Beating the Summer Heat Before Air Conditioning


by Terry Rogers



Slaughter Beach Cottages (Courtesy of “Images of Milford” by Dave Kenton

The hot days of summer have arrived in Milford and many people have closed up their homes, cranked up the air conditioner and remained indoors during the oppressive heat. However, it was not that long ago that the residents of Milford didn’t have air conditioning, requiring them to find other ways to keep cool when it was extremely hot.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many Milfordians beat the heat in town by traveling to local beaches along the bay. Because travel was by horseback for most residents, few people traveled as far as Rehoboth, choosing instead to spend hot summer days on the beaches of Slaughter, Broadkill, Prime Hook and Fowler’s Beach. Milford residents tended to travel to Slaughter and Broadkill Beach while Milton residents frequented Prime Hook and Fowler’s Beach.

In 1885, Frank Rickards and S. Napoleon Gray negotiated a 99-year ground lease from the owner of the Slaughter Beach Hotel. That summer, the two men built a cottage on the leased land, paying rent at five cents. Dr. George W. Marshall leased the second plot of land, building a cottage for his family as well. Over the next few years, several cottages were built along the Delaware Bay. It became the custom for women and children to head to Slaughter Beach as soon as school ended in the spring, remaining in the cottages until just before school was scheduled to begin in the fall. Men would spend weekends at the beach, working during the week and traveling to Slaughter Beach on Friday evening only to return to Milford on Sunday evening so they could report to work on Monday.

Milford residents who were not fortunate enough to have a cottage at the beach could travel there by horse and carriage until automobiles became commonplace. However, many Milfordians spent summers cooling off in several lakes and ponds in the area. Silver Lake, or First Lake as it was known in the 19th century, was a popular location for recreation. Before the spillway was installed near the Maple Street bridge, the water was deep enough for diving. Row boats were a common sight on hot summer events with many people enjoying a leisurely boat ride from the mill race or peninsula to the Haven Lake dam and back. Fishing was also popular along Silver Lake in the summer, allowing residents to enjoy fresh fish dinners of crappie, bluegill, pumpkinseed, perch and bass.

Two islands rest in the center of Silver Lake, Swan and Ice Cream Island. Large trumpeter swans nested on Swan Island, which is how it earned its name. Ice Cream Island was the center of ice-cutting activities in the 1880s when ice chunks were cut from the lake and stored in sawdust pits to provide refrigeration during the hot summer months. At one time, Ice Cream Island was a popular picnic spot and could be accessed by a boardwalk that connected it to the shore. For a short period, ice cream was sold on the island, although there is no record of who handled the ice cream sales.

Marshall Pond Recreation Area (Courtesy “Images of Milford” by Dave Kenton)

Other lakes and ponds in the area, including Haven Lake, Marshall’s Mill Pond, Griffith’s Pond and Abbott’s Pond also served as swimming areas. Marshall’s Mill Pond became a popular recreational area after the mill ceased operations. During World War II, a recreational area was created on the pond since gas rationing made it impossible for Milford residents to travel to area beaches. Sand was brought in to create a beach, floats for diving were placed in the pond and a boardwalk that ended with a pavilion on the water allowed Milford residents to enjoy breezes cooled by the pond. A playing field was added along with water recreation like sliding boards. The recreation area closed after World War II when gas was no longer rationed and contamination of the pond from a local processing plant was discovered.

Older homes were built with much higher ceilings than we see in architecture today. This allowed heat in the summer to rise, keeping the living area of the room cooler. Homes with more than one story often had open stairwells that allowed heat to rise while others had towers or turrets on the roof to act as a natural exhaust vent. Before air conditioning, trees were planted strategically to block the summer sun during the hottest part of the day. People spent a significant amount of time on their porches as well, especially in the evening when the inside of the house could be stifling. In some cases, families would sleep on the porch when it was unbearably hot inside.

Although the people who lived before the invention of the air conditioner suffered in the heat, because they had no way to completely escape the heat, they were able to grow accustomed to it. Today, with the prevalence of air conditioning, it is more difficult for people to adjust, making the heat feel much more sweltering to us than it would to someone who lived a century ago.