Winter – In Grandma’s time

It’s hard to believe that I managed to stick with Amy Johnson-Crow’s writing challenge to write about ancestors for 52 weeks. This challenge has helped me keep up with a routine writing schedule and prompted me to tell stories about ancestors that I might never have thought of. One more week next week, Resolutions, and it’ll be time to think about what I will write about through 2021.

This week’s topic is winter.

Can you imagine our ancestors lives in winter? Before modern technology?  Without the creature comforts that we have today?  

Grandmother tells us stories of her childhood, which wasn’t very far removed from some of the hardships faced by her ancestors. Not because she’s that old…but because technology has advanced so rapidly in her lifetime.

Her childhood home was a five-room single story cottage style farmhouse that had been newly built when her parents got married (she lived two doors down from her paternal grandparents.) It had no electricity.  They used kerosene lamps, a gasoline-powered engine ran the washing machine – which was outside.  They used corncobs to heat the cookstove in the winter.

Pages from the book that started me on the path to Genealogy, “A Gift of Memories from Grandma”

They heated the home with a coal or wood furnace. She tells us stories of sitting near the grate where the hot furnace air would come from.  The furnaces from her day didn’t have electrical components (remember, no electricity on the farm), so her parents would have to periodically go to the furnace and feed wood or coal to keep things warm.  UPDATE: There was electricity, but only to power one light bulb in the basement so that Grandma’s father didn’t have to light a lantern in the middle of the night to stoke the furnace fire.

When it was time for bed during those long winters, they wore thick pajamas, had layers upon layers of blankets on the bed, and they might have kept a hot water bottle at their feet. The hot water would have had to been boiled on their wood or coal-burning stove.

During the winter holidays, they would visit with family, but only if hadn’t snowed to much. And if they could get the car started.  Her father built his own wind charger on the farm.  He used it primarily for listening to the radio or charging radio batteries and his neighbors would travel through bad weather to have their radio batteries charged by him. UPDATE: Radios were the remote farmer’s only source of rapid news during inclement weather.

Snow in grandma’s time was different, too, it seems. She recalls a big blizzard in Iowa in 1935-36 that completely covered the roads to the point that you could not drive, even if you could find the road.  She remembers farmers being irate that people had cut their fences after the blizzard because they were trying to get home and were going in as straight of a path to get there – leading right through pastures. 

Historic photos of the 1935-36 Iowa winter can be found IAGenWeb here and here, and the DesMoines Register archives.

My father has a funny blizzard story. He grew up in South Dakota, and as a young man just starting out in life, he worked for Ma Bell repairing and upgrading the remote lines through the Midwest.  He got caught in a whiteout while out on the plains one time and lucked out by finding a roadside diner to hold up in.  After the storm had passed, the diner customers went out to start digging their cars out of the snow, and dad discovered he had driven right up onto the top of a semi-trailer.  It was alright, though; all he had to do was drive right back off of it over the snow.

My aunt has not escaped her share of winter stories from the heartland. By this time, the family was living in town.  But they were small towns.  When she had just learned to drive, her father advised her that if she ever got caught out in a snowstorm, all she had to do was find a snow plow and follow them around town because it would have to pass their home eventually.  It wasn’t long until such an occurrence happened.  She remembered her father’s guidance and happened upon a snowplow, and she pulled right in behind it.  But soon, she realized she was only making right turns, and she began to wonder how the plow truck could be plowing all over town using only right turns?  Soon the snow let up enough that she could see where she was…in the grocery store parking lot.  The plow truck was keeping the parking lot cleared.

Happy winter, everyone. May you be warm and safe wherever you are.

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