NNY Folklore: Back when winter was really winter in the north country

Photo courtesy Town and Village of Canton Historian's Office. A man walks on a Main Street sidewalk, Canton, beside banks of snow so high that he might well not be able to see the traffic alongside. Scenes like this one were typical not so long ago.

Photo courtesy Town and Village of Canton Historian’s Office. A man walks on a Main Street sidewalk, Canton, beside banks of snow so high that he might well not be able to see the traffic alongside. Scenes like this one were typical not so long ago.

Sometime recently I realized that I am from the last generation of rural north country residents who may have attended school — at least their first few years of school — in a one-room schoolhouse. Actually, my little St. Lawrence County hamlet of Hopkinton was pretty advanced. We went to a two-room schoolhouse, with the first three grades downstairs and grades four through six upstairs. It wasn’t until my sixth grade year that the new elementary school was finished and we had a classroom of our own. In the 1940s and 50s, multiple small schools in rural towns combined forces, built large buildings for grades kindergarten through 12 with all kinds of extra features, and nearly everyone rode The Yellow Peril — the school bus — each day. That fact inevitably inspired a predictable observation from our elders: “You young ones have it really lucky these days. When I was your age, we had to walk to school, rain or shine. A mile and a half. Each way!” Isn’t nostalgia great? Things from the past always look better (or bigger or stronger or harder or worse, even) than the present and, certainly, the future.

So it seems it is with the weather. Specifically, for us, winter. “Winters just aren’t what they used to be.” We hear that all the time in the north country. I’m no meteorologist. I don’t even watch the Weather Channel unless some pretty serious stuff seems to be headed our way. But I do remember the ice storm of January 1998. How could anyone here forget? It was disastrous for most of the Northeast and we were hit hard in the north country. The whole region went off the grid for at least a week; some people were without power and their roads were impassable for at least a month. It will inspire stories to be told for at least another half century. At the time, however, there were comparisons to an ice storm in the 1940s that some recalled being so bad it took out most of the apple orchards for miles and miles around and froze ice so thick that apples couldn’t be harvested.

Then there was the blizzard of January 1977. Buffalo made national news as 70-mph winds packed snow in drifts up to 30 feet in a matter of hours and the city came to a standstill for days. But in the rugged Tug Hill region south and east of Watertown, where lake effect winds often drop the greatest total snowfall in the state — well over 300 inches per year in Montague alone — that was just another winter storm. At the time, stories among old-timers there likely hearkened back to Real Winters, like the Blizzard of 1888 or even 1816, the Year with no summer.

For my own satisfaction, I have searched through the diaries of my great-great-grandfather Elisha Risdon, a Vermonter who moved to Northern New York as a pioneer settler in 1803 and lived out his life in Hopkinton as a farmer. A great observer of life in general, his reflections of winter in the north country of his day include the following entries on cold temperatures:
1819: December5th, Sunday, severe cold. Mrs. R. and Angeline gone to meeting. I have no greatcoat. I cannot sit in a cold house without one. December 31st. Very severe weather for cattle that have no shelter. I fear some of my cows will almost or quite perish before Mr. Coolidge gets the hovel built.
1836: February 2nd, Seldom colder, if ever. Do chores and sit by fire. April 24th: We are having a Siberian spring on the back of a Siberian winter.

Risdon also included several revealing passages about snow:

1812: March 29th, The snow fell about ten inches. The snow is about three feet deep.

1819: December 20th, Snow about 18 inches. Set off for my hunting camp … The snow is so deep I can’t hunt. Lodged at my camp with Mr. Cowless, warm and comfortable.

1820: January 14th, Wholesome winter weather.

1836: February 13th, the Indians call February the “snow Moon,” meaning that more snow falls in that month than in any other. We are buried in snow the papers state that the snow is four or five feet deep in Oneida

County, and also in the eastern states. The snow here is about two feet. Hay is $20 per ton in Vermont.
1844: January 5th, A snowstorm, such as the Yankees tell of in New England seventy-five years ago.

My personal favorite commentaries about Upstate winters are the photographs you can find in family albums or old issues of local newspapers, where a picture tells 1,000 words. Of course, we all know that a camera doesn’t lie, but it certainly might stretch the truth. My brother remembers climbing on top of a snow bank in front of our house and having his picture taken from below at an angle to make it look like he was above the windows on the second story of the house behind him.

My sister has a collection of photos taken during a blizzard in the 1970s when her family was en route to the north country from Utica and was stranded on Fort Drum for nearly a week because of deep snow and high winds. The photos show military vehicles unearthing cars completely buried under drifts of snow. Good stories, even tall tales, make winter and many other things much easier to bear, especially if we don’t have to walk a mile and a half to do it anymore.

Varick Chittenden is senior folklorist and director of special projects for Canton-based Traditional Arts in Upstate New York and Professor Emeritus of Humanities at SUNY Canton. He lives in St. Lawrence County.