits in with the subjects covered above. You’re going to be amazed.

Adobe Mountain was named for Charles J. Adobe, who lived nearby. (“Adobe” may not have been his name when he left Pittsburgh; Territorial Governor Richard E. Sloan used to say that everyone who came here in the early days came west because he had suffered a break in health, a break in wealth, or a break in reputation.)

Adobe homesteaded near the mountain that would later be named for him, and began to hand-dig a water well in July. When he got down around 18 feet deep, he found the temperature underground was much cooler.He began digging laterally, and made himself a home underground.

Charlie Adobe was a bit compulsive. The larger his underground home became, the larger he wanted it to be. He sent out for day laborers to make his cavern larger and larger. Eventually, it reached almost to New River. He never found water; he had it hauled over from Weedville in water wagons.

In a manner of speaking, Charlie Adobe crawled into his hole and pulled it in after him, never emerging into the sunlight. He sent for his childhood sweetheart to come from Pennsylvania. They married and raised a family undeground.

Charlie spent the last 34 years of his life in his labyrinth, boasting of its coolness. He died the same day Irma Brashford sued for divorce, after Cleveland put a snake in her bed. She said Cleve’s antics left her cold.

When I was a kid, they tried to tell me that

Adobe Mountain was the dirt that Charlie Adobe and his crew had dug out to make his underground abode. But it sure looks volcanic to me.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

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