Some liked it hot

Market Street and Watermelon Row. Source: Knoxville History Project

The people who like to talk about East Tennessee’s “mild” winters and summers have presumably never been here in January — or July. 

From May forward, daytime highs usually start their inexorable climb through the 70s and 80s before finally settling in the mid-90s for long stretches of time. More years than not, the mercury even crosses the 100 mark for a few days. Our all-time high, in fact, came on July 1, 2012, when the temperature hit a scorching 105 degrees.

In reality, though, it actually is cooler in Knox and surrounding counties than we might be inclined to believe. According to the National Weather Service, the average temperature during the summer months is in the low- to mid-80s, which probably comes as a surprise to those of us who start melting into a puddle of sweat the moment we exit a climate controlled building. The secret ingredient, of course, is the humidity — East Tennessee is a temperate rainforest, which means there’s usually a good amount of moisture in the air.

Whatever the source, from the first genuinely hot afternoons in May to the muggy Dog Days of August, we’re ready to greet the heat with that most marvelous of technological wonders, the air conditioner.  But air conditioning is a relatively recent invention, with the first modern design appearing just after the turn of the 20th century.  Somehow, though, our ancestors managed to get along without it. They couldn’t just ignore the high temperatures, of course — they could be dangerous as well as uncomfortable. Scorching hot weather made it harder to preserve food, and summer was peak time for billions of insects, many of which spread disease. But they coped with it.

In fact, based on what local historian Jack Neely has to say, they had plenty of ways to beat (and even enjoy) the heat.

J.J.: Before electricity, how did the summer heat impact, say, food production and preservation? How did they use clothing to adapt to the heat?

Jack: Iceboxes go pretty far back, when they were literally boxes with ice in them. 

One big surprise of that era is that, beginning with the first trains, ice was shipped here from the Great Lakes. If kept insulated, it could survive a trip of hundreds of miles. 

By the 1850s, people were using it to cool things, but also to make ice cream. In fact, a free Black man named Alfred Anderson was probably one of Knoxville’s first purveyors of ice cream, in 1855. Later, Peter Kern, best known as a baker, was proud of his ice-cream machine, created by a local gun manufacturer. 

BT Ice Company. Source: McClung Historical Collection

Later on, there were ice factories. There was a big one near Cumberland and 11th Street by the 1880s. It was there a long time, and apparently did a lot of business. 

I get the impression that people just wore lighter and looser clothing in the summertime. Straw hats instead of felt.

J.J.: Travel was, of course, far more difficult than it is today, but did some people head to the mountains or other locations for a reprieve?

Jack:  Some people did go to the mountains in the summertime, especially to resorts like Montvale. There were actually about a dozen “springs” resorts in the area, simple hotels by a creek. Middle-class people would seek refuge there, either for a Sunday or for the whole summer. 

Most of the mountains, though, were off-limits until the 20th century. The land was privately owned, and the large parts of it that were being logged or mined weren’t appealing to vacationers, anyway. 

Whether travel was more difficult or not is a matter or perspective. By the late 19th century, it was very easy to get to New York, for example, for people who could afford it. You didn’t even have to drive to the airport, just walk from your home or office to the train station, buy a ticket, and within a day or so you’d be in mid-town Manhattan. You didn’t need a cab or parking garage or anything. 

Of course, not everybody could afford that, but so many vacationed in New York in the summer that New York hotels advertised in Knoxville newspapers. Of course, New York can be almost as hot. 

By 1900 or so, many were going in the opposite direction, to Florida or the Carolina beaches. 

In general, people used the river more than they do now for boating parties, riverboat excursions, and swimming. Young men would dare each other to race to certain features, like rocks or islands.

Floating the Tennessee River in 1905. Source: McClung Historical Collection

It’s important to remember we had no big lakes in the region until Norris, in 1936. TVA changed everything, and by the late 1940s, Knoxville had a real lake culture, around boat fishing, water-skiing, houseboats, and lake houses. Especially after Fort Loudoun Dam, in 1943. None of those options existed before 1936–except at Chilhowee Park’s lake, probably the biggest body of water handy to Knoxvillians between the 1880s and the 1930s.

Chilhowee, privately owned, definitely catered to the sweltering summer crowd with streetcar rides out there. The streetcar line itself was involved in keeping Chilhowee Park an attraction, because they made a profit on its popularity. The downtown to Chilhowee Park line was the first electric streetcar line ever built in the Knoxville area, in 1890, and it was popular partly just so people could beat the heat.

Chilhowee Park postcard. Source: Knoxville History Project

 J.J.: Were summer insects discussed much by our ancestors, as either pests or possible sources of illness?

Jack: It probably wasn’t until the 20th century that doctors described the connection between mosquitoes and certain illnesses, but people were aware that malaria and yellow fever were more prevalent in summertime. Knoxville didn’t have as much trouble with that as Memphis and New Orleans did, and in fact Knoxville sometimes admitted refugees from those Deep South plagues. 

But the summer of 1838 was pretty horrible. There was a major epidemic of some sort, one that’s still not understood to this day. By some accounts, about 10 percent of Knoxvillians died due to the “miasma” associated with stagnant and fetid mill ponds along First Creek. 

J.J.: Can you think of any references to higher crimes rates in the summer, or of hot weather being blamed for violence?

Jack: Good question. I haven’t studied that specifically. Young men did roam around at night in warm weather, getting into trouble, but I think the murder rate was higher during the coldest part of the year, partly due to holiday excess. 

J.J.: As we get into the 20th century, the summer became the season of vacation and recreation for both kids and adults….

Baseball team, 1920s. Source: McClung Historical Collection

Jack: Yes, but it was already starting soon after the Civil War. Knoxville was baseball-mad by 1867, and by the 1880s, we had a team, the Knoxville Reds, who were competitive across a multi-state region. Baseball was probably Knoxville’s most popular sport before the late 1920s, when UT football came to the fore as a fall sport.

J.J.:  We shouldn’t forget about air conditioning and refrigeration. When were these first introduced in Knoxville? Were they primarily in commercial spaces first, or did some wealthy individuals first import them to East Tennessee?

Jack: As far as I know, the first building air-conditioned was the Tennessee Theatre, in 1928. Sounds like it wasn’t perfect–I think they advertised that it would be 15 degrees cooler inside than outside, which I guess meant it could still be pretty stifling if it were in the high 90s or 100 outside. 

But it made theaters useful in the summertime. It’s important to remember that in the summer, theaters like the Bijou tended to just close for the duration, reopening in September.

During the summer, there would sometimes by outdoor entertainments, like vaudeville at Chilhowee Park, or even Shakespearean plays on Cherokee Country Club’s golf course. Or some early movies outside up at Turner Park, which was off Broadway, in the 1890s. 

A lot of residences didn’t have air conditioning until much later, and people were just used to that, with the help of fans and house design that encouraged good circulation. The Eugenia Williams house, for example, was built in 1941 and had the latest appliances from GE, even a washing machine, but didn’t have air conditioning. The house was built with a lot of windows to make it unnecessary. 

Southern Dairies Ice Cream Factory in the 1930s. Source: McClung Historical Collection

We didn’t have air conditioning when I was a kid, and I don’t remember thinking about it much. An electric fan — and they were around by the late 1800s — can make a hot day very nice. But air conditioning was more critical at theaters, because they didn’t have windows — and involved lots of body heat. 

Refrigeration was based mostly on the ice man’s deliveries before the 1940s, though some people had freezers in the late 1800s. I’m not sure how they worked. 

J.J.: Ice cream and other frozen concoctions must have seemed like culinary magic during the Dog Days. Do we know when it first became available? How about other frozen treats?

Jack: I mentioned ice cream earlier. There were some other frozen desserts, like fruit frappes, chocolate mousse, sherbets, frozen puddings, etc., which appear in the 1900 Knoxville Cook Book, as well as lots of cold drinks, alcoholic and otherwise. Summer was an art. 

Watermelon was a much-anticipated luxury, available only in the hottest weeks of the summer. The bulk of watermelon on Market Square was a space challenge, so they extended the square to the south, along the 500 block of Market Street (which they called Prince Street), and called that Watermelon Row. 

Southern Dairies ice cream van, 1930s. Source: McClung Historical Collection

Editors note: We hope you enjoyed reading Hard Knox Histories, perhaps while sitting under an air conditioning vent or sipping on a tall milkshake. We hope you’re enjoying this summer to the fullest, and we can’t wait to share our next installment on August 6.

J.J. Stambaugh can be reached at

Jack Neely can be reached at

Published on July 23, 2021