2017-01-05 / Editorial

The weather outside is frightful

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By Leslie Rounds

The weather outside is chilly (and maybe sometimes frightful), just as we expect at this time of year. The cold offers its own unique … inconveniences, of course. All of us are faced with those pesky bills for heating our homes and businesses. In the summertime, if you are a resilient sort of person, you can just tough it out and not bother with air conditioning but it’s the rare person who doesn’t resort using some kind of heating system in the winter, right? Think back though, to the 18th and 19th centuries when winter was a whole different kind of experience – not just an inconvenience but a source of both significant challenges and (surprisingly) unique pleasures.

The next exhibit at the Saco Museum, “Winter in Maine,” opens Tuesday, Jan. 17 and is going to offer a glimpse of how people used to experience the dark, cold months that end and begin each year. Early on, winter was quite a presence; it’s really only in the 20th century that it began to change from life-altering into inconvenient.

First, there was the heating issue. When our forebears were heating with wood in those iconic, huge open fireplaces, it would not be unusual to burn through up to 20 cords of wood in a winter. Just the cutting, gathering, storing, moving (and burning) of this amount of wood consumed a significant part of a family’s time, stretching out across the entire year. Those of us accustomed to seeing two or three cords of stacked wood can – perhaps – imagine the amount of space that 20 cords would take up. Impressive. And for all that effort, houses were still bitterly cold, with many diarists reporting frozen wash basins in the morning and saying that as they sat by the fire their front sides would be all but scorched by the heat, but that their backs were icy cold.

But winter was not entirely miserable. It was a season of play, as well. First there was the sleighing. Good sleighing was a delight that nearly everyone looked forward to. It would not be unusual – especially if you were young – to harness up a horse or two and go flying across the moonlit landscape with your friends, finishing off at your destination, chilly but invigorated, in the early morning hours. You would have been warmed by a good lap robe, a foot warmer and perhaps the sweet embrace of a warmly dressed lover. Good sleighing snow was anxiously anticipated and thoroughly appreciated. If you lived alongside a decent lake (or the Saco River) and you were a brave sort of person, you could race horses on the ice (although this strikes me as, well, crazy). Horse racing on the Saco River survived well into the 20th century. I have to wonder how often this might have turned out rather badly.

Other recreational outdoor activities became more common at the turn of the 20th century: skiing on great, long, hard-to-maneuver wooden skis, after – if you were lucky – being dragged up the hill on a rope tow that did its best to remove your arms from attachment to your body. The alternative, of course, was to have hiked up the hill carrying the skis, also not much fun. Snow shoes, originally used by hunters and trappers, got a second life when outdoor enthusiast adopted them for winter hiking. Then there were the fisherman who braved winter seas in rubbery suits and – almost water impervious – and boiled woolen mittens.

Maine’s past winter life is both recognizable and uniquely different from the way we experience winter now. Today, we flirt with winter; in the past it was fully immersive. Come into the Saco Museum and take a look at winter of the past.

Leslie Rounds is executive director of Dyer Library/Saco Museum.

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