I thought Richmond had had some hot Bay Area summers until we moved to Reno last month…boyoboy, this town can get warm! I had been warm for a week already, and last night at three in the morning our neighbor, that grouchy old bastard Dr. Somebody from the University of Nevada was banging on our front door. Fortunately Dad was up playing his bagpipes so he was able to meet him at the door.
Dad went to Sears Roebuck on Sierra Street and bought a “swamp cooler” for our new house on Ralston Street, actually an old house built in 1902, new to us. I don’t know why they call it a swamp cooler and Dad didn’t either. But he and our next-door neighbor Mr. Sala went down the hill and came home with the thing, they said it cost almost forty dollars. It’s a big metal box with slots all over the sides that has some straw pads behind them, a fan to pull air into it, blow the air over the pads, which are soaked with water. Dad went to Mr. Horgan’s hardware store on Commercial Row and got a valve and some tubing to hook to the hose bibb out in front, to get water to flood the straw pads.
They put the output side into the little bedroom in the front of the house where my baby sister Meri’s bassinet was, that was Mrs. Shermerhorn’s beauty shop before Dad bought the house. They plugged in the contraption, let the water get the pads wet, and turned on the fan.
Air, first warm, then cool, and finally almost cold, came into the room, and within an hour the whole house was cool and comfortable. Mom thought it was too cold and beefed. Imagine that…
It was 100 degrees outside but nice inside. Dad said that most houses in Reno and Sparks, if they had “air conditioning” at all, had swamp coolers. Some had some permanently installed on the roof. They were a good way to cool a house. Some commercial buildings, not very many, had all-electric units with no water, but they were really expensive to buy and run. Mr. Sala, who ran the buildings and grounds at the University of Nevada down University Terrace, said that in a few years most buildings and even houses would have electric air conditioners.
Most houses in Reno after the war had big eaves on them, to keep the sun out more. And Reno was a town of trees, big ones, that made for a lot of shade. And most buildings and many houses had awnings, heavy cotton, often quite colorful and striped, that stretched on a steel frame that could be cranked up or down depending on the time of day. They were almost a staple (pretty big word for a little kid, huh!) on most homes and buildings. A friend of Dad’s named Mr. Quimby made almost all of them and did quite well. He had a big white house on Mt. Rose Street, the south city limits of Reno, on the southwest corner of Nixon Avenue dead-end. By the “Mapes Mansion,” Dad said Mr. Quimby’s house was much nicer, that the Mapes Mansion was a piece of crap. But Dad knew Mr. Mapes. And Mom got mad when he used that word. I’ll probably come back and erase it or she’ll be furious.
My new school at the bottom of the Ralston hill, Mary S. Doten, was one of four that were almost the same, that actually had air conditioning. It was a system that went back to the 19th century, where air that had been trapped in the basement for quite a while and cooled was blown up into the classrooms. Those “Four Sister,” or “Spanish Quartette” if you read Mr. Van Tilburg Clark’s book “City of Trembling Leaves,” were known as the four most comfortable buildings in Reno!
Our cars didn’t have any air conditioning then, except for some really expensive ones. Many drivers did, however, get a little baby swamp cooler for cars, that one rolled up a window to hold on the passenger side, filled with water and plugged in to the cigar lighter, which all cars had. They worked really well. Our family would take a 1952 Buick across the nation and back in the summer of 1953 with a swamp cooler, which would get the Buick so cold we had to turn it off once in a while even across the hot Midwest states. Almost everybody had one of them.
The best air conditioners on anything with tires were on Greyhound buses, that had their own little diesel engines to run them independent of the buses’ main diesels. I’m putting the lady readers to sleep…
Dad took me to the coldest place in Reno that summer, actually in Sparks, a little railroad town to Reno’s east. There, two railroads, the Mighty Southern Pacific and the Union Pacific formed a company called the Pacific Fruit Express and had made a building to make and store ice for the trains hauling produce – mostly from California to the east coast, but a little known fact Mr. Swart told Dad, was that trains hauling strawberries from the East Coast to California had superiority even over passenger trains, who had to go to a siding to let the strawberry train pass! Pretty neat, huh?
The railroads built a building out of concrete on the south side of the trainyard that we’ll tour someday. It had some gigantic refrigerator units to cool water in big 46-gallon tubs to make ice, then they’d store the big ice cubes in another part of the building. A train with produce from California would be spotted by the icehouse, and the cubes spread out on some long planks, where men, lots of men, many U of N students, off-duty firemen and townsfolk worked part time to slide the cubes to the hoppers on top of the cars and be dropped in to keep the stuff inside cold.
When the plant was running making ice it was Sierra Pacific’s largest customer. It had four wells to supply it with water. It was built in 1920, and worked until 1958; of course I don’t know that now because I’m only a little kid. Dad took me in with Mr.Swart and I froze my little butt off when it was 100 outside!
Anyway, Reno was really hot that summer but I still enjoy living here. Come back in a while and we’ll get on our bikes and ride somewhere again!
Mount Rose School artwork © Roy Powers, used courtesy of Jackie Powers