Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Desert Life in the Early Days

November 5, 2007 © Thomas J. Kollenborn. All Rights Reserved.

My mother and I arrived in Apache Junction for the first time in May of 1948. We lived on the desert southeast of the “Junction” in a small stone cabin. The stone insulated the cabin quite well from the early morning and evening heat from the desert. However, there was no insulation from the old tin roof on the cabin. My father constructed a very primitive cooler for us. He made it out of two “powder” boxes used for dynamite. He took a small rotating fan and made it stationary, then anchored it in the bottom of one of the powder boxes. Large rectangular holes were cut in two sides and the bottom of the box by my dad. He then carefully threaded copper tubing, that had holes drilled in it every two inches, through some burlap material and then hung it around the box covering the cutout rectangular holes. This allowed the fan to draw air through the moistened burlap. As the air was pulled through the burlap it was cooled. My father’s primitive cooler worked well enough for us to survive a couple weeks until he returned to further improve our primitive desert swamp cooler. My father was working at the mines in Christmas, Arizona at the time. It was a long drive in those days over very primitive roads.

Our cooler worked quite well I thought, but my mother always claimed it wasn’t cool enough. We had a fifty gallon barrel beside the house we kept full of water. The cooler constantly recycled the water in the barrel. Eventually through evaporation we would have to refill the barrel. Staying cool on the Arizona desert in the late 1940s was no easy task. Most people today living under refrigeration couldn’t have survived the summer heat in those days. If the conditions still existed today Arizona would still be a ghost town. Air conditioning made the desert habitable in the summer months.

My father was constantly making improvements on our cooler. Within a month he built a large cooler out of four powder boxes and some metal lathe to form a stronger box. This cooler was twice the size of our first one and twice as efficient. His work resulted in a much cooler house. Even my mother noticed the difference. Sometimes with summer temperatures reaching 119 degrees these primitive desert swamp coolers really made a difference in our lives. During the hottest part of the day my mother and I stayed indoors and she read to me or had me read.

A friend of my mother’s came by one day in the summer heat and she was amazed how cool our little cabin was. The following summer metal water coolers were being produced. We bought our first metal cooler in 1952 in Phoenix. During the 1950s there were a lot of recycled swamp coolers on the desert. Few people spent the summer on the desert in Apache Junction during the early 1950s. Even seasoned veterans like Barney Barnard traveled to cooler climates once the summer heat started.

We hauled all of our water in those days. I don’t remember exactly when the well on Octotillo Street was first in use, but I do know we picked up our water there in 1948. The well was located just north of Pappy Russell’s garage. Eventually they built a volunteer fire station, the Pinal County Sheriff’s Office and the justice court at the site. The desert dwellers of the day also carried “desert water bags” on the front of their cars. The old canvas water bags had been around since the Model T Ford. The bags were soaked in water then filled with water and hung on the front of the car. You could always depend on a cool drink of water from these simple water bags. Mother also kept an old Olla on the front porch wrapped in burlap soaked with water. The Olla was a simple method to keep water cool enough to drink. She always had a clean ladle available to dip the water out of the Olla. The water container was always covered with a lid to keep bees, wasps and flies out of it. The water was always cool after being outside in the heat.

Our life in the Apache Junction desert was bearable and we survived quite well. During the forties and early fifties we traveled in the early mornings or late evenings to avoid the heat of the day. We always had food, water and shelter. However our living conditions were quite primitive compared to today’s modern living with refrigeration. I would imagine Apache Junction and much of the valley wouldn’t exist today if it hadn’t been for the invention of refrigeration.

One of the most interesting things I recall as a child was a “window swamp cooler” for an automobile. My Aunt Nelllie lived in Chloride, Arizona in the 1940s. My Uncle Harvey was the hoist operator at the mine. Each summer Aunt Nellie and Uncle Harvey would come to Christmas for a visit.

Uncle Harvey had a friend of his rig up a blower fan operated by airflow in a tube with burlap around it. The burlap was kept moist and the blower, while the car was moving, would produce cool air. Of course it was mounted on Aunt Nellie’s side of the car. You might say Aunt Nellie in 1945, had one of the earliest passenger cooling devices in Arizona.