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Ah, Winter!

May 2024
7min read

It was cold and long but it brought magic and the children loved it

Fifty years ago winter was still pretty much the season of discontent. Time out of mind poets had abused and libeled it. They said that winter brought snarling gusts to nibble the juiceless leaves. They charged that plague and pestilence came with it. Every mile was two in winter. It tamed man, woman and beast. He who passed a winter’s day escaped an enemy. A sad tale was best for winter.

These bleak opinions were not those of young people. Boys and most girls might take the other seasons in stride but they really looked forward with joyous anticipation to winter. Winter commonly gave advance notice of its coming. Spring might break out all at once. The Fourth of July, no matter the weather, meant summer. The very morning a thin sheet of ice was detected along the river banks, or in the watering trough, was fall. But the enormous drama of a northern winter gradually built up through minor flurries of snow to fulfill its promise with a thumping great snowstorm. The first day of good sleighing, that was the first day of winter.

Winter seemed always to herald its approach in late afternoon. The sky turned leaden overhead, and as black as thunderheads on the horizon. Then it began to spit snow, which meant that a few large flakes, soft as fireweed-blow, began to circle and fall leisurely out of the void. These were the (lakes one could examine closely and with astonishment that no two patterns were just alike.

Then, the brief twilight swiftly became night, the wind stiffened, the flakes multiplied and soon you could see neither river nor barn, though you could actually hear the snow falling, a sound that no poet, not even Whittier who loved winter, has yet put into suitable words. Winter was coming down from Canada. Never did the house seem snugger than when the flakes started piling up against the window panes, gleaming white in the mellow light of kerosene lamps.

Next morning was the magic. Before your eyes was a new white world. A vast silence covered it with mystery. Everything was different. You stepped out into the infinite hush with the uneasy feeling that this strange world from under a blanket was asking you a question you could not quite understand. Meanwhile, the storm had gone back into its hole on the other side of the mountain, or wherever it was that storms went, leaving no trace of the well-worn path to the spring, turning the stone fences into ranges of hills, converting stumps into grotesques, and making no less than a wonderland of the sugar place, with burdened maples hanging dazzling arches above the small firs that had become Christmas trees.

The matter of sound was queer. A good rousing shout was so muted it could scarcely be heard across the meadow. The new brightness was such that when you went into house or barn it was as if you had stepped from noon into midnight. For a few moments you could see nothing; you understood what elders meant when they spoke of snow blindness.

All of this, and much more, was high drama to country boys in the early years of this century. Sudden change makes drama. Winter in that era, before the automobile, changed everything-food, clothing, transportation, work and play. Even death seemed to come oftener, too, but it was different because the end of a funeral was a tomb and not the rock-hard ground.

Above all, winter was still the time of the sleigh; and the country roads changed overnight from a more or less flat surface to two deep ruts in the snow separated by a continuous mound a foot or more high. It it were a team, each horse walked or trotted directly ahead of the sleigh runners. If single, the shafts were set off center to permit the horse to move in the left rut and thus not be obliged to break a path in the middle of the road. Turning out for another rig was to be done cautiously; a horse who stepped belly-deep into snow might become intractable.


No sleigh was complete without a buffalo robe and, in zero weather, a freestone that had been heating all night on the back of the stove, then wrapped in newspaper and put on the floor of the sleigh to keep your feet warm. Bells took on great importance. Many sleighs had a bell fastened to each shaft, though the classic sound of winter emanated from a whole string of bells of graduated sizes and tones, that formed a belt around the horse. These were the jingle bells of the old song. Fully as musical were the big heavy bells that were hung, one from each horse, on working teams. They came in pairs that were carefully tuned to produce a chord of depth and great resonance. A straw ride in a bobsledded wagon body holding anywhere from ten to twenty people, commonly carried more bells than the Swiss musical act on the Chautauqua circuit.


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.

Although winter muted most noises, really cold weather seemed only to aid the most magnificent sound in outdoor America, a sound which in recent years has been all but stilled-the cry of the steam locomotive. In the splintery air of a northern winter, the whistle of, say, a Grand Trunk mogul pulling a string of cars, was a mighty noise that shattered the woods and the night, a trump to shame all horn players since Gabriel. It was a blast to roll on over the blueberry swamps, over the timbered hills, on over the stark fields, to warn all human beings, all animals wild and domestic, and even the fishes in the muttering streams, that the Fast Freight was going through with a full head of steam. In its echo was the sweet sadness of remembered sound that made old men restless and called boys to leave farms and villages to roam in far places.


There were other sounds peculiar to winter and cold. When northern lights flared up and danced along the horizon, one heard a faint whishing noise, like escaping steam. Sometimes the strange lights seemed to crackle. These were sounds that remained in memory. So was the humming of the telephone wires. No other sound was quite so desolate as this, so solitary, so filled with a great loneliness. Even in one’s own dooryard, this mysterious humming transported a boy to some unknown region near the moon and left him there sole, alone and facing the enigma of time, space and existence. It was a mystic thing. It came only with winter.

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