Snow & Ice: Winter’s Frosty Fun

Introduction: Duncan Kuehn is a professional genealogist with over eight years of client experience. She has worked on several well-known projects, such as “Who Do You Think You Are?” and researching President Barack Obama’s ancestry. With the East Coast (especially Boston) digging out from yesterday’s blizzard, this seems like a good time for an article about winter. In this blog post, Duncan searches old newspapers to find poems and photos about our ancestors enjoying winter activities.

Some people love winter and the frosty fun that comes with it. They love wrapping up in blankets and sipping hot chocolate after a long day frolicking in the snow or skating on the ice.

photo of some boys making a giant snowball

Photo: making a giant snowball. Credit: Kamyar Adl; Wikimedia Commons.

Children Play

The cold weather keeps some people indoors, where snuggling up with a loved one by the fire is the highest priority. For many children, however, winter is a wonderland to be explored. If this describes you, this poem by Robert Louis Stevenson, presenting a child’s perspective on winter, may bring you joy.

Winter Time

Late lies the wintry sun a-bed,

A frosty, fiery sleepy-head;

Blinks but an hour or two; and then

A blood-red orange, sets again.

Before the stars have left the skies,

At morning in the dark I rise;

And shivering in my nakedness,

By the cold candle, bathe and dress.

Close by the jolly fire I sit,

To warm my frozen bones a bit;

Or, with a reindeer sled, explore

The colder countries round the door.

When to go out, my nurse doth wrap

Me in my comforter and cap;

The cold wind burns my face, and blows

Its frosty pepper up my nose.

Black are my steps on silver sod;

Thick blows my frosty breath abroad;

And tree and house, and hill and lake,

Are frosted like a wedding cake.

“Winter Time” was published in Stevenson’s A Child’s Garden of Verses (1885) and was reprinted in this 1903 Minnesota newspaper.

the poem "Winter Time" by Robert Louis Stevenson, Duluth News-Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1903

Duluth News-Tribune (Duluth, Minnesota), 14 January 1903, page 4

Adults Worry

Unlike children, many adults find that the harshness of winter reminds them of some of the difficulties of life. The hassle of slippery roads, buried cars, and treacherous walkways takes its toll.

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This poem brings these sentiments to mind. It was published in a 1917 Pennsylvania newspaper and attributed to “Uncle Walt the Poet Philosopher.”

the poem "Snow," Patriot newspaper article 8 January 1917

Patriot (Harrisburg, Pennsylvania), 8 January 1917, page 6

Remember the Joy

It seems that children are naturally drawn to the slippery stuff in nature’s playground. Perhaps Uncle Walt needs to spend more time watching the pure joy of children playing in the snow to perk up his mood. Or watch lovers holding hands as they ice skate, round and round the pond. Or take a moment to really see the snow as it flutters to the ground. We get so focused on what we have to do and how the snow hinders us, we miss out on its wonder. The infuriating white stuff seems to be there just to make life hard. But maybe this is nature’s way of reminding us to slow down and remember what is most important. Perhaps it is time to wrap up in a warm, fuzzy blanket and read the newspaper by the glow of a crackling fire. Or maybe we need to dust off the sled and get some invigorating exercise as we pull the kids around the yard. It is hard to retain our crusty mood as we watch children, wrapped in snow clothes to the point of near immobility, waddle around the uneven surface of a snowy field, laughing as they tumble to the ground in a frosty heap. And taking a moment to laugh with them can heal our soul.

Photos Capture the Fun

Here are pictures from four old newspapers to remind us of winter’s joy.

These photos were published in a 1916 Oregon newspaper, entitled “Portland Children Reveling in the Snow with Christmas Sleds as Agents of Joy.”

photos of children sledding on the snow, Oregonian newspaper article 28 December 1916

Oregonian (Portland, Oregon), 28 December 1916, page 14

These photos were published in a 1939 Pennsylvania newspaper. They show adults “joining the ‘keep fit’ movement sweeping the nation” – but one look at their faces, and you realize what’s really happening: these adults are remembering how much fun it is to play in the snow.

photos of people playing in the snow, National Labor Tribune newspaper article 14 January 1939

National Labor Tribune (Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania), 14 January 1939, page 8

This photo, published in a 1912 North Dakota newspaper, shows U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice. The photo caption says “Washington Society” is excited about ice skating; Meyer is identified as “a leader in the movement.”

photo of U.S. Secretary of the Navy George von L. Meyer skating on the frozen Potomac River with his daughter Alice, Evening Times newspaper article 24 December 1912

Evening Times (Grand Forks, North Dakota), 24 December 1912, page 5

This photo, published in a 1910 Maryland newspaper, shows people enjoying ice skating on the boat lake in Baltimore’s Patterson Park. The caption says:

This is practically the only place for ice skating which is convenient to East Baltimore folk, and it is thronged morning, afternoon and evening when the park officials consider the ice thick enough for the sport.

photo of people ice skating, Baltimore American newspaper article 13 December 1910

Baltimore American (Baltimore, Maryland), 13 December 1910, page 15

If you live along the East Coast, have you dug out from yesterday’s major blizzard? How much snow did Winter Storm Juno dump in your area? No matter where you live, we hope you have found some time this winter to get out and enjoy the snow and ice – winter’s frosty fun.

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October 1880 Snowstorm Began ‘The Snow Winter’

This photograph was taken in March 1881 of a train passing through snow-covered Minnesota in the worst snow season ever recorded there.

photo of a train passing through deep snow in Minnesota during winter of 1880-1881

Credit: Wikipedia

The snow season started with a storm in October 1880 and it just kept on snowing until March of 1881. It was one of the Midwest’s worst-ever snow seasons, with multiple blizzards and snow accumulation of more than 11 feet in some areas. Somewhat accurate details and many of the names of the townspeople who endured this long winter season of frequent blizzards can be found in Laura Ingalls Wilder’s novel The Long Winter.

Here in New England, it’s hard to forget the 2011 Halloween nor’easter that slammed the area with so much snow, so early in the season, that it destroyed the most trees in the entire recorded history of Connecticut storms.

The following Ohio newspaper article reported that the storm that started in October 1880 was “the worst storm ever known in Southern Minnesota and Eastern Dakota and is still raging.”

The storm blocked passenger and freight trains “in snow drifts from ten to twelve feet deep and teams with provisions have been dispatched to their relief.”

Read the account of the start of the storm in the Cleveland Plain Dealer.

Disastrous [Snow] Storm, Plain Dealer newspaper article 18 October 1880

Plain Dealer (Cleveland, Ohio), 18 October 1880, page 1

Many people lost their lives in these terrible blizzards. Farmers had to burn their fences to keep warm. Read this 1922 newspaper article from the Milwaukee Journal that recounts how the autumn storm that began the winter of 1880-1881 claimed 70 lives on Lake Michigan: http://www.wisconsinhistory.org/wlhba/articleView.asp?pg=1&orderby=&id=3670

Did you have any ancestors who survived “The Snow Winter?” Share with us in the comments.

Extreme Weather in History: Stories That Affected Our Ancestors

Introduction: Gena Philibert-Ortega is a genealogist and author of the book “From the Family Kitchen.” In this guest blog post, Gena researches old newspaper articles to show how severe weather deeply affected our ancestors’ lives.

Last week I went to pick up my son from a pool party and the outside temperature was 100 degrees at 9:00 p.m. While I expect it to be hot in the summer during the daytime, when it’s 100 degrees at night I know we’re in store for a heat wave.

There can be no doubt that the weather significantly affected our ancestors’ lives, even that of more recent generations. In my own family, my grandparents moved from the Los Angeles area to Indio, California, a desert community near Palm Springs, in the 1950s. The average daily high in the summer months is well over 100 degrees. Because my grandfather worked for the railroad, when he wasn’t sitting in a train in the heat he was working outside. Having traveled to that area many times I can’t imagine living there without air conditioning.

How did the weather affect your ancestors? Did they or a family member suffer an injury or die due to extreme cold or heat? Do you ever consider how the weather affected your ancestors’ everyday lives?

collage of scenes from the Blizzard of 1888 in Keene, New Hampshire

Collage: scenes of the Blizzard of 1888 in Keene, New Hampshire. Credit: Keene Public Library and the Historical Society of Cheshire County.

The Children’s Blizzard of 1888

Stories of the deadly consequences of severe weather filled our ancestors’ hometown newspapers. For those with Great Plains ancestors, the 12 January 1888 blizzard known as “The Children’s Blizzard” has great historical significance. This tremendously strong storm, which spread all the way to New England, caught everyone by surprise—including children at school, some of whom died because they couldn’t get home and the schools lacked provisions. This blizzard is chronicled in the book The Children’s Blizzard by David Laskin. Those who have read the “Little House on the Prairie” series by Laura Ingalls Wilder are familiar with this extreme blizzard because it’s depicted in the book The Long Winter.

This 1888 Missouri newspaper article reported the “awful list” of victims from the severe blizzard.

An Awful List: Victims of the Deadly Blizzard, Kansas City Times newspaper article 17 January 1888

Kansas City Times (Kansas City, Missouri), 17 January 1888, page 1

Newspapers are filled with articles reporting severe blizzards in history.

Extreme Heat Wave Hit New England

Sudden weather anomalies like blizzards weren’t the only type of weather that had dire consequences for our ancestors. Extreme heat—especially the inability to escape it—was also something that took its toll on our ancestors. This article from a 1911 Massachusetts newspaper reports on those who died from a heat wave blasting New England, including a man who was run over by his horse-drawn cart when the horses went crazy from the heat.

Second Heat Wave Calls Toll of Ten, Boston Journal newspaper article 11 July 1911

Boston Journal (Boston, Massachusetts), 11 July 1911, page 1

Newspapers provide information on the day-to-day weather in your ancestors’ communities. Explore them to find stories of extreme storms and severe weather throughout history. Newspapers also printed old daily almanac weather reports and bulletins that can give you insight into the weather conditions that affected your ancestors’ lives.

Once you’ve researched these articles to identify extreme weather stories and weather records, consider searching a manuscript collection for a diary or journal in which someone describes how the weather on a particular day affected the city or town.

Another good source of historical weather information is Google Books. Titles such as The Weather and Climate of Chicago by Henry Joseph Cox and John Howard Armington, and Maryland Weather Service by Maryland Weather Service, Forrest Shreve and Oliver Lanard Fassig, provide weather data back to the beginning of the 19th century.

The weather affected all aspects of our ancestors’ lives from their work to their everyday living circumstances. Take a look at their area’s newspapers for the story behind the weather—one more way historical newspapers help you flesh out the names and dates on your family tree to get to know your ancestors better, the lives they led, and the times they lived in.