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Friday, 11 December 2015 11:22

Putting winter weather in perspective

Written by  Dennis Hines
A Janesville resident attempts to clear a path along the sidewalk during the snowstorm that started Friday, Nov. 20. Although an El Niño weather system could make for a warmer winter, Wisconsin history has taught us to be ready for anything. A Janesville resident attempts to clear a path along the sidewalk during the snowstorm that started Friday, Nov. 20. Although an El Niño weather system could make for a warmer winter, Wisconsin history has taught us to be ready for anything. Dan Plutchak

JANESVILLE MESSENGER --  Other than the snowstorm that quickly moved through the area last month, the weather of late has been anything but winterlike.

That’s been no surprise to John Frye, associate geography professor at the University of Wisconsin-Whitewater, who said a strong El Niño weather system is enveloping the northern states this winter.

“When there’s an El Niño, it causes the northern region of the United States to experience warmer than normal temperatures, and Wisconsin falls well within that region,” Frye said. “This is supposed to be one of the strongest on record.”

Frye said even though temperatures the next few months may be warmer than we’re used to, there’s still chances for snow.

“(An El Niño) doesn’t mean it’s going to be warm every day,” Frye said. “Under above normal weather conditions, we can still get snow. It will melt more quickly, so it won’t stick around.”

We can take solace in a stretch of mild weather, but as it turns out, dealing with winter hasn’t changed much during the past hundred years.

“You put on warm clothes. You try to stay warm. You stay inside, and you had to shovel,” said Nathan Fuller, education curator for the Rock County Historical Society, about Janesville in winters past. “Snow shovels have been around since at least the 1700s.”

Depending on the amount of snow, people would often work in groups to shovel, Fuller said.

“You probably wanted to team up with people. It was kind of like today where people (shoveled) by themselves, but if you had a whole sidewalk or alley or street that had to be cleared out, they would team up with 20 or 30 people,” Fuller said. “If there was a big blizzard, it was in everyone’s best interest to clear out the snow as much as they could.”

Most cities didn’t worry about clearing the streets, because there was not as much travel as there is today, and most people traveled by train or horse-drawn carriages.

“Horses had horseshoes on them, so they would just be able to clomp through the snow,” Fuller said. “The idea was that packed down snow was much better than a cleared street.

“In fact, cities used what were called snow rollers, which was a big, wooden drum that was pulled by a horse that would pack down the snow so it was easier for people to travel.”

It wasn’t until the beginning of mass automobile ownership that systems were put into place to move large volumes of snow.

“Once you have cars, you have to think about how you can prevent having so much snow on the roads,” Fuller said. “Cars really changed the nature of how we did snow removal, because with a horse and sleigh, it was much easier to get around when there was snow.”

The winter weather caused some hardships that aren’t as common today. Fuller said one of the bigger concerns was house fires.

“A lot of people had fireplaces and stoves and if you didn’t clean out your chimney, your house could burn down or your apartment building could burn down,” Fuller said.

It also was common for people in rural areas to get lost during a blizzard.

“There’s really a lot of heartbreaking stories about blizzards where people would risk going out in the storm, and it wasn’t a happy ending,” Fuller said.

Another concern was a shortage of food and supplies if people were snowed in for several days.

“Nowadays when there’s a storm people freak out and have to buy tons of groceries. When in reality, it’s pretty unlikely that there's going to be a food shortage,” Fuller said. “But in the 1800s, there could be a huge snowstorm and food might not be able to come through, so people did freak out a little bit. Stores probably had an uptick in business before a snowstorm hit the town.”

Winter at the mill

Back when Beckman Mill near Beloit was an operating mill and not a historic site, Harold “Buzz” Beckman recalled how winter brought a halt to the water-powered mill.

“Dad would run the mill until the end of October or early November,” Beckman said. “We then had to shut it down because the pond would freeze.”

Beckman, who now lives in Manitowoc, grew up in what is known as the cooperage at Beckman Mill Park in Newark Township.

He shared the home with his parents, four brothers and sometimes other relatives, which often became crowded when they were huddled up during the winter.

“My poor mom had five boys. It was crowded,” Beckman said. “At one time, we had an uncle that lived with us, so there were eight people living in the cooperage.”

Beckman said he and his brothers had to share bedrooms, which weren’t always comfortable during winter.

“We had to double up. My brother and I slept in the same bedroom. It was in the northeast corner of the house, and it got really cold,” Beckman said. “Our parents would get up early in the morning and warm up the furnace.”

Traveling around the area could be difficult during the wintertime, he said.

“We had an old car. We used a 1928 Studebaker. That was our winter car,” Beckman said. “People didn’t drive much back then. The Beckmans stood out because our car was one of the oldest in the neighborhood.”

Beckman said he and his brothers would find ways to enjoy the winter weather.

“We would go skating on the pond and play hockey,” Beckman said. “We would go on the ice with our tractor and plow off the ice so we could play our games.”

Weather cooled tourism

Lake Geneva has long been known as a summertime tourist hotspot, but the city has been known to cool significantly as winter approaches.

David Desimone, director of Black Point Estate, a Wisconsin historical site located in Walworth County, said there was little travel to Lake Geneva during the winter in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

“Most of the lakefront homes would be closed,” Desimone said. “During the heyday, primarily people traveled here during the summer to escape from the city. The grand estates were mostly looked at as a summer retreat. Most of the homes didn’t have insulation or central heating.”

Desimone said people who lived in Lake Geneva sometimes had to find unique methods of travel during the winter, noting a photograph of a bicycle with a ski attached to it to glide quickly across Geneva Lake.

“It seems that people used alternative routes of transportation to get over the ice of the lake,” he said.

During the late 1800s and early 1900s, most people traveled by train, so there wasn’t too much concern with road conditions.

“The railroad lines were able to handle the snow real well,” Desimone said. “It was not much different than what we have with Metra railroad.”

The snowstorm during the winter of 1881, however, was the exception.

The storm that began Feb. 10, 1881, shut down some services for several weeks, according to Ginny Hall, who writes the Mystery Place history column for Walworth County Sunday.

According to one of Hall’s columns, mail delivery did not return until March of that year, and Elkhorn was still trying to dig out of the snow on March 11, according to the Lake Geneva Regional News. Travel did not return to normal until April.

“Some of the best shoveling done during the blockade was performed on Sunday last, in the deep cut near the North Geneva Cheese Factory by two members of the Elkhorn volunteer corps, post masters Bradley and Lawyer Sprague. At home, these gentlemen have been known as just fair-to-middling, moderate sort of shovelers who were content to keep the snow well cleaned from their own sidewalks and crossings but when they were confronted by a great public emergency as it were and an immense railroad drift appeared before them, ... the heavens were filled with spray from their flying shovels,” according to the Lake Geneva Regional News.

During the winter of 1935-’36, there were 35 days with sub-zero temperatures, according to Hall. However, the weather warmed up during the summer as temperatures did not dip below 100 from July 6 to July 14 of that year.

Thanks to the El Nino, we may escape a severe winter this year, but just like any era throughout recent history, it’s always good to keep the shovel handy.

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