It is difficult for contemporary Arkansans to imagine how miserably hot our summers were before the advent of air conditioning. While hot weather often begins here in May, it is July and August before the temperatures reach their high point, usually accompanied by high humidity, and in the lowlands, hordes of mosquitoes.
This uncomfortable time was known as the "dog days of summer."
I recall hearing about dog days as a child in rural Arkansas. I thought dog days was merely a descriptive term, but the name--which goes back thousands of years--refers to the ascension of the constellation Canis Major with the bright dog star Sirius in the night skies of the northern hemisphere.
Ancient Greek astrology held that the dog days were not only a time of extreme heat, but also of lethargy, fever, bad luck, and mad dogs. A poem titled "A Sirius Matter" was published in the July 31, 1887, edition of the Arkansas Gazette, the unidentified author lamenting:
You're roasted, toasted,
Your very blood is terrified;
All Christian comfort is denied,
The great bulk of 19th-century Arkansans had to be stoic since they could not afford to spend two months in the Adirondacks each summer. This was especially true of women. Wives cooked meals on open fireplaces, or after about 1890, on wood-burning cast iron stoves.
Both women and men often worked long hours in the cotton or corn fields. Life was most uncomfortable for enslaved men and women who often labored under both a hot sun and an armed overseer.
Fortunately for farmers and laborers, many of the row crops had been hoed and "laid by" before the dog days, allowing a respite from the worst of farm work. It was at this time that many rural Arkansans attended religious camp meetings, often sleeping in open wagons, and using the occasion for visiting and maybe courting.
Following the Civil War and reconstruction, Arkansas developed a good-sized monied class, and these people could afford to travel to escape the heat. By 1885, the Gazette began reporting on the Summer Idlers, listing departures of families to cooler destinations, mostly in the north.
Little Rock mayor Fred Kramer and his wife spent most of the summer of 1885 in Wisconsin. The wife and children of state treasurer William E. Woodruff Jr. summered in West Virginia. This was several years before Woodruff would be indicted for misuse of funds.
Colorado was on its way to being a summer destination by 1885. The Gazette reported that among several families leaving for Colorado were two judges, including state Supreme Court chief justice Sterling R. Cockrill. Later, members of the Cockrill family began summering on Lake Michigan at Ludington, Mich., along with other prominent families such as the Coateses and Rectors. Several Arkansas families have summer cabins at Ludington today.
Another Supreme Court judge, John R. Eakin, and his daughter spent August 1885 at an in-state destination, the rapidly growing spa town of Eureka Springs in the Ozark Mountains of Carroll County. Eakin and his daughter would have seen the magnificent Crescent Hotel, which was then nearing completion.
Many Arkansans who could not afford to travel far joined Judge Eakin in summering in Arkansas. These towns usually claimed to have medicinal springs.
Armstrong Springs, near Searcy in White County, was popular with Little Rock residents. In August 1896, Armstrong Springs advertised its accommodations--a new hotel with bathrooms and 25 cottages. Water from Armstrong Springs was supposed to cure "stomach and kidney troubles, nervous prostration or malaria."
The hotel proprietor, Capt. W.H. Elgin, boasted of a five-acre lawn, "a 10-pin hall, billiard room and lawn tennis court." A five-member string band performed nightly in a large new pavilion.
Sometimes retreat owners offered more than they could deliver. Pinnacle Springs on Cadron Creek in Faulkner County was promoted as having "mountainous air" which was "much purer than at your level, and the thermometer marks some 10 degrees lower than at Little Rock ..."
While Pinnacle Springs was hardly more elevated than the capital city, the weather at Mount Nebo Hotel in Yell County, located atop the 1,350-foot-high biblically named Mount Nebo, was indeed less torrid, though certainly not alpine.
Vacationers had been visiting Mount Nebo long before June 1889 when the Summit Park Hotel opened. With three stories, the main building had 100 rooms, a ballroom, and a large dining room; other buildings housed a bakery, kitchen, recreational facilities, and a laundry. Separate cottages also provided additional lodging.
Rooms rented for $2-$2.50 per day or $8-$14 per week. Special discounts were available to visitors who stayed for the summer. Servants and children under 10 were charged half-price.
Lodging for servants was important because Mount Nebo quickly became a favorite resort for affluent families from Little Rock, Memphis, and even Kansas City. A formal ball was held each July in the hotel's large ballroom. The hotel had its own resident band, comprised mostly of Black waiters working overtime.
On July 19, 1892, the Gazette ran a long story under the headline "Dancing on the Mount," which told how the Little Rock elite dressed for the occasion. The local correspondent writing the story for the Gazette judged the dance music to be the "perfection of melody ..." However, it was the detailed reporting on the women's clothing and jewelry which is fascinating.
Miss Ada Thompson, later the namesake of a retirement facility for elderly women in Little Rock, wore "white mousseline de soir over white satin," along with diamond jewelry. Mrs. C.A. Pratt of Little Rock was attired in black silk, which was "ornamented [with] white roses and diamonds." Mrs. Philander K. Roots, wife of a prominent banker, wore blue brocade with lace, and her two daughters donned dresses of pink satin.
Alas, perhaps most Arkansans, having no other alternative, heeded the advice of the Peoples Savings Bank of Little Rock, which advertised in July 1922: "Just keep going; keep plugging on, and keep saving your money ..."
Tom Dillard is spending the dog days at his retirement home in Hot Spring County. Email him at Arktopia.email@example.com.