A Winter Storm in 1920
By Elton Camp
The winter of 1920 brought one of the infrequent ice storms to rural Marshall County in Alabama. Even the old people allowed that it was the worst they'd ever seen. The storm began on a cloudy December day. The temperature hung within a degree of two of the freezing point. It was much colder aloft. The storm started innocently enough, with a slow drizzle.
"Hit's bankin' up t' snow. Mought commence enny time, Milas speculated. "Y'u boys go brang up som' wood t' add t' th' pile."
No weather forecaster provided warning of what was to come. The first evidence that an ice storm was impending was accumulation of silvery shells of ice on the limbs of bushes. The cold rain picked up in intensity. Although it fell in liquid form, it froze as it struck exposed surfaces.
"Looks like we's en fer hit," Belle said. "Hit's beginnin' t' slick over." She'd slipped dangerously on the ice-covered stones that served for steps at the back porch.
As the day wore on, the ice spread to all the trees as well as fences and remnants of crops in the fields. Under the growing weight, the limbs began to droop. With a loud snap, a limb from one of the elms in front of the house broke and crashed to the ground. It narrowly missed the edge of the porch. The popping and crashing became more frequent and continued the rest of the day and into the night. Entire tops broke from larger pine trees and they were stripped of their fragile limbs. Smaller trees leaned at sharp angles before the load became so great that they swaged completely to the ground. The temperature remained at the freezing point.
The next morning, the family awoke to a scene of chaos. Silvery limbs lay everywhere. The family could reach the barn to tend to the animals only by pursuing a zigzag course around the fallen boughs. The broken top of a pine tree had crushed the corncrib. Even the road had become impassible from debris of the storm.
"Boys, git sum axes 'n' clean up th' road 'long our proppity," Milas directed.
To maintain the roads was the country way. When a boy turned eighteen, he could choose between paying a road tax and working it out by keeping up the gravel and dirt lanes. Most boys had no realistic option. They worked.
Clearing up after the ice storm wasn't part of that arrangement. It was something they did simply because it needed doing. All the other families would do the same. A widow without sons nearby would find neighbor men coming to her assistance. Nobody expected females to work on the road.
As they chopped the fallen limbs into manageable pieces and pulled them onto the shoulder of the road, the boys stopped to gaze at the surrounding forests. The rain had stopped. The sun had come out. Flashing sparkles of green, red, yellow, and blue came from the still-standing trees. It was a fantastic sight.
At wide intervals, more limbs, weakened from the heavy ice, continued to pop and crash, but, for the most part, the storm was over. Aside from the extra work of cleaning up, it had little affect on the family's daily routine. Electric lines and phone lines didn't fall because none existed.
Among the town dwellers, it was a different story. Some of them remained out of what they'd come to regard as essential services for days or weeks. City living made people soft.
Two weeks after the ice storm came one of the deep snows that typically occurred only once a winter. It began with scattered flakes, but increased in intensity as they day went along. The frozen soil was an idea base to allow for significant accumulation. The ground became white, but leaves and grass sticking up through the snow initially marred the beauty. By later afternoon about six inches had fallen, giving an otherworldly appearance to the familiar landscape.
Ailene and Iduma ran about in the yard, shrieking with delight, as the rapidly falling snow stung their noses and faces. Each expiration produced mists of white from the moisture in their breath.
"Watch me," Iduma called out. "I'm gonna ketch a sno'flake wif my tongue."
By nightfall the family was gathered in front of the fireplace. Instead of experiencing the comfy warmth tradition attributes to fireplaces, they had to deal with harsh reality. Howard scooted his chair close and faced the fireplace. After about twenty minutes, the denim of his overalls felt hot to the touch. The metal brads that held the cloth together became blazing hot and burned his skin. His face and hands absorbed so much heat that he began to sweat. At the same time, a bitter cold embraced his back. He moved his chair farther from the fire and turned it sideways. He burned up on one side and froze on the other.
Most of the meager heat went up the chimney. The house was drafty and devoid of insulation. The temperature inside remained well below the freezing point except directly in front of the fireplace and immediately around the wood cook stove in the kitchen.
The heating situation was worsened by the way the family gathered firewood. Seasoned wood that was thoroughly dried produced the most heat. Spring, summer, and fall were the busy seasons, so cutting firewood was relegated to late fall and winter, often on a last minute, as needed, basis. The result was green wood that was hard to ignite, popped furiously, and used much of the heat it produced to drive off its own moisture.
That night Belle pulled the extra quits from storage and laid them on the beds. The children, as usual, slept three to a bed. The weight of the added quilts made it hard even to turn over. Once body heat dispelled the biter chill of the bed, the children had cocoons of warmth where they slept comfortably until morning.
The sky was still cloudy at daybreak. Occasional showers of snow fell. Outside laid a thick blanket of white. The wash pot was a smooth, round lump, bushes were mounds of snow, and the woodpile had disappeared under a cloaking of uniformity so that not a stick could be seen. The roadway was covered, but it didn't matter since nobody was out on such a day. The accumulation came almost to the level of the porches. Except for the outbuildings and tall trees, everything was a sea of unbroken white.
"Go check on th' anim'ls, boys," Milas directed. "Make sure they's got enuf hay. If not, throw sum down from th' loft. Then see t' th' chick'ns. Spread out sum corn fer 'em in th' coop. They can't walk 'n this snow."
The boys rushed out to do their father's bidding. They were eager to romp in the snow. After a few steps, they found that it wasn't the fun they'd expected. The younger boys sank well below their knees. Even long-legged Leamon had difficulty walking in snow of that depth.
Milas stepped onto the porch to observe. "Git sum shovels 'n' dig paths," he said. "This snow'll b' heer fer a while."
The snow was heavy and wet. By concerted effort they cleared paths wide enough to walk single file. The exposed, brown ground became muddy as it gathered heat from the sunshine. The sides of the paths were far higher than the general snowfall. It was useless to throw the snow very far from where it'd been removed.
The needs of the farm animals met, the children could play. "Let's build a sno'man," Jean suggested. All thought it an excellent idea.
Some lesser snows were dry and crumbly. They weren't suitable for creating the large balls that went into the construction of a snowman. This one was just right. The snowman began as a compressed lump of snow about the size of a soft ball. Working two or three at a time, the children rolled the ball about in the snow. It grew rapidly as it picked up layer after layer. They were careful to make it as round as possible.
"This un's big enuf fer th' bottom," Howard declared. "Let's start on th' middl'."
They repeated the same process as before, but stopped when the ball was slightly smaller than the first one.
"We musn't make it so big we can't lift it," Leamon cautioned. "Snow's heavy."
Four of the children worked together to heave the ball atop the base. They packed extra snow where the balls met to hold them together and to give their creation a better waistline. A much smaller ball of snow made an admirable head.
Two rocks dug from the ground of the path to the barn served as eyes when pressed firmly into the head. A short, brown stick became a nose. No hat was worn out enough to be placed on its head. Their father didn't smoke, so no pipe could be thrust into the mouth. The snowman was complete. As they stood back and admired their work, the children agreed that they'd done an excellent job.
"Birdie, fetch me ah bucket o' thet snow 'n' I'll make us some sno' cream," Belle called out. She stood on the side porch holding an enamel bucket. "Be shore t' git hit from a deep place thet's not got trash 'n hit."
The recipe was a simple one. To the snow, Belle added cream from the cow's milk, some white, granulated sugar, and drops of Watkins vanilla flavoring which she'd purchased from a traveling salesman. She stirred the ingredients and added snow as necessary, until it reached an icy consistency. All agreed that snow cream was one of the best things about winter.
Confined to the area of the house and yard, family members had to entertain themselves as best they could. Milas and Belle pursued one of their favorite pastimes, playing dominoes. Milas had a set of double nines. Most sets went only to double sixes. He placed the black rectangles on the kitchen table with the spots down and slid them around until they were randomly assorted. The two each drew seven dominoes to start. He always went first.
Only multiples of fives scored points. The end dominoes all around were the ones that were added to make the determination. An intricate design developed as the game progressed. Milas kept score on a paper from a brown sack. Although she had little formal education, playing the game had enabled Belle to learn to count and add quickly. Both were considered to be skilled players.
(This is an excerpt from my unpublished book, The Granny Room)