Ah, Winter!


Boys had to learn that harnessing a horse in cold weather called for some care. The bridle must be taken into the kitchen and boiling water poured over the bit to remove the frost, otherwise it would stick instantly to the animal’s tongue and remove large pieces of skin. A horse blanket went with every sleigh, to be used when the animal was tethered in the long shed that stood behind every meetinghouse and behind every general store worthy the name. If the parson was given to long sermons, the feed bag was put over the horse’s head that he might have the sustenance of oats while his master was feeding on the spirit.


No effort was made to clear country roads. The first team through after a snowstorm broke the way. Others followed in the tracks. In the village, however, the chief sidewalks were cleared by a one-horse plow that pushed the snow into the streets; and the streets were packed hard and level by a gigantic roller weighted with concrete, that moved ponderously up and down the thoroughfares like a Juggernaut’s car, crushing down the snow. Yet by spring the surface of the street might be as high or higher than the sidewalk.

Winter was the season for social doings of all kinds. For much of five months the millpond or, for that matter, a lake, was the glittering center for skating parties, at which a few old-fashioned men appeared with the skates of their youth, being of wood with metal blades that curled up in the style shown in old prints and the book about Hans Blinker. On large bodies of frozen water were to be seen die iceboats of villagers; and even more fascinating were the crews of the company that sawed ice into oblong cakes, then pike-poled the cakes to the endless chain that conveyed them up the long slip into the immense building where they were stored in sawdust. Come July, hunks of this clear solid with a blue tint would be delivered daily to refrigerators. Some of these were then beaten small and mixed with rock salt to freeze ice cream.

The Main Street of almost any village became with winter a track on which local sports raced their trotters in fancy harnesses, pulling light cutters handsomely decorated with panels of landscapes. Money was believed to be wagered on these affairs, which often called for a rousing sermon. But the sport of village boys was to hitch one’s sled to a rear runner of a delivery rig, when the driver wasn’t looking, then to go tearing madly down Main Street as a sort of caboose. This was forbidden in almost every village, but it was practiced with enthusiasm because of its dangers. The perils included not only capsizing but being struck by one of the flying clods of packed snow thrown from horses’ hooves. These were as hard as stones.

Any hill, of course, was a path for sliding, either on a bobsled called a traverse (from French-Canadian travois), or belly-bump on a single sled. A good crust on deep snow brought out the scooters made with a barrel stave. Except in a few localities, skis were still unknown. The means of travel were snowshoes, either regulation or bear-paw style.

Winter above all brought seasonal life to America’s pioneer industry, which is logging. Going to camp was an event. Out there behind the mountain the forest had been dark and silent for many months. Now it was white beneath the tall pines and spruces and no longer silent. All night long the trees snapped and crackled and boomed from the savage cold; and all day the woods were quiet only at brief intervals, when the falling wedges went home. Soon a big one shuddered, swayed, creaked, then tore loose from its stump as if hit by a bolt of lightning, and went swishing down to silence in the snow.

This, as the loggers told one another, was letting daylight into the swamp. They stowed away a tremendous breakfast before dawn, and at first light attacked the trees. They had their midday meal standing around an open fire in the snow; and at dusk returned to the big log camp in the clearing, to eat famously again, then to whet an ax, to sing a sad or a ribald song, to dance a jig, and to crawl into bunks below the ridgepole and the tar-paper root, and sleep while an owl sounded his melancholy cadences.


Come daylight, they were at it again, while uncounted bells pealed as teams started away with tall loads down the road to the distant river and the landings. Chains clanked an obbligato to the rhythmic noise of axes striking frozen wood, and the cries of cant-dog men loading logs at the crosshaul. The shadows grew longer around the clearing, the sun faded, twilight came down, and suddenly the forest echoed to the noble music of a master of the dinner horn, an instrument six feet long that could be heard in the last Forty of the most remote quarter section in the township. With its long moaning bellow, all work noises stopped; and into camp, their runners wailing protest at the cold, came the skidding teams and sleds, while behind them plodded men who moved in clouds of steam.