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Voices Fall-Winter 2005:
Click on the cover for the Table of Contents. Read the Upstate column, “Winters Just Aren’t What They Used to Be” by Varick A. Chittenden here.
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Voices cover FW2005


Volume 31

Winters Just Aren't What They Used to Be by Varick A. Chittenden

Fifty years ago, when I was a kid riding the school bus every day, my elders would often say, “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? 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. The storm will inspire stories to be told for at least half a 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 around and froze the apples with ice so thick that they couldn’t be harvested!

Main Street, Canton, NY, circa 1950
A man walks on a Main Street sidewalk in Canton, New York, circa 1950. Photo courtesy of the Town and Village of Canton Historian’s Office.

Then there was the blizzard of January 1977. Buffalo made the national news, as seventy-mile-an-hour winds blew snow in drifts up to thirty feet in a matter of hours, and the city came to a standstill for days. But in the rugged Tug Hill region south and west of Watertown, where lake-effect winds often drop the greatest total snowfall in the state— over 300 inches per year in Montague—the blizzard of 1977 was just another winter storm. 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-greatgrandfather Elisha Risdon, a Vermonter who moved to northern New York in 1803 and lived out his life in Hopkinton as a farmer. A great observer of life in general, his entries about winter in the North Country of his day include many meditations on cold temperatures:
1819: December 5th, 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. April 24th. We are having a Siberian spring on the back of a Siberian winter.
Risdon also penned 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 eighteen inches. Set off for my hunting camp. . . . The snow is so deep I can’t hunt. 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 two feet.
My own favorite commentaries about upstate winters are the photographs you can find in family albums or old local newspapers. 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 secondstory windows of the house. My sister has a collection of photos taken in the 1970s during a sudden blizzard in Fort Drum. 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 any more!


Varick A. Chittenden is professor emeritus of English, SUNY Canton College of Technology, and executive director of Traditional Arts in Upstate New York (TAUNY).Photo of Varick Chittenden
Photo: Martha Cooper

My own favorite commentaries about upstate winters are the photographs you can find in family albums or old local newspapers. Of course, we all know that a camera doesn’t lie, but it certainly might stretch the truth.

This column appeared in Voices Vol. 31, Fall-Winter 2005. Voices is the membership magazine of the New York Folklore Society. To become a subscriber, join the New York Folklore Society today.

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