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Reflections: Leap from making ice to cold air proved a quick one

The Roalson Barber Shop on South Main Street in downtown Oswego was one of the first air-conditioned buildings in the village. The shop was air conditioned in 1936 with a municipal water-cooled fan-forced heat exchange system. The system worked at the shop until about 1990, when it was replaced.
The Roalson Barber Shop on South Main Street in downtown Oswego was one of the first air-conditioned buildings in the village. The shop was air conditioned in 1936 with a municipal water-cooled fan-forced heat exchange system. The system worked at the shop until about 1990, when it was replaced.

Summer – and summer weather – is in full swing here in the Fox River Valley as we close in on the hot, humid days so conducive to making the tall corn grow.

As soon as settlers arrived out here on the Illinois prairies, they encountered a challenging climate. Bitterly cold winter winds swept across the tallgrass prairies, followed by oppressively hot, humid summer weather.

That meant that housing that was just fine down South or in New England didn’t work very well here. New England houses were built to conserve heat during that region’s long winters, while Southern architecture was mostly aimed at trying to keep interiors livable during hot weather. Neither style was particularly good at doing both.

So gradually, designs began to include features that helped deal with both cold and hot weather, along with such refinements as window and door screens that would permit windows to be open during the summer months to encourage ventilation while keeping out insects and other pests. Tall ceilings allowed the heat to rise away from those sitting at tables and on chairs, while double-hung windows featured movable upper sashes that could be opened to vent hot air up near the ceiling level.

Mechanical cooling of private homes was, however, not much more than a dream during the 19th and well into the 20th century. On the other hand, starting midway through the 19th century, keeping food cool through the use of home ice boxes grew in popularity, using ice harvested during the winter months on virtually every river and most lakes in the upper Midwest.

There were ice-harvesting operations at almost every Fox River dam, with thousands of tons warehoused each winter. The ice was then used to cool food in homes and businesses, as well as for the meatpacking industry, which used thousands of tons of ice in the shipment of dressed carcasses from Midwest meat-packing plants to eastern markets.

Mechanical ice manufacturing plants began replacing ice harvesting operations early in the 20th century. By then, refrigeration technology was advancing and sufficient electrical power was available to operate ice-making machinery. The ice-harvesting industry put up a fight, disdainfully labeling the mechanically produced product “artificial ice.” But the increasing pollution of the Midwest’s streams and lakes made using “natural” ice a chancy thing; it was much easier to assure uniform quality in ice plants. By 1910, several of Chicago’s 71 ice dealers were advertising manufactured ice.

And then on April 20, 1921, the Kendall County Record reported a first for the area: “S.J. Wittrup has installed a new iceless refrigerator in his [Yorkville] restaurant and will be independent of the ice shortage this summer.”

Just a year later, in March 1922, the Record’s Hugh Marshall predicted, “Now that iceless refrigeration has been simplified to the point where it is suitable for the home, it is safe to predict that it will not be long before it will be within the reach of even those of very modest pocketbooks, and all need of bothering with the iceman, with his pick and tongs, will be gone.”

And restaurants weren’t the only businesses benefiting from new refrigeration technology. On May 3, 1922, the Record’s Oswego correspondent reported: “Charles Schultz has recently installed a modern refrigerating plant in his [grocery] store.”

Legitimate businesses were quickly joined by the burgeoning field of bootlegging, which quickly adopted modern refrigeration.

When lawmen raided John Schickler’s illegal distilling operation along modern Route 31 near Oswego, the Record reported on March 28, 1923: “The still was of 23-gallon capacity a day, connected to a pump operated by electricity for cooling and assisted by a special gas arrangement. Schickler is a former Oswego saloonkeeper, going into the farming business when Oswego went dry. In his new business he bought a medical preparation of alcohol rub by the case and distilled the poisonous ingredients out, leaving the pure grain alcohol.”

Once the technology was understood, it wasn’t all that far a leap from making ice to producing cool air to make buildings more comfortable.

Some of the first air conditioning systems were installed in movie theaters and barbershops. Those early systems were simple heat exchangers that were hooked up to a town’s municipal water supply. Water flowed through the heat exchanger’s fins and coils as an electric fan circulated the cooled air through the occupied portions of buildings. The systems were efficient and relatively inexpensive to operate – provided there was access to plenty of cheap municipal water.

In Oswego, for instance, barber Roy Roalson installed such a system in his shop on South Main Street in 1936. Manufactured by Frigidaire, the blocky unit cooled the barber shop for the next 55 years with little or no maintenance required.

While such systems really weren’t practical for home use, technology was marching on. The Record reported on July 20, 1932: “Not long ago, we read an article about the excellent work that is being done with systems for cooling and washing air prior to its use in buildings. The work is now at the stage where systems are being contemplated for use in private homes. Theatres and large public buildings already are using cooling systems. Anyhow, we read the article and didn’t think much about it at the time. But during the scorching nights last week when we couldn’t sleep on account of the heat, we lay in bed and wished with all our might that we had such a cooling apparatus in our house.”

By the 1950s, home window air conditioners were appearing. I remember seeing my first at a neighbor’s farmhouse (they also had the first TV in the neighborhood) and marveling at how much better my asthmatic lungs worked there.

These days, air conditioning is almost considered a must for modern survival during Illinois’ hot, humid summers, especially during these days when the tall corn is growing and summer’s Dog Days are on the horizon.

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