When Winter Was A Pitched Battle With The Elements
Supermarket shelves swept clear of basic food items. Schools and businesses closed. Travel banned. It is the Storm of the Century — and it happens at least once each winter season.
Modern technology keeps the public informed about every nuance in the weather. If a storm is in the making, there is a rush to stockpile necessities and a flurry of cancellations and postponements.
When Snowpocalypse does strike, warnings keep us one step ahead of big and small disasters. Then we complain about the inconveniences of working from home, lapses in electricity, rescheduled appointments, truncated train schedules, or having to watch movies from our cozy couches and sip hot chocolate while the cold winds swirl around us. Oh, our aching arms and backs we complain, after a session of snow blowing a five-foot walkway. Call the town hall — why has our street not yet been made pristine, four hours after the storm has passed?
What did our predecessors do, though, when winter dumped feet of snow onto the land?
Oral histories shared for the Newtown Remembered books, edited by Andrea Zimmermann, Daniel Cruson, and Mary Maki, shed some light on how the aftermath of a snowstorm was handled the first part of the 20th Century.
If staying home with restless children for 48 hours or a missed appointment creates anxiety now, consider the recollection of Ann Krafcsik Schoenfeldt to the oral history editors.
“We used to have blizzards and stay home for two weeks,” said Ms Schoenfeldt, and storms left drifts 12 feet high, which had to be hand shoveled.
Schools shut down and buses do not run when bad weather threatens today. But Carolyn Merrit remembered in the 1920s, “Walking through snow up to my waist. They would dig a path in the road just so you could get by.”
“It seemed to me there was more snow and it was cold,” according to the late Sarah Mannix, who described Newtown winters from the 1930s. “I can remember [school] being canceled after Hawley School [opened] and there just wasn’t any school anywhere [after one storm]… But there used to be very, very heavy snowstorms. And of course then they did not have plows. You shoveled yourself out. If it was drifted in, the people got together. But the farmers who had teams of horses or oxen had a big snowplow of sorts that they built themselves and they would go through and break through a road,” Ms Mannix recalled.
People looked out for each other, and because doctors back them made house calls, shoveling the walkway was a priority after a big snowfall, she said, in case a visit was needed.
The late Dr Russell Strasburger also recalled an era when horse teams cleaned up after a storm.
“[The state hospital] plowed snow with the team; they did all kinds of things with them… In those days, [Dr Strasburger was referring to the mid 1930s] tractors were available, but they did not use them for everything,” he said.
The value of horsepower during bad weather is expressed once again in the memoirs of the late Eleanor Mayer of Cherry Grove Farm in the Palestine district of Newtown. Ms Mayer shared her memories of the blizzard of 1934 in History of Cherry Grove Farm.
“Nobody went by our house when we had a blizzard for about a week,” she told Andrea Zimmermann. Unable to haul milk to Bridgeport, Ms Mayer and two other farmers hitched up Clydesdale horses to a sled, tied the milk cans on, and delivered the milk to Cross Roads Store in Botsford. Unable to go on the drifted road at one point, the horses went up and over the stone walls.
Eventually the roads were dug out, and if today’s road crews think they have it tough behind the wheel of an automated snowplow, Ms Mayer’s memories may make them feel much better.
School bus driver Clayton Lewis and a crew of 20 men showed up, with their shovels. While Ms Mayer does not explain how Mr Lewis got his school bus to Palestine Road, she described the snow removal process.
“[Mr Lewis] would ‘butt’ the big drifts. Then he’d back up and a bunch of guys would get out and they would shovel and shovel and shovel, and then he’d butt the drift with the school bus again… And so it was in the old days,” said Ms Mayer.
Walking To Bridgeport
Thomas Goosman’s remembrance of snowstorms, as recorded in Newtown Remembered, is of a slightly different, but equally physical means of plowing roads in the early 1900s.
Two planks would be nailed together, and the man who plowed sat on the board.
“He had a team of horses and they would go down the road. All they would do was move the snow aside a little bit. All of the farmers, a different farmer each time; you didn’t get paid for it, you just did it,” Mr Goosman said.
Cows, of course, do not care whether there is a little or a lot of snow. Milk is still produced, and in that agricultural era, getting that milk to Bridgeport was vital. When snow one year was so deep that not much plowing was done at all, farmers took turns walking milk down to Bridgeport, behind their horses, Mr Goosman recalled. Then, the farmers rode back to Newtown. All in a day’s work, naturally.
There was a different mindset as to what constituted a debilitating storm, said town historian Daniel Cruson.
“To a certain extent, people were more used to severe weather than they are today,” he said. “People relied on each other, and there was definitely a sense of community [in Newtown’s early history],” he added. To walk a mile to assist a neighbor was nothing, and shoveling a ten-mile stretch of roadway using only heavy iron shovels was simply what had to be done.
The State Commissioner of Roads was in charge of seeing that state roads were cleared, but secondary roads relied on residents “to dig out as best they could,” Mr Cruson said. “Even though Newtown had one or two mechanized plows by the 1930s, it was not really that common until after World War II. Roads were often still shoveled by hand,” he said, and early mechanical plows were not always up to confronting the huge drifts that froze across roads.
Bigger Storms, Harsher Winters?
“Anecdotally,” Mr Cruson said, “there was more snow [during the winters] before World War II, and more severe storms. It was colder, and the storms were more frequent [than in modern times].” Pictures from an earlier era show Bridgeport Harbor and New Haven Harbor frozen over, “and that hasn’t happened in my life time,” said Mr Cruson.
While schools did close for bad weather, the neighborhood district schools closed on an individual basis, said Mr Cruson. If the teacher could get to the school, and had wood on hand to fire up the stove, there would be school. It depended, of course, on whether families felt it was safe to send their children on the trek by foot to school. It was not until the 1930s, he said, that any bus service was provided to children.
“Six inches of snow was not going to cancel school back then, though,” Mr Cruson laughed.
Early Newtown winter storms are not to be scoffed at. The Blizzard of 1888 continues to set the bar, Mr Cruson said, despite later storms out-snowing it. That March storm had winds that created drifts up to 20 feet deep. Train traffic was stopped for over a week.
Twelve-foot deep drifts blocked Route 6 during a series of storms that struck the area between February 9 and March 10 of 1920, cleared by hand by a crew of 32 men.
It is often the winds that worsen a snowfall. The blizzard of February 19-20, 1934, Mr Cruson said, had only a foot and a half of snow, but hurricane force winds that created havoc. Mail did not move for two days, not surprisingly, as snowplows failed and manpower was once again required to clear the roads.
Laying In Supplies
Preparations for bad winter days started months earlier, in the “good old days,” to be sure that adequate coal, wood, candles, and cooking supplies were on hand. Crops planted in the spring, and harvested in the fall meant that goods could be set aside for colder months. Trees felled in the summer meant that wood could be split in the fall, and fires would be fed during the coldest days.
Haying in August meant that cows and horses could be fed, no matter what the weather — provided a path was hand shoveled to the barn. How much light would be cast in winter’s gloom depended on seeing that adequate numbers of candles or plenty of kerosene was set by, long before a December storm blew in.
For those who did not have provisions from the warmer months stored — canned goods, dried meats, a root cellar — a storm could mean days of just getting by. No weather alert sounded to warn of impending bad weather, nor were the general stores of the early 20th Century and earlier years able accommodate the entire town suddenly stocking up. Unplowed roads, buried under ice and snow, brought normal life to a standstill. Snowbound families simply had to wait for a thaw, live on what was in the pantry, or rely on the kindness of neighbors who could get out.
It was dark and it was cold. Electricity was uncommon in households through the early 1900s. Wood-fired furnaces and stoves meant planning ahead for stormy days. Wood had to be chopped, piled, and moved into the firebox each day. To shovel a path through several feet of drifts, then shovel the blanket of snow on the woodpile, shake the ice and snow from the logs, and carry it all back to the house or barn was not an easy task; but it was required by many, if heat was desired.
Weather Alerts From Aching Joints
With no minute-by-minute updates from social media or news sources, and no televised broadcasts of each flake falling, how did early Newtowners know a storm was on the way?
“The old farmers were amazing,” Mr Cruson said, noting that Newtown was primarily an agricultural society before World War II. “They had a sixth sense about these things.”
Aching joints and trick knees were considered as reliable as the 10 o’clock news is today – perhaps more so.
“People were much closer to their environment at all times, and were in contact with nature. If a farmer said ‘It smells like snow,’ he was often right,” Mr Cruson said, “and often right about the severity of the coming storm.”
Neighbors shared these corporeal forecasts by word of mouth, when they could; or simply looked outside to see what was happening and made common sense decisions.
“I blame the modern news reporting, specifically television,” Mr Cruson said, “for creating the near hysteria around modern storms.”
It is a different, faster paced world today than our ancestors knew. When snow piles to the windowsill and ice coats the roads, the world can be a treacherous place, so there is no harm in practical preparations. Travel bans make sense in an era when modern vehicles make people feel impervious to nature’s wrath. And unlike the snowplows of the early 20th Century, today’s plows can clear the way, if cars are kept off of the roads.
Life can seem inconvenient when a storm bears down. But when it all blows over, we can take comfort in the thought that our first selectman will not be knocking on the door to ask, “Would you like to shovel the highway?”