Cold Enough

By Isabel Morse Maresh | Jan 16, 2014

For those who may dwell in the sunny climate this winter, this is to report that some of us are suffering through some of the coldest of winters that we recall, or at least as cold and stormy as we recalled from our youth. I recently ran across an article which was published more than sixty years ago in The Republican Journal of November 1951, written by Frank H. Miller of Hampden, under the title of ‘Notes On Early Northport’. The following is an excerpt:

“Northport people with others along the coast had hardly recovered from the effects of the War of 1812 when they were visited with another calamity which was especially disastrous to farmers. Those who were farming at that time never forgot the year of 1816. It was a season of frost every month of the year and the coldest season ever recorded. In the middle of April there was a snow storm that left nearly a foot of snow. In May came a rain storm that made ice on the fruit trees and froze the buds. When the people looked for warm weather in June there was rain, snow and hail which froze the ground and compelled workmen to wear overcoats and mittens. It was so cold all summer that crops were a failure. The hay crop was so light that it was toward the middle of August before the farmers began to cut it. The freak season resulted in high prices the following winter and proved very disastrous to the poorer people. It was long remembered as the year without a summer and it was ushered in by one of the coldest winters ever known to the settlers of that time.

Winters on Penobscot Bay appear with unusual severity about once in fifteen or twenty years. After the severe winter of 1816 the next one to compare with it came in 1835 and following that, the winter of 1857 was so severe that all the harbors as far as Virginia were frozen over. In all of these winters people crossed the Bay with horse and sleigh until into March. During January and February the thermometer hung around the zero mark and below until the bay was frozen so solid that the mail and provisions were carried to the islands by teams.

In later years it will be recalled that 1933-34 was one of those severe winters. The Eastern Steamship freighter, Cornish, was on the Bangor route that winter and in six weeks of the coldest weather she made only two stops after leaving Boston, in Rockland and Bucksport.

At Rockland the freight for Camden and Belfast was taken over the road by truck and that for Winterport and Bangor was handled the same way from Bucksport. The Eastern Penobscot Bay was open all winter and the steamer could get to Bucksport by breaking some ice from Fort Point.”

Most of us remember cold winters. The younger generation cannot believe the stories of how cold it was when we walked to the one-room Brainard School, nearly a mile from home. The school was nearly as cold as being outside. We would bring our desks into a circle around the wood stove. I recall a large family living in the old Bird homestead on Bird Hill in Northport who walked to school. They arrived nearly frozen. The teacher made a game with the students running around and around the wood stove. Looking back, I now realize that we were chasing the children, to keep them from the results of the cold.

Back then, we would bring from home our pint milk bottles of chocolate milk to school. We would put the milk bottles and our lunch under the short legs of the stove. The milk would freeze.

On our trip to school, we walked up the hill, on what is now called the Belfast Road or Route 52. When I was a child, our home and school was on Route 137 [on the same road]. Back then, the hillside above the watering tub was clear, mostly blueberry field. The wind would howl down across the hill, making it bitter cold. We didn’t linger. We stopped at Willy Hills’ house, to get warm, and finish the walk to school with Willy’s grandsons, David and Eugene Porter. Their house was not much warmer than outside. None of the houses in the neighborhood had insulation, and only one had indoor plumbing. The frost on the windows appeared to be an inch thick, with steam radiated from them.

Getting dressed on the cold mornings was also an experience. Either we had our clothing under our bed covers, and dressed there, or got as close as we dared behind the living-room stove to absorb whatever heat we could to get dressed. In the Fall, our mother sent to Sears and Roebuck for our winter underwear, one piece white long-johns with the ‘scuttle’ in the back. Over them we wore the hated long brown stockings, held up by an over-the-shoulder harness of garters.

In the cold upstairs bed-rooms, we had home-made quilts to keep us warm, made by our mother and grandmother. There were five of us younger children. We’d often pool all of our bedding, and sleep across the bed, in one bed, each wrapped in their own quilt like a sleeping bag. Usually we’d have one or more of the barn cats sleeping with us.

I recall one Christmas I got a one-piece wool snowsuit that Santa brought. I couldn’t figure out why I saw my mother sewing on it, if Santa brought it. My mother had made it from an old man’s topcoat that someone had given her. Daddy had showed her how his grandmother taught him to make mittens from a scrap piece of wool fabric. He would trace around his hand, cut from the wool scraps, and hand-stitch around the fabric. Our Aunt Mildred was the only knitter of the family, and would give us hand-knitted mittens for Christmas. I learned to knit mittens when I was a teen.

The hill behind the barn was the best in the neighborhood for sliding. Some of the neighborhood children joined us to slide on a moonlit night. We used whatever we could find to slide on. When we didn’t have sleds, we’d slide on wooden shingles, or whatever we found that would move on the frozen crust. When the crust was thick, we’d slide in the field across the road. If we had runner sleds, we’d lay down on the sled, with a younger sibling on our back. It was fine until the sled would cut through the crust, sending us into the crust. More than once, I recall one or more of us going to the house with a bloodied nose or face. I recall how upset my father would be in the Spring when the back field would be scattered with good shingles.

I recall sliding with my maternal cousins in Lincolnville, on the discontinued road in the Millertown section of town behind their house. We were sliding double when we slid into some barbed wire, frozen into the crust. Cousin Carol got pretty banged up and bleeding when we hobbled up the hill to be patched up by her mother.

Before tractors or snowplows were used in our yard, I recall snowstorms that would leave snow blown up to the eaves of the milk house. Our neighbors on the hill bought the raw milk in quart milk bottles for 25-cents each. The milk would freeze before it could be picked up, raising the paper cap well above the top of the bottle.

My father would shovel out the yard from the barn to the road. I recall the large square shovel, which he would use to cut deep squares, and throw them against the milk house. One square after another until the yard was all clear. We didn’t have to worry about losing the power, because before the 1940’s, we had no electric power. The water pump would freeze in the sink. We were prepared. Water was drawn before we went to bed. After getting the fires started in the morning, the tea kettle would be heated enough to thaw the hand-pump. Our water was gravity-fed from the spring in the ‘well-field’ to both the hill and barn.

The cows were let loose one at a time to drink from the watering tub which over-flowed in the barn tie-up. It was an excellent water source, until the horse, Betty, drowned in the well. There was a wood plank covering over the well, with a wood fence around it. An apple tree grew beside the well, with the apples dropping onto the well covering. Apparently she stepped through the fence onto the wooden cover, and went in head-first. She thrashed so much that the source of the spring was plugged.

It was a neighborhood sensation. The only wrecker was one built by Virgil Hall of Lincolnville Center. He came with a Lincolnville and Northport following to get in on the excitement. Back in those day, in the mid 1940s, there was a fox farm on the New England Road in Searsmont. I recall riding in the truck to haul Betty to Searsmont to the fox farm.

In 1963, Bob and I and our family lived in Searsmont Village, between two rivers. We had two ponies for the children. They had shelter under the barn, with a scuttle above to drop down hay and water. They could move in and out. In February the temperature dropped well below zero, and stayed that way for nearly a month. The ponies never once ventured out from under the barn. We had a wood furnace in the cellar with a large square register in the living room, where the damper was on a chain. The top of the furnace could be red hot, and we could stand over it for warmth, but when we stepped off the furnace, it was cold.

We moved to an un-insulated home that had been gutted by fire, with a hole in the roof, on Labor Day, 1966. It was a beautiful fall, with warm weather into October until Bob could get a chimney built. The girls can tell you about how cold it was upstairs, as well as down stairs, when we had stove after stove, trying to keep warm. They recall the frost on the nails in the roof in the unfinished rooms. Insulation has, for the most part, made this old house quite comfortable,.

Sure enough, we’ve had a severe winter, but we’re much better off than our fore-bears, in their un-insulated houses. Everyone in the neighborhood lived the same. Those were “the Good Old Days!”

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