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Pondering winters: It seems the cold has finally set in

December 17, 2010

East Greenwich Then and Now

Winters in East Greenwich. It seems we had more snow in the 40s when I was coming of age here. There was usually enough snow to build a snowman. The children of my neighborhood would slide down the hill into what we knew then as MacGiveney’s Hollow from Bridge Street. At the other end of town, I’ve been told that they blocked off some of the bigger hills like King or Queen street and let the youngsters sled there.
It seems to me that every boy then wore a mackinaw, a longish jacket resembling a Navy peacoat but in some version of dark plaid. Our macs had shiny sleeves from our rubbing our runny noses on them. We had caps, mostly tokes or billed hats with earflaps. We knew not the cold until we had turned blue and just couldn’t take it any longer.

We walked to school. The only buses went to Frenchtown and back. A posse of schoolchildren would begin at Division Street and pick up members as the trek progressed, finally ending at Eldredge field where we would do frolic until the bell sounded. The girls, separated from the boys, had the playground next to the school, now a parking lot. The lads had the entire field in front for play, mostly some sort of deadly soccer. Even in winter with snow on the ground, we were on the field before school started.
Winters came and went and it was just something we had to go through. Not our favorite season, but it did have Christmas. Winters, for me, took a turn for the worse when I was stationed in Limestone, Maine at the sprawling Loring Air Force Base. The first winter I was there, 1962, we reportedly had 188 inches of snow, much more than was my experience in East Greenwich. And that snow didn’t melt. The sub-zero chill factors kept it pretty much solid until April. My memories of northern Maine are not bad now that I’m not there, but I still like the other three seasons better. I don’t trust winter. You just never know what it will do.
As a civilian and back home again, I have sought to isolate myself from dependence on anything to heat my abode that required outside sources. I like a warm house, especially when a nasty storm is howling outside. Naturally I found wood to be the best source of independent heat, since it doesn’t require anything but a lot of hard work. I bought a large All-nighter airtight woodstove off George Beattie years ago and have heated my house with it for twenty years.
I only begin to think about such things when the first frost hits the ground. Until then, I tend to forget how difficult winter can be, even though we have had relatively mild winters lately. It hasn’t always been this way here in southern New England. A diary I was reading over the weekend reminded me.
Hannah Vaughn was born in East Greenwich in 1824. She grew up on as farm that we think might have been the Johnson place directly across from Howland Road on Division Street. She married, in 1848, Captain William Slocum of Newport, master of the whaling ship, Sarah Star. As a sea captain’s wife, she knew loneliness in her life when he was at sea. To fight off the blues, she kept, as many did, a journal of each day’s events. A portion of her diary of 1857 was published in the 125th Anniversary edition of the Rhode Island Pendulum. At the time, she was living with her married sister, Sybil, in a house on Division Street opposite Spencer Avenue. She had just had a daughter, Rebecca, a few months earlier whom she refers to as “Sis.” The captain was at sea.
I know such diaries and they can be quite tedious reading to those only mildly interested in history. They are very interesting if you know the relationships involved. This woman was here in our little town 150 years ago. She speaks of a winter that was so cold and so long that it makes one cringe today. A few of her entries as they relate to the weather:
January 1st, Thursday: This morning the snow was falling very fast, clearing away about noon. Very pleasant.
January 3rd, Saturday: The snow commenced falling about 7 o‘clock this morning. At evening the snow deep. The train has just passed with two locomotives clearing the track.
January 4th, Sunday: The street all drifted with quantity of snow. Have seen two sleighs pass. Very still. No going to church today.
January 18th, Sunday: The coldest weather I ever knew. It commenced snowing about 4 o‘clock, wind blowing hard at 9. An awful storm, the blinds broke loose but Thomas and self got up and made them fast. The coldest night I ever knew, 20 below 0. Quilted with Sybil and the girls.
The winter progresses and Hannah uses the term “pleasant” often but I wonder if her idea of pleasant is the same as we might consider today. I’m sure those old houses on the hill are much more comfortable today.
March 25th, Wednesday: [noted for other than weather]. A very pleasant morning, the most so of any we have had this spring, it soon clouded up with very high winds. Got Sis, boots to bind. Called on Hannah Weeden, found her with a little son a few hours old, quite comfortable. Harden Rice died this morning. Willie quite poorly. Doc Green called to see him this morning. [Some followers of this column might remember that we went looking for Harden Rice some time back as he was ancestor to many East Greenwich folk today and his own ancestor, John Rice, is on the 1677 Founder’s Rock at the foot of King Street.]
May 18th, Tuesday: cloudy and rainy. One of the coldest storms I ever knew. Doc says Sis has the asthma. Quite poorly.
One could conclude from these snippets that winter was long and dreary. Not so. There were pleasant days and even “nice” days. The problems of that year’s and probably that era were their long duration, the mind-numbing dreariness, and most of all, the people she knew who took sick, ailed a long time and often died. Winters were very hard and we are twice blessed by the mild times we are in. It seems we can compare our own Blizzard of 78 with a common occurrence 150 years ago. Perhaps. But they got by.
Hannah Slocum’s diary of 1857 was published in the October 3rd, 1979 Pendulum, copies of which are available at the library. If anyone would like to borrow one, I have several copies, email me. Hannah’s husband, William, died and was buried at sea in 1860. The late town historian, Thaire H. Adamson, her sister Roberta and brother William were direct descendents, through daughter Rebecca, of Hannah and William Slocum. They also have children still living in the area.

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Alan F. Clarke is a local historian and, so far, a life-long area resident. Address comments and other interesting
local stuff to him at bozone@mac.com

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