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There was no escaping the cold in the old days

December 30, 2010
It looks like we're in for an old fashioned winter with lots of snow (18 inches on Monday) and arctic temperatures. Despite it all most everyone lives a sheltered life in centrally-heated houses, drive in warm cars with added traction, and traverse outside in water-repellent and wind-resistant clothing. Now-a-days, most people work inside away from the elements.

Old-timers remember the days before such conveniences and weather was just another reminder of the hardscrabble nature of life.

Roger Robar, of Lisbon, remembers growing up in Landaff in the 1940s, "school would never be closed" because of the weather. He regularly walked over a mile down Jockey Hill Road to the Blue School and could remember the snow drifts as high as 10 feet.

"More than once," he said, "we broke our own path."

Being inside was not a treat either; it was marginally warmer than outside. Most of the housing in those days was old – few houses were built during the Great Depression and the World War II. That meant people lived in houses from the 1800s and early 1900s that lacked insulation and many of the products that seal the cold out. They "were like being in a barn," Robar remembers. What little heat they had escaped through the roof melting the snow and creating long icicles that hung down from the edge of the roof to the ground below.

The homes themselves were heated by woodstoves and sometimes by more modern coal-fired furnaces and then usually only on the first floor. Old woodstoves were of course not air-tight and hard to regulate– so they burned hot and without constant wood -- they went out. The old yarn was that a woodstove would simultaneously burn your belly and freeze your back-end. Restarting the fire in the cold morning was a regular chore. It was also unsafe without flues or any of the normal fire-retardant materials that are common today. Chimney and other fires relating to the stove were common and if not extinguished quickly the entire house would be ablaze. Don Fogg, who farmed in Lisbon and Groveton, remembers grabbing the hot, flaming stove pipe and throwing it out the door.

The second floor bedrooms often had no heat, Robar said, "and the windows would ice up. It was absolutely freezing." The beds would be piled "with quilts on top of quilts" but you'd never get warm so, he said, you "stayed in one spot."

Many men worked outside in those days, as laborers and farmers. Robar, who was a carpenter, said snow was never a problem, but the cold could be. "Work was much harder when it's brutally cold – you don't work fast – day drags on." He learned that the best work gloves were thin, cheap ones because they could easily be dried. He'd go through several pairs a day.

Fogg remember one morning when the temperature at his dairy farm along the Connecticut River fell to -55.

"It was just plain bitter," he said, "the coldest I ever saw." Fogg's cows needed to be fed, watered and moved. He had 200 cows in a barn built for twice that number and everything froze up. He took frequent short dashes outside to tend to his chores, but couldn't sustain the cold for long. "Cows are pretty able to stand the cold, better than people," he said, "That were an awful experience."

But as Robar said, "That was just the way it was."

Martin Lord Osman
Varney Smith
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