Keeping Warm in New England Winters … Now, and Then

DSC02122DSC01871Lea Wait, here. And although I can’t officially claim to be a Mainer (I was born in Boston, and have only lived here ‘year round for 17 years) I do live there. I live in a house built in 1774 on an island in the Sheepscot River, one of Maine’s many tidal rivers, about twelve miles from the official “ocean.” The North Atlantic.

This winter has been an especially challenging one for those of us who choose to call Maine our home.  Normally, we have 25-40 inches of snow by this time in the area where I live, along the coast. This winter we’ve had almost 80 inches … in the past month. And as I write this … and as you read it … the snow is falling again. The next storm is due in a couple of days. And – did I mention? For the past month the temperatures have been in single  digits or below at night, and, some warm days, they’ve risen to the teens during the day.

But, considering it all, few people really complain. After all, we chose to live here. And this is an unusually snowy and cold winter.

Plus –  let’s not forget. This is 2015. Most people have  some form of central heat.  Storm windows. Insulation. Grocery stores. Running water. Stoves. Silk or thermal underwear. Fleece. Flannel. Wool. Plows. Salt and sand. And heated cars or trucks to get us from one heated place to another on plowed roads.

For hundreds – perhaps thousands – of years people survived here without most of those things.

I’m not an expert on the ways Abenakis and Micmacs survived winters.

But I do know a little about how Europeans lived here when my home was built. When the river wasn’t just patchworked with ice floes. It was  frozen so  hard  people use it for sleigh  races.

People prepared all year for winter. In snowy months men took sledges into the woods and  lumbered.  Wood was chopped in summer so it would be dry for winter fireplaces.  Fires were kept burning all day and night. On the coldest days, warmly dressed people slept 2-4  to a bed or pallet near the fire. Pine boughs were woven together in fall and piled around a house’s foundation. Snow would fill the holes, helping insulate the building. Snow was melted for water, for occasional washing, and for the soups and stews that, with bread, were sustenance. Fish, meat, vegetables and fruit were harvested in summer and dried, to be resurrected in winter stews. Clothes weren’t washed for months. Even infant’s clouts (diapers) were hung to dry in kitchens without rinsing.DSC00782

In Maine, small workrooms (the ell) connected houses to their barns, so animals could be fed without going outside. Privies were often located in the far corner of the barn. Roads were not plowed. Sleighs pulled heavy pieces of wood to push deep snow down so horses and sleighs didn’t sink in it.

But most people stayed home for the winter. “Winter well!” was a common farewell in fall. Those who didn’t live in town might not see neighbors until spring. Babies would be born, people would die, and no one outside the family would know for months. Sometimes a whole family would die, of disease or hunger or cold or fire or depression that led to violence, and no one would know until late spring, when muddy roads dried and were again passable.

I think of those people in winters like this one. I wonder how they felt. What they thought. How glorious spring must have seemed.

And I thank them. They, and others like them in other parts of our country, were survivors. And so our country survived.

A little snow? Just part of life.


One Response

  1. Thanks so much for the fascinating details, Lea! I’ve wondered how our forebears survived conditions we’re mostly sheltered from. Even the Native Americans of Northern Calif. must have been pretty chilly and damp in the winters here. I feel guilty reading this, after a 3-day weekend of sunshine and temps in the 70s. However, today we’re back in the 50s w/ a dank blanket of fog over us. Still, that’s not like the teens…. And we are having the worst drought in history here, w/ only occasional flooding storms as a contrast. But no snow in the Sierra, our water bank. Still wouldn’t trade w/ New England, and I wish you all well.

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