Jacob saves his neighbors in the blizzard of 1787
The television "whether" experts were quick to cry "Blizzard!" when an early-season snow-spit hit Denver a while ago, but their own pictures gave the lie to their remarks. We saw folks shoveling, and the snow was limp and dispirited. It seems warm southerly winds kept the lovely snow moist, and when snow is moist you ain't got no blizzard, no-how. Sorry, TV and Colorado, but a blizzard needs violent winds, a dry, driving snow, and intense cold.
"Blizzard" comes from Old English words for flash, fire, and suchlike, and the dictionary editors hedge that it was probably used in its present sense in Iowa in 1870, when a breath of a blizzard came in a man's keyhole and blew his Encyclopedia Britannica through the opposite wall into New Mexico.
We get blizzards here in Maine all the time, except on good days. Our blizzards make up to the sow-west, and burst upon us from the know'theast on a high tide, a whopping great spell-o'-weather not to be confused with a dash of wet snow.
My grandfather told me about the time his father saved the Cowing family from freezing to death, the first time a Down East blizzard came into the annals of our family. His father, he said, had come up from tidewater in 1787 to clear a hillside farm, the same farm of my grandfather, my father, then me.
It was spring, and he first made a "burn" so he could plow, and he got a small garden planted in the warm earth after the fire went out. Then he made a byre for his cow and oxen, next a cabin for his wife and two children. It was a snug house of pine logs, with a stone fireplace for warmth and cooking, and a loft, gained by ladder, where they slept. He was ready for winter.
It is true that a North Atlantic easterly storm forms to the southwest. When it has spent itself, it clears off the same way. You can, with some success, tell what our weather will be tomorrow by looking at New York City yesterday. The sky takes on a dull, leaden, complexion, and a heavy silence settles over the land. The air is still and foreboding. Evening settles in, and it is well to batten the hatches.
The old-timers would consult the tide calendar to predict the first snowflake. Storms break on a turn of the tide. By morning we'd be locked in an old baister, for sure. You could tell by the signs: The wind would pick up, and the sink spout would sing. Today's sophisticated plumbing has removed the sink spout that stuck out through the kitchen wall, and we can't listen to the sink spout's toot and tell the weather. Too bad! The thermometer would hit bottom with a thud so loud the dog came to watchful attention.
The wind blew the snow against shingles and clapboards and windows, making the family happy about having shelter and comfort. Warm in bed, it was pleasant to anticipate no school, though some blizzards fushed out so we had school anyway. So now comes Grampie's story about our first blizzard on the farm, back in 1787.
His father and mother and their bairns had "clim" to the loft and tucked themselves in for the night. The wind howled, the snow snew, and the big fireplace flickered. You couldn't ask for better on a bitter cold Maine night. They were alone in a wilderness world that would be piled white in the morning, warm and happy and secure in their tight log cabin. Let it snow!
Then there came the sound of somebody kicking at their door. Their nearest neighbor was the Cowing family, two miles toward the river, and such an alarm on a stormy night meant only some kind of emergency! The voice that shouted was that of Mr. Cowing. "Open up, Jake! Let me in!"
My great-grandfather came down from the loft, let Mr. Cowing in, and fought the wind to close the door. Mr. Cowing shook off the dry snow, disengaged his snowshoes, and said, "I lost my fire! I came to get fire!"
STRIKE-ANYWHERE matches were unavailable in Maine at that time. Striking fire with flint and steel was not always easily and quickly done. Since he had lost his fireplace fire and needed to rekindle, Mr. Cowing felt it was easier to walk two miles in a blizzard than it was to Boy-Scout a spark in his tinderbox. He had accordingly walked up the hill to get a coal. Great-grandfather Jacob obliged him.
Some cold wood ashes were laid on one leather over-mitten, a red hot maple-wood coal from the hearth was added, then more cold ashes. The coal would ride inactive in the ashes, and could be blown up to kindle a new fire when Mr. Cowing got home. Mr. Cowing clapped his other mitten over the ashes and coal to protect his precious fire against the storm, said good night and thanks, and started for home.
There were no street lights, no highway plows, no nothin', and Mr. Cowing walked home on snowshoes with his hands cupped together before him. Great-grandfather Jacob kicked snow away so he could close his door, added wood to his own fire, and went up his ladder to his loft. According to his son, my grandfather, he said, "He'll make it. But losing your fire that way sartin'-sure sets up an inconvenience!"
Mr. Cowing did make it, so his family didn't freeze. Ever after, he always spoke a kind word about my great-grandfather Jacob. May I suggest to the folks in Denver that a good way to tell a blizzard from a touch of snow is to hold your hands together in front of you, and walk two miles on snowshoes into the wind. There are undoubtedly other ways, but this one is convincing.