Essays of a Camden native

Winter cold, bring on the stories

By Paul Putnam | Jan 05, 2013

When I was a kid, before TV, folks would sit around the old pot-bellied stove and tell stories. The recent cold snap got me to reminiscing about the cold, and the stories about Maine winters I have known, or have heard. For instance, my grandfather Putnam used to tell about going out with shovel crews in the winter to open up roads that had drifted shut, in particular Buttermilk Lane where he grew up, that was lined with dairy farms. They worked with shovels and a huge horse-drawn roller that would open up the roads so teams could get through with sleighs and work sleds.


And my father told stories of Penobscot Bay freezing up so that they could drive teams of horses across the ice to Vinalhaven. Jack William’s History tells that “the winter of 1917-18 was one of the coldest ever!” He says, “One of the novelties of the winter was automobiling on the ice. Between Belfast, Isleboro, Castine and Brooksville there was a veritable ‘boulevard of traffic.’” The ice on Lake Megunticook was measured at 36 inches thick!


When I was in junior high school, I had a weekly paper route. I picked up a Grit route from somebody when I was in the sixth-grade and later I also took on the Philadelphia Inquirer weekend edition from Gilbert Marriner. Every Thursday after school I would load up the papers and head out across Millville all the way to Pearl Street and John Street on my bike. In the winter months I often would put them on my sled and walk the route, hauling the sled. It seemed, the more it stormed, the more fun it was to pretend I was battling the elements to carry the mail to Red Creek, or some such. There was no thought of not going.


After all, kids didn’t spend a lot of wintertime indoors in those days. For an hour or so around suppertime we might stay in to listen to Little Orphan Annie and Jack Armstrong The All American Boy on the radio. But after supper we grabbed our sleds to go out sledding; downtown Chestnut Street was often closed off for sledding, but in Millville it was Gould Street where there was very little evening traffic.


Back to the old pot-bellied stove and the stories. As a kid it was always fun to sit around out of the way and listen to the men talk (sometimes the women told some pretty good stories too.) Dougherty’s Store (where Cappy’s is now) was always a good place for that. Another place was Kennedy’s (later Poland’s) poolroom over by the bridge on Main Street, and of course, any of the several barbershops in town. I often went to Domineco Leo’s barbershop upstairs above Dougherty’s, or to Nino Sparta’s on Washington Street corner where Eric’s is now.


Nino was a great patriot who knew what a great place America was. I always remember the story he told me once about coming home from a Knights of Columbus meeting in Augusta in a snowstorm, and he had a tear in his eye as he told how they all joined in a Hail Mary before they left.


Leo was a gregarious type of fellow who always had something interesting to talk about. From his upstairs vantage point he kept an eye on everything going on in the street outside, and would frequently break off in the middle of a haircut to call out to someone in the street, motioning them up with his comb. Then, when they came up, he would have some choice bit of information to impart to them, or perhaps an insightful question about what they had been doing lately.


Still in the “can-you-top-this” mode, I like to draw on the several years Helen and I lived in the Yukon Territory of Canada. Some of you may remember the Sergeant Preston-of-the-Yukon Series on early TV. Well, most Yukon winters were not like that, with all the wind and blizzards and stuff. It was usually too dry and too cold to snow much and there was seldom any wind, just the movement of heavier cold air flowing down stream along the rivers and creeks. When the temperature dropped, any moisture in the air would condense out as a light dusting of snow on the ground, maybe a half inch. Occasionally we would get three or four inches as some moisture made it in over the mountains to the west. The temperature would drop to below-zero (Fahrenheit), and stay there most of the winter, ranging from minus 10 to minus 60 degrees. All the snow that fell would be there until spring break in April, unless there was a Chinook.


One weekend in January 1975, Helen and I were invited by some Native American friends to go to an Evangelical church meeting in Pelly Crossing, which was about 100 miles by road from where we were living in a lodge at McQuesten. It was about 25 below zero when we left, and began to drop steadily throughout the evening. By the time we were ready to head home it had dropped to minus 60 and still going down. Our friends advised us it was too cold to travel and found us lodging for the night.


To make a long story shorter, it went down to minus 80 degrees and we stayed there two nights, starting the van every couple hours to keep the engine from freezing up completely, and then running out of gas. Fortunately, our friend Harry McGinty had relatives there who could help with the gas and the tires that went flat as the rubber froze. It was a great experience that cemented our relationship with some great native Yukoners as they treated us on fried bannock and various native specialties.


By the time we got back to McQuesten we had some good stories to tell, as did others who had also been caught out in the cold. A day later a Chinook rolled in over those western mountains and the temp rose to 70 degrees above zero and melted all the snow! It was an amazing change.


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