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Saturday, October 15, 2016

River Crossing and Recrossing: Ferries and Toll Bridges

 Journal Opinion Oct. 12, 2016

The Connecticut River has been a reoccurring topic for “In Times Past.” I have written of its role in the settlement of area towns and of the times it flooded those towns.  Columns have included log drives, dams and the shipment of local products to down-river markets. 

There have been numerous mentions of cooperation and competition between the valley towns that border opposite sides of the river.  While it has been a unifying feature of the valley, it has also been a barrier.

This column deals with the efforts of local residents to bridge that barrier. It surveys the earliest ferries and bridges through the early 20th century. Sources of information are the late Katharine Blaisdell’s Over the River and Through the Years, Book One, local town histories and historic periodicals. 

Blaisdell gives very complete descriptions of early ferries and bridges in Book One of her series and those seeking additional information are urged to consult that source. Her book series was widely distributed and is readily available in private collections and local libraries.

There were early bridges built over the Ompompanoosuc, Waits, Wells and Ammonoosuc rivers as well as larger streams and gullies, they will not be covered in this column. Neither will the bridges built by the railroad as it snakes up the valley in the 1840s. 

From the earliest years of settlement, residents of the valley have needed to cross the river. While canoes may have served first, commercial ferry operations soon followed.

 In 1772, just a few years after settlement, a petition was submitted to the General Assembly of New Hampshire for the “privilege” of a ferry between Newbury and Haverhill.   By 1773 at least two ferries were established there, one at Wells River and the other near Newbury village. 

In 1775 a ferry was operating between Orford and Fairlee with the charter being granted in the name of King George III. There were at least three ferries operated by Bradford or Piermont residents before the end of the 18th century.  
After independence, ferry rights were granted by the state governments. Charters generally established boundaries of several miles in each direction on the river in order to reduce conflicts between charter holders. The first ferry in North Thetford, established about 1780, actually operated without a charter for four years and then, upon petition by 89 men from Lyme and Orford, a charter was granted. 

 Those seeking and holding ferry rights included some of the significant members of the communities.  Capt. Ebenezer Green of Lyme and Thetford, Richard Chamberlin of Newbury and General Israel Morey of Orford are just three of these substantial citizens who saw economic promise in ferry operation.     

In March 1900 New England Magazine published an article by Max Bennett Thrasher entitled “A Connecticut River Ferry.” Thrasher described a typical ferry operating between the Vermont and New Hampshire shores during the 19th century.  

A typical ferry boat was up to 40- feet long and 11-feet wide and built of “hard-pine planks.” They were built with square ends for running up to the sandy landing areas. They were often tied to a cable and pulley system stretched from shore to shore. While larger ones were used for transporting loaded wagons as well as small herds, there were often smaller crafts for carrying walking passengers.  In some cases, where traffic warranted, a second large craft was available.

Passengers approaching the ferry landing from the side where the toll house stood would often find a painted sign board of toll charges. Those who approached from the opposite bank might find a tin horn to “hail the ferryman.”  

By the mid-19th century, a typical charge might be ten cents for a wagon and two cents for a passenger.  Cattle might be one to two cents per head. The fees varied with higher fees during rough weather or for night crossings. Ferries were not allowed to charge more than the legal fee, but could charge less. 

Once loaded, “the ferryman, standing at the end of the boat farthest from the shore, took hold of the stout wire rope to which the big craft hung.” He would walk back again and again using the attached pulleys to move the ferry across the river. Sometime the ferry scows would be maneuvered by a paddle attached to the sides or rear or by simply pulling on a rope to guide the craft to the opposite shore.  

After traveling throughout northern New England, President Timothy Dwight of Yale College wrote the following observation in 1796:  “Crossed the river at the ferry above the Great Oxbow. The boat was managed by two children smaller that I had ever seen entrusted with such employment.  But the expedition and safety with which we crossed the river, proved their perfect competency for their business.” 

Transporting livestock  sometimes created problems. One ferryman explain the difficulty of ferrying sheep: “sheep are the meanest things to take over. They’s jest as likely as not get scairt and jump overboard, and then its’ nigh impossible to catch them.”

Ferries usually ceased operation when the river froze. The boat would be drawn up beyond the flood zone for storage. In the early years this might take up to ten teams of oxen, but as new pulley systems became available, it could be done with one team of horses. 

The crossings were not without danger. In the spring there was floating ice or logs from the great log drives. There was always the danger of floods, freshets or uncertain currents. Extreme drought brought changes in the level of the river, creating problems for the ferryman.

Ferries served the area until bridges began to be built. As with ferries, the earliest bridges were business enterprises owned by individuals or groups of stockholders. Often ferry operators themselves were  major promoters. 

The first bridge between the two states was built at Bellows Falls in 1785.  By 1797 there were thirteen bridges across the river, including one at Newbury village built about 1796. 

One of the new bridges was built between Fairlee and Orford in 1802.  Dwight, the Yale president,  described it as “a neat bridge, consisting of one very obtuse arch supported by trestles.” This bridge was swept away by a “freshet” in April 1809.  The next year a new bridge was built, “supported by three wooden piers and extending unarched across the river.” 

Moody Bedell and other subscribers raised $3,800 to finance a new bridge at South Newbury in 1805. Other bridges were built between Lyme and Thetford in 1822 and between Bradford and Piermont in 1825.  

The bridges that replaced ferries were, at first, built as open uncovered bridges. As floods swept them away or weather took a toll on the exposed wooden timbers, they were replaced by covered bridges.
If a bridge failed, as they often did, ferries were re-established until replacements could be built. In several cases, the need for temporary replacements lasted ten or more years. When the bridge at South Newbury was swept away by a flood in 1841, ferry service was resumed for 18 years before a new bridge was opened. 

As with ferries, tolls were collected for all of these bridges. A toll house sat adjacent to one entrance to the bridge and the toll-keeper and his family were on constant guard against those who would sneak across without paying. A fine could be levied against trespassers, one that might be shared with someone who reported the transgression.

In The Vermonter magazine in 1906, Gilbert Davis of Windsor commented on the existence of toll bridges between the two states. Davis was a member of a state commission charged with studying the issue. 

Davis stated these toll bridges were, as a general rule, “very profitable investment.” He reported the corporation that owned the Lyman Toll Bridge between McIndoes and Monroe declared a 14 percent annual dividend to its stockholders. “The rates were exorbitant and even the ministers have to pay.“  

 Davis called for the abolition of the 10 toll bridges that remained between the two states. He concluded “the sentiment against the collection of tolls was strong.” “Locals,” he wrote, “occasionally asserted a sportive independence by chopping down the toll-gate.” 

After 1860, residents in both states began to call for free bridges, for freedom to travel across the river without paying. They sought to follow the 1858 example of Hanover and Norwich’s purchase of the Ledyard Bridge and turning it from toll to free. When this transformation occurred the toll bridges were sometimes purchased and sometime replaced.  

In March 1895 Orford voters appropriated funds so that the bridge would “now be owned by the town as a free bridge.” Fairlee voters appropriated $500, their share of the $5,400 price. The United Opinion later reported “double the number used the bridge once it was made free.”

The North Thetford Bridge was purchased by the voters of Thetford and Lyme in 1897. The local Lyme reporter commented “for a time, taxes will be higher, but in the end beneficial.”  

Davis was one of those who encouraged the legislatures of the two states to come to some financial arrangement to purchase the bridges. He believed it was unfair to leave the financial burden to just the two adjacent towns when the services were provided for all.  The states were somewhat reluctant to fully meet the financial commitment required and attempts to get appropriations often met with failure.  

In 1906 Henry Keyes of Haverhill purchased the Haverhill-Newbury Bridge and gave it to the towns on condition that they make it a free bridge. In 1911, after years of discussion, Bradford and Piermont purchased the connecting bridge. Bradford’s share was $1,100. 

By 1916 the toll bridge between Woodsville and Wells River became unsafe. The decision was made in each town to finance a new bridge just south of the old.  Articles in The United Opinion described the decision in Haverhill where it was “widely discussed and the outcome so anxiously awaited.”
The vote in Newbury passed at its annual town meeting. A special train was commissioned by the Boards of Trade of Wells River and Woodsville to carry Woodsville voters to the Haverhill town meeting in North Haverhill.  The bridge question was passed by “practically the unanimous decision of the voters of Haverhill.”  A new bridge was dedicated in November, 1917.  

In the years since, older bridges have been outmoded by modern transportation needs, damaged by flood or replaced by newly designed structures. This column has described in other articles the impact of 20th century floods and hurricanes on the Connecticut River bridges in our region and those articles can be found at larrycoffin.blogspot. com or in the Journal-Opinion archives.

The Connecticut River in our area is bordered by towns that have historic connections with towns opposite them. One has only to think of Wells River and Woodsville, Bradford and Piermont, Fairlee and Orford and Thetford and Lyme to recognize these cross-river connections.  

 Many readers will acknowledge that they frequently work, play, worship, shop and seek medical assistance on the opposite side of the river. They cross and recross the river so often it loses any sense of a barrier it might otherwise pose.  Ferries and bridges have historically played a significant role in creating that state of mind and bridges still do. 

Hail the Ferryman.  Flat-bottomed ferryboats similar to this one were a major mode for crossing the Connecticut River in our area during the first 50 to 75 years after settlement.  Often a traveler could hail the ferryman from the opposite side of the river by blowing a tin horn.  Smaller scows were sometimes available to transport a single passenger on foot.  

Toll Gate Stands Guard.  The toll house and toll gate at Woodsville is pictured here around 1900.  The double-decker bridge carried railroad traffic on the upper level and road traffic on the lower.  In 1916 the towns of Newbury and Haverhill voted to replace the toll bridge with a newly-built free bridge.  (Katharine Blaisdell, Book One)

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Early Agricultural Fairs: Farmers' Showcases

Journal Opinion September 7, 2016

HORSE SHOW. Horse racing and exhibitions were a major draw for local fairs. In 1906, the local newspaper reported that there were 10,000 in attendance for race day at the Bradford Fair. The grandstand was built into the hillside and offered a great view of the race track. Courtesy of the Bradford Historical Society.

CROWDED FAIRGROUNDS. The Bradford Fairgrounds. located on Fairground Road, offered what was called "the most natural fairground in the state." The midway featured several "eating houses." Despite the temperance movement, beer was being offered in the middle tent. Courtesy of the Bradford Historical Society. 

AREA-WIDE FAIR.  The Waits River Valley Agricultural Fair was held between 1890 and 1908 at the East Corinth Fairgrounds.  It drew both organizers and spectators from Corinth, Topsham and other area towns. The 1893 three-day fair was typical with a band concert, balloon ascension, races and exhibits. Courtesy of the Town of Topsham.

“The county fair is about the only legalized good time left to the county people….on one short day, at the county fair, we live and forget, happy in the company of the county-side, absorbed in a common pleasure.” Charles R. Cummings, The Vermonter, 1910. 

The period from mid-summer to early October is fair time in Vermont and New Hampshire and has been since the early 19th century. This column explores the history of agricultural fairs in the region from that to the early years of the 20th century. Information was gathered from local histories, several internet sources and newspapers of the period. The book Agricultural Fairs in America edited by Julie A. Avery was helpful.  

The town of Nutfield, now Londonderry, NH, clams the first agricultural fair in America. Local farmers held a fair to exhibit their best in 1742.  Other sources cite the fair sponsored in 1811 by the agricultural society of Massachusetts’s Berkshire County as the first. New Hampshire town charters, including that of Haverhill’s, specify that as soon as there were 50 families in town two fairs should be held annually.  It is unknown if  Haverhill met that early directive. 

While each of the fairs mentioned below had their own particular features, most of them had much in common. They were sponsored by agricultural societies and organized to promote the best cattle and crops that farmers had to show. As they evolved, domestic arts were included along with new machinery and farming techniques. 

The New aHam Hampshire Agricultural Society was organized in 1812 and the Grafton Society followed in 1818. One of these may have been involved in the earliest local cattle shows held at Haverhill and Plymouth in 1820 and Orford in 1826.  

The first fair sponsored by the Orange County Agricultural Society was held in Chelsea in 1847. Until its demise sometime after 1890, the Society’s fairs were held in either Chelsea or Bradford, with some competition with the two communities competing to be the host.

 Bradford’s fairgrounds, located on Fairground Road, offered what was called “the most natural fairground in the state.” McKeen’s History of Bradford included a description of the three sections of the fairgrounds: a lower level with a half-mile track which was used for horse racing and the exhibition of cattle; an upper level for exhibitions in permanent buildings and tents ; and a grandstand built on the hillside between the other two sections. It had been the site of fairs sponsored by the Connecticut Valley Agricultural Society between 1850 and 1866.

Because the Orange County Fair was held so frequently in Bradford after 1870, local newspapers referred to it as the “Bradford Fair” or “the fair at Bradford.”

With the expiration of its fairground lease, the last Orange County fair was held in Bradford in 1888. In 1892 an area-wide fund drive raised most of the $5,000 needed to refurbish the grounds and rebuild the track and grandstand.  The fair was held in 1893 and continued until taken over by the Bradford Agricultural and Trotting Association in 1900. That association continued to hold very successful fairs until 1913, after which regular fairs were discontinued until 1948. 

The Waits River Valley Agricultural Society began holding fairs in East Corinth in 1890. In 1895 shares were sold for $10 each to provide for improvements to the fairgrounds.  It was reported that tents erected for the 1899 fair had sufficient canvas “to have sheltered a regiment of the United States regular army.” Despite ups and downs, it was said that the fair became “what Old Home Day is to other communities.”  In 1908 the fair was discontinued, but was revived in the 1930s.

As early as 1842 an annual cattle fair was held in Ryegate for the “buying, selling and exchanging of Horses, Cattle, and all other kinds of property.” Beginning in 1888 the Ryegate and Wells River Dairymen’s Association held an annual fair in South Ryegate.  The grounds featured a short racetrack and display buildings.

 In 1906 The Caledonian reported that the fairground and building had been sold to the Caledonia Park Association and “will do away with the famous Ryegate fair which was held here every year and which attracted large crowds of people from miles around.”  Fairs did continue under the new ownership until about 1912.

From 1886 to 1894 the Pompanoosuc Agricultural Association held a three-day fair at the Pompanoosuc Fairground. As with many fairs it was held mid-week as the concept of the "weekend" had not developed and holding events on the Sabbath was out of the question.

The Grafton County Agricultural Society’s fair was an example of an event that drew organizers, exhibitors and spectators from an extended community. Beginning in 1859, its leaders included men from Orford, Lyme and Wentworth. This annual fair was held in Littleton until a new fairground was purchased in Plymouth. That new location allowed the fair to grow through stages as the Union Grange Fair, the Plymouth Fair and lastly, until its closing in 1993, as the Plymouth State Fair.

As early as 1846 Vermont also had a state fair.  It was held in various locations around the state including White River Junction and Montpelier before settling in Rutland. There it was managed by the Rutland County Agricultural Society. Its stated purposes were “the practical education of the farmer” as well as the “dissemination of knowledge respecting the resources of the state.”   

In West Topsham, a short-lived but successful fair was held in 1890-91. At the second annual fair attendance was 2,000 and it was said that “the display has never been equaled by any town fair and by few county fairs.”

 Another short-lived fair was the one sponsored by the Farmers’ Agricultural Society at Haverhill Corner in 1891. Although that one “went off with a snap,” by 1893 the fair was discontinued. 

Most fairs were held for between two and three days with an occasional fourth day.  There were also one-day fairs held in West Fairlee and Post Mills and a “County Fair” held in Fairlee, all in the early 1920s. The West Fairlee event was held for a number of years, attracted up to 700 with admission of 25 cents and offered “Rest Rooms for Mothers.”   

There were also numerous church and grange fairs, but they were generally one-day events and did not feature extensive agricultural displays. 

The fairs were not without controversy. The early Londonderry Fair was discontinued when it became a “moral nuisance…with scenes of vice and folly in some of their worse forms.” In 1893, The United Opinion mentioned “a gang of sharpers are working the fairs with games, fakes, etc., and a considerable amount of counterfeit money is said to have passed around.” In 1895 a Vermont law gave fair officials the power to control horse trading and games of chance both within the fairgrounds and along the roads leading to it.  

 As the temperance movement grew there were prohibitions against the sale and use of intoxicating liquor as well as pool and games of chance.  In 1885 The Women’s Christian Temperance Union met the challenge of thirst by furnishing a barrel of ice water at the Bradford fair.  The following year it was mentioned that “if the exhibits cannot sustain [without liquor] better dispense with the shows.”

With horse racing common there was bound to be controversy.  In 1859 a tongue-in-cheek flyer appeared announcing the second annual fair sponsored by the Salt River Valley Gouging and Sponging Association to be held in Bradford.  With announced seating for 6 people, premiums of $3.50 and a prize of six cents for the “biggest Humbug,” this fair was being held “owing to mismanagement last year.” Gouging and sponging were terms associated with cheating in races.  It is interesting that the Association is named in an 1861 transaction in which a piece of adjacent land was sold.

Newspaper columns often mentioned when individuals from one community visited a fair in another.  Some towns gave students a day off to attend the fairs. Railroads offered special prices for tickets to stations adjacent to fairgrounds and hundreds took advantage of this. 

Many came by horse and buggy. A Piermont elder writing in 1948 recalls going to the Bradford Fair in the early 1880s. She described “long lines of teams filled the dusty roads until we came outside the Gates.”

 Poor road conditions prompted the following Bradford comment in 1895: “We take the liberty to suggest to the town of Corinth that they get mad and declare the annual fair off until the road between there and here is put into decent shape.  Everybody would make such a kick out of the prospect of a year without a Corinth Fair as would make the voters of both towns do some hard thinking.” 

It was not uncommon for there to be up to 6,000 spectators on a single day at these local fairs depending on the weather and the programs offered.   In 1871 New Hampshire reported 100,000 attended fairs and 5,000 head of cattle were displayed. As “horse trots were the great feature” of local fairs, large crowds turned out for them.  In 1906 10,000 were in attendance for race day at the Bradford Fair.  

Locals sometimes travelled out of the local region to attend fairs.  After 1835 fairs were held in St. Johnsbury and after 1880 in Tunbridge.  The Centennial Exposition in Philadelphia in 1876 and the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893 were attractions for some local residents, some of whom wrote of their experiences for the local newspaper.   After 1916 some took the train to East Springfield, MA for the Eastern States Exposition. 
Fairs offered remote farm families an opportunity to share techniques as they socialized with others from the area. Improved practices and new equipment for both farm and home were showcased.  This was especially important as there were major innovations in agriculture by the mid-nineteenth century. These included new farm implements and improved growing techniques that drew the interest of farmers looking for ways to improve efficiency and yields. 
 Competitions among both farmers and housewives were key. Those competitions were divided into departments and classes in many fields. There was horse, cattle and poultry judging along with produce, domestic items and floral displays. There were ploughing matches, bicycle and foot races and even a baby contest looking for the “best, handsomest and smartest babies.” 

 Some fairs offered special divisions for boys and girls to show their own produce and handiwork.  In local newspapers, premiums were promised beforehand and winners announced after.  Local champion animals appeared at local fairs before being presented at larger fairs throughout New England and New York. 

Dozens of town oxen teams competed annually in early fairs.  Most fairs featured concerts by bands such as the Bradford Brass Band and the Newport Cornet Band. In 1901 a baseball game between the Woodsville and Bradford teams was “one of the leading attractions on the first day in Bradford.  It was not uncommon for there to be speeches by local dignities.  A merry-go-round was a money-making feature at several fairs.

Professional shows include acrobatic acts, mini-circuses and the popular balloon accession with parachute drop.  One frequent performer was the balloonist Professor Bonet, “a young man of rare nerve and skill.” There was no mention of a burlesque show or the type of sorted sideshow found in some larger communities.  

Why were these fairs discontinued?  There was the constant need for funds for upkeep and improvements to the fairground, a need that was sometimes overwhelming. As with many ongoing activities where the burdens of work and responsibility fall on a few, those few give up the burdens after a time.  With no one to fill their roles, the activity drew to a close. Increasingly there must have been competition from motion pictures that provided star-studded entertainment, from automobiles that could take folks farther away and radios that kept them at home. 

The authors of the History of Ryegate, writing in 1913, expressed the sadness that many must have felt when the local fair was no longer held. They  further wrote “We believe in home fairs and the  friendly competition of neighbors in prizes given for merit, when the average farmer feels at home and knows he has a fair chance to get a square deal.”  Add to that an entertaining program and an over-all good time and it makes a believer of us all.  

At local fairs today one can see an update of the early fair experience including this 1880s child’s summary of fair day. “It was a day of anxiety and fatigue for Pa and Ma, but the children rode home tired, but happy, with their hands clutching balloons, whips and candy, a large amount of the latter adorning their faces.”

Friday, July 8, 2016

1816: Year Without A Summer

In April 1815 Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago erupted sending  a giant cloud of ash and sulfuric acid into the atmosphere.  Over the next year this cloud spread around the Northern Hemisphere altering the weather.

1816 was the year with a chilly spring and a disastrous summer for much of North America and Europe.

Prepared initially for the Journal Opinion

Weather and climate are always topics for conversation. The current news gives us plenty to consider. World-wide, 2014 was the hottest year on record and 2015 was even hotter. Climate change and the impact of El Nino greatly diminished the most recent winter.

But 200 years ago this month, one of the most unusual summer to pass in northern New England was just about to get started. This column deals with the weather in and around 1816. Information was gathered from state and town histories, old newspaper articles and 1816 The Year Without Summer by William and Nicholas Klingaman.

In a region where aberrations in the weather are normal, 1816 was really abnormal. It was a year with a lost summer. It was a year that was talked about for decades and spawned both scientific studies and folktales. 

The 500 years before 1816 were part of a period of global cooling known as the Little Ice Age.  Settlers in the region experienced unusually late and early frosts from time to time. In 1783 Thomas Johnson of Newbury reported that a frost on August 9 killed most of the corn crop. The decade following 1810 was for many the coldest 10-year period in the history of North America.

At the time there were a number of explanations for the abnormal weather. These ranged from unusual sunspots and the use of lightning rods to God’s displeasure of a sinful society. Current scientific evidence points to unusual volcanic activity. 

In 1809 there were several powerful eruptions in remote tropical locations. In 1812 there were two volcanic eruptions in the Indian Ocean and another in the Philippines in 1814. But the most significant eruption came on Mount Tambora in the Indonesian archipelago beginning on April 5, 1815.  A series of eruptions pulverized the mountain, sending ash, dust and soot up to 25 miles in the atmosphere.

The noise of the blast could be heard over 800 miles away.  It is estimated that 15,000 residents in the vicinity of the volcano died from the blast, the ash and the resulting tsunami and 80,000 died in the ensuing year from disease and starvation.

Within 24 hours a giant mushroom shaped ash cloud had covered hundreds of square miles. It was later determined that the eruption was the largest in thousands of years and was 100 times stronger than the eruption of Mt. St. Helens in 1980.  

In addition to millions of tons of ash, a giant aerosol cloud of sulfuric acid formed. Both ash and aerosol became suspended in the atmosphere and spread around the world by wind patterns. The particulate matters reflected sunlight resulting in cooler temperatures and abnormal weather. 

Almost immediately, residents of Europe and North America noticed spectacular sunsets caused by the particles and gases in the atmosphere. New England experienced frosts in late August and snow in September, 1815. When snow fell that winter it was often tainted brown or red. 

The winter of 1815-16 was milder. The Middlebury Register reported that “January was so mild that fires were allowed to go out except for cooking purposes.” By early March much of the snow was gone and the Northeast experienced early spring thunderstorms. 

The Klingamans explain that this mild winter was partly the result of the Tambora cloud. Its interaction with the atmosphere led to fewer polar incursions than normal. As spring arrived, however, cold air was free to move down from the Arctic setting up North America and Europe for “a chilly spring and a disastrous summer.”

Residents of Northern New England were not fully prepared for what was to come. Most residents were subsistence farmers, depending on annual crops for their food and fodder for cattle. In the previous decade several major epidemics of spotted and lung fevers had sickened and killed many. 

Early spring rains and warming temperatures led to “expectations of a fruitful season and an abundant harvest.”  Late April brought a heat wave and many regional farmers planted their crops as temperatures reached the low 80s.

May turned cold as Canadian air flowed south bringing freezing temperatures and snow to New England.  Jacob Ide of St. Johnsbury recalled that temperatures “were like that of winter.” Early buds on plants froze. On May 16 snow fell all day in some portions of the two states. 

Temperatures during the first several days of June were mild. But on June 5 a winter jet stream caused temperatures to plummet and then a freak blizzard followed. Snow and hail fell throughout Vermont and New Hampshire with some places receiving up to 12 inches of snow with drifts to three feet.

Over the next three weeks, the region endured snow and cold temperatures of unprecedented severity for June.  Not every day was cold, but the accumulative impact on residents was harsh.  Ide recalled that “June was the coldest month of roses ever experienced. Frost and ice were as common as buttercups usually are.”

Sheep that had recently been shorn froze to death. Birds that could not find shelter died.  Early crops and leaves were destroyed.  Farmers could not work their fields. Bricklayers in Bath had to quit working because their mortar froze. Residents wore winter garments. Most agreed it was beyond anything they had ever experienced.  

Unaware of the impact of the volcano, residents sought answers for the unusual weather. Some claimed it was the appearance of sunspots so large they could be seen with the naked eye. Others suggested unusual amounts of ice in the Great Lakes and North Atlantic or the cooling of the earth’s core. Use of lightning rods, earthquakes in the Mississippi Valley, a great comet in 1811 and the impact of deforestation were also blamed. 

Many saw the hand of God at work. It was widely believed that God controlled the natural world and used its manifestations to carry out His will. Perhaps this unusual weather reflected God’s displeasure at a decadent society or maybe it was a foreshadowing of the apocalypse.  The Governor of New Hampshire admonished residents to be mindful of their transgressions. Still in its infancy, meteorology was not available to offer alternative scientific answers. 

Almanacs for 1816 predicted hot weather for July. The weather did not heed those predictions. July 4 was cool followed by frosts throughout Northern New England on July 8 and 9. Mt. Moosilauke was white twice that month. When warmer temperatures returned in late July, farmers were encouraged to plant oats and late corn.  Livestock suffered from lack of fodder and some farmers mowed fields of immature corn to feed them.  

During this entire summer Vermont experienced a severe drought.  Water levels in rivers, lakes and wells sank. Smoke from forest fires blackened the sky, blocking the sun and obscuring views everywhere. 

By early August, fears of a general famine had subsided as hopes for a harvest of some grains seemed possible. In both Claremont and Lebanon it was reported that there was a “bountiful crop of rye.” In some communities the wheat crop survived. On August 13 a cold wave hit the region with frost. After a brief warmer period, frost on August 21 and again on August 28 and 29 caused residents to abandon those hopes. Some built fires around their fields in a vain attempt to save their crops. Snow covered mountain tops in both states. 

Samuel Morey of Orford experimented with cutting the immature corn stocks and stacking them in stooks, a method that resulted in the ripening of some kernels. On September 5 he wrote that the area seemed threatened with “severe scarcity.”  Later he wrote that the frost of the 28 “has put an end to the hopes of many corn growers.” Colonel W. H. Hoffman of Lebanon is quoted as saying “there was only six bushels of sound corn raised in the town that year.”

September only added to the misery of area residents as black frosts hit during the last half of the month.  The editor of the Vermont Journal wrote: “Never before in this vicinity [had the weather] appeared more gloomy and cheerless than at present. It is extremely cold for the time of year, and the drought [sic] was never before so severe.” In Hartford as in other communities, water on ponds and rivers froze “to some thickness.”  

October and November weather added to the plight of area residents.  While there was finally some rain, 12 inches of snow fell in Haverhill on October 17. The winter of 1816-17 was bitter cold.  Snow fell in some towns on the 5th of May, 1817. While the months that followed provided some relief, it took another year for conditions to return to normal.   

This disruptive weather had a lingering effect on the residents .  While there was starvation elsewhere in the world, local residents made do without normal supplies of foodstuffs. Grain prices rose. One local businessman brought a flatboat of grain from Connecticut up the Connecticut River and sold it at greatly inflated prices. In towns such as Newbury and Peacham, desperate farmers sought to sell what little they had at similarly high prices.  

Many who had not tasted oatmeal before came to rely on it. It had been introduced into the area by the Scottish settlers of Ryegate. The mill at Boltonville ran full time to grind the oats to meet the demand.   Some traded maple syrup for fish brought from the Atlantic or Lake Champlain.  Others ate what they could trap or forage, including wild plants, pigeons and even an occasional hedgehog.

The History of Ryegate quotes one Newbury elder who recalled that “children would talk about being good, for perhaps they would die when winter came, and would have nothing to eat.”  Farmers had to decide whether to eat their meager corn crop or save it for seed. The drought only added to residents’ plight as wells dropped and mills lacked water power.

 The poor weather conditions gave one more excuse to move westward.  Many wondered if the climate had changed permanently and gave in to “Ohio fever.” Some communities in Vermont and New Hampshire lost major portions of their population as discouraged families sought new opportunities in the Midwest. 

New England was not the only region to suffer from the impact of Tambora.  Areas in the Midwest and as far south as Virginia experienced cold spells during the period and to varying degrees suffered crop destruction from unseasonable frost and snow and drought. Peasant farmers from Quebec to major areas of Asia experienced especially hard times. 

Europeans also suffered greatly as crops failed from both cold temperatures and heavy rainfall.  A poor harvest in 1815 was followed by an even poorer one in 1816.  Many crops just did not grow. This destructive weather added to the economic and social displacement of the recent Napoleonic wars.

Throughout Europe, farmers sold off their livestock, depressing prices. Unemployment rose. Food prices increased as grain supplies diminished.  In some areas bread prices rose to three times the normal price. Neither private nor government charity were able to deal with the magnitude of the problems created by the economic situation.   

Outbreaks of disease throughout Europe added to the people’s plight. They reacted by filling churches to offer prayers for relief, by rioting against both bakers and authorities or by migrating for better opportunities elsewhere.  Large numbers of Europeans sought relief in the United States. 

“Year without a summer”, “1816 and froze to death”, “the mackerel year”, “the poverty year” are all titles given to the disruptions experienced by so Northern New Englanders many during the period.  Years later many elders recalled the difficulties of residents in the two-state area. As with stories told and retold, enhancements tended to creep in.  

Since settlers first came to this region, they have experienced anomalies in the weather and changes in the climate. There have been colder single weeks than those of 1816, deeper snow banks and more severe droughts, but none equal the continued onslaught of bad weather experienced in 1816.

 Elders like to recall that snow was deeper and winters more severe when they were young. They remind their listeners that in the last century no one would plant their gardens until Memorial Day and would expect the first frost just after Labor Day.  Climate change has changed that.

A review of the weather of 200 years ago remind us that events that occur half a world away can have a profound impact on our way of life and that large areas of the planet are just one poor harvest away from disaster.  It is well to recall that a volcanic eruption, melting glaciers, warm water in the Pacific or automobile omissions elsewhere can impact when we plant our tomatoes and how much fuel we will burn next winter.