We had a long, difficult, severe, cold strenuous winter in 1996-97 and an unusually mild 1997-98 winter. I’ve heard old-timers say that our recent unusual weather doesn’t even begin to compare with winters- and summers-of the ‘30s and ‘40s. Those of us who lived during those years would probably say truthfully that the early winters were more severe and the summers were hotter and drier, or so it was to us who were youngsters then.
In the ‘30s and ‘40s it seemed that we had more summer droughts, thunderstorms and hailstorms, and much more snow, higher drifts and more blinding blizzards in winter. (Or could it be that living in the rural areas we felt the cold and heat and the storms more keenly?) As I look back it seems that I paid much more attention to the changes in weather than I do now, maybe because we now have automatic heat in our homes and access to grocery stores at all hours, and many have snow blowers and cars that start easily in cold weather.
The faces of the sky were very important to me as a kid.I would scan the sky first thing in the morning; if there were clouds anywhere in the horizon I would instantly fear a storm. Whether they were just fluffy, wispy cirrus clouds or threatening clouds, as the day progressed I’d keep one eye on the sky, dreading the impending storm.
I do recall several unusually severe hailstorms- one in particular on a hot July afternoon with hailstones the size of golf balls. The front double window in our house was totally smashed, and our roof was punctured repeatedly. Some of our neighbors’ cattle were injured, trees were stripped of their leaves, and garden plants were damaged. (We all remember the severe hailstorm we had in this area on Memorial Day several years ago).
Droughts were very common in the mid-‘30s. Grasshoppers invaded everywhere and ate every green leaf and blade of grass. As you walked along, they would scatter like leaves in the wind. During dry times we carried water from the river to our garden to try to save our plants, but the river depth had dropped so low that we could no longer go fishing for pan-fish to eat. In several dry summers we had a shortage of hay for the cows, so my Father used his canvas duck boat and with a scythe cut the “wild” hay that grew in the river near the edges and in the sloughs. It was tough hay and had sharp edges, but after being cut, hauled in the boat to our yard, and spread on the ground to dry, it was eaten by the cows. The ground was so dry that we could not find any angleworms for bait for fishing, so we used grasshoppers or perhaps bugs or beetles that ventured out onto the parched ground. Our pump did not go dry (the water level along the river was higher than other areas), but some of our neighbors did have problems. Weeding and hoeing in the garden (what little was possible) was done in the early evenings when the sun was not so hot. Yes, it seemed all that grew during the hot spells were the weeds!
Thunderstorms always were dreaded. Some farmers had lightning rods on their barns and homes, but we did not. I have mentioned before that one hot, stormy August night our new barn was struck by lightning and totally destroyed. We were thankful that our home was saved. Lightning always mystified me, and our Uncle Jim tried to explain the Scandinavian myth that the thunder was Thor riding his chariot over the rocks, and the lightning was the sparks from the chariot wheels against the stones. During one severe thunderstorm a bolt of lightning hit in our potato field, and afterwards my Father dug up a large number of fully-baked potatoes. Another time, lightning hit the Wisconsin River in front of our home, and the water sprayed upward like a geyser, and there was steam over the area for some time- a sight I shall never forget!
In the autumn when intense storms ceased, the colored leaves were gathered and “waxed” by us kids to make bouquets for our winter enjoyment. Cattails were gathered and shellacked and displayed in a nice vase. One fall I fixed a beautiful array of fat cattails, but apparently missed shellacking one of them. In mid-winter it popped, and we had “fuzz” all over the room.
Spring was welcomed after a long winter. After school was dismissed in late May, the first thing the kids did was to go to the old swimming hole, a spot alongside the old McNaughton Bridge. Potatoes were planted in early spring, a back-breaking chore we all dreaded. For those of you who have lived near a river, you will recall with me the booming noises as the river “breaks up” in the spring. That noise almost equaled the summer thunderstorms.
As is true today, it seemed that the season of winter was from October through April! Many times the snow drifts back then covered the fence posts and piled up like mountains. To our delight, the hard-packed drifts called on us to find an old saw and cut blocks to make our own igloo.
Many rural roads were not plowed for days; sometimes the equipment broke down, and it took many days to be plowed out. We used skis, snowshoes and the toboggan and sled for winter transportation. We did have a car and used those old tire chains to get traction through the snow. Some days the temperature was 40 degrees below zero! Dishwater thrown onto the garden area immediately froze into ice slivers and it hit.
So what is the verdict? Were the winters of years ago more severe and the summer hotter and drier than those of today? I guess it all depends on the vividness of one’s memory! When we are living those days they seem extreme, but in reality we recall the most pleasant memories. You be the judge in this, using your own memories!