No one in their right mind would argue that air conditioning wasn’t an economic and social game-changer in southern Appalachia. I’ve written before about growing up in the era when home comfort in the sweltering summer depended on open windows, screen doors, fans or “swamp coolers.”
Swamp coolers? In case you’ve never heard of this low-tech process, it involves evaporative cooling of hot air entering a house through doors or windows. Swamp coolers have been used for thousands of years, dating back to the ancient Egyptians. But I digress…
Before mechanical air conditioning, even before electricity was accessible to the majority of Appalachians, people found ways to cool off. Our pioneer ancestors constructed “dog-trot” cabins in which the two main rooms were connected by a covered passage with open sides.
Named because the hounds napped there during the heat of the day, dog trots became places where family members could find relief in the form of cooling breezes in the evenings or night.
Covered porches, of course, provided shade and cooling. Wind was needed, but rural residential architectural styles took into consideration the trials of summertime by featuring front and back roofed porches – sometimes wrap-around porches – to ensure that comfortable places were available no matter the breeze’s direction.
The circa 1890s farm house I restored had 10-ft, ceilings and over-the-door transoms to allow air circulation. Second-floor covered porches, which we called “verandas,” allowed us open the huge windows (74-inch openings) downstairs to create a cooling vortex through the house. There was also a swamp cooler system that drew air from the outside and blew it over a cistern under the house. A fan forced the cooled air through floor registers. It worked as long as the rainwater container stayed full, but certain rooms always showed mildew due to the humidity.
My father built the house I grew up in. He installed a huge central attic fan to pull air through the structure. I remember being lulled to sleep on hot August nights by the low whuff-whuff-whuff of the fan. In the mornings, I awoke with goose bumps from the powerful air flow.
But my favorite recollection of summer comfort involved the simplicity of shade cast by a giant oak tree. It seemed wherever my grandparents, aunts and uncles lived, one of the prerequisites for selecting a homeplace was access to shade trees, either in the back or side yards.
Grass was not desired for these shady gathering places. Bare packed clay or sandy soil was best, level and well-drained. Granny always “brush-broomed” the ground to remove leaves, pebbles and other debris. This left a smooth earthen surface where kids could fish for ant lions with straw, poking the end into the circular pits and drawing out the fearsome-looking but tiny predator insects.
Straight-backed wooden chairs with busted cane bottoms, old wicker rockers freshly painted to withstand the rain, metal dinette chairs, bench seats from 1940s model sedans and crosscut-sawed sections of tree trunk provided the seating.
We assembled almost every evening after supper when the sun-warmed house was too miserable to occupy. Maybe a dozen people, sometimes more, leaned back in the shade to enjoy nature’s cooling. Many adults referred to this family time as “taking the breeze.” It was for talk, laughter, story-telling, watermelon cutting, chasing of fireflies… and tobacco enjoyment (rolled cigarettes, homemade burley leaf cigars, plugs of chewing tobacco and snuff for the ladies).
Special occasions called for the old wooden ice cream freezer to be hauled out of the cellar, loaded with ingredients and cranked until the confection was deliciously frozen and ready to top golden-crusted cobbler made with fresh blackberries picked by yours truly. I considered this my duty and contribution to the family’s relaxing tradition of gathering under the oak tree.
Years later, my old Mississippi friend, Watt Carter, and I reflected on childhoods lived in the South. His was in the Delta; mine in the hills and hollers of Appalachia. How our families endured summers was a common theme because we both remembered the heat and humidity of cotton-chopping times.
Watt grew up under a shady oak tree, too, or on a long porch where relatives and neighbors gathered to seek relief from the punishing heat.
“Long about twilight,” he recalled, “the wind would pick up a little and everyone would sigh, tip their heads back and close their eyes. Folks were grateful for the relief -- and for the stars in the heavens and soft colors of sundown. We called it the ‘shank of the evening.’ I still enjoy it.”
Amen, and this is why I have two metal patio chairs under an oak tree in my side yard. My fiancé and I sit with our feet on the grass, but we enjoy a view of the western horizon while the breeze roils foliage overhead. The last pastel sunbeams slant down; the shade darkens; and only the voices of family and friends interrupt the quiet.
This is Watt’s shank of the evening.