Home | Mission & Goals | Meeting Schedule | Search | Contact Us | Submit A Story | Links

Reflections on Emmitsburg Winters of Old

Michael Hillman

As I began to ascend the ladder toward the last of the dirty windows, I found it hard to accept that it was January. I was so warm in fact that I had dared to remove my shirt and was even toying with putting on some shorts. Where had the blustery winters and deep snows of my youth vanished to, I thought?

I had been looking forward to winter all year. With the horses off on a well-deserved vacation and the gardens put to bed, I had envisioned a few months in front of a fire doing nothing but reading and writing. But with temperatures soaring into the 60's, and skies of bright blue, it was impossible to resist the call to be outside.

Blame it on Global Warming, El Nino, or El Nina, no matter how you cut it, this was one winter that would not be remembered for its severity. Come to think of it, since moving to Emmitsburg, I have only experienced one winter that revived the winter memories of my youth, that being the winter of 1992-93 and its blizzard of blizzards. But even as formidable at that 1992 storm was, modern technology provided ample warning of its approach so we were ready and life pretty much returned to normal within hours of its end.

As I lathered on some more sun tanning oil, I found myself wondering what life was like during a winter storm in Emmitsburg of long ago. Unfortunately, it proved just a tad too difficult to visualize a cold winter, especially given that I was sucking down a frozen strawberry daiquiri at the time. But just when I was considering breaking out my summer stock of rum, the jet stream headed south and winter returned with a vengeance. Suddenly it wasn’t so hard to imagine being a kid in Emmitsburg in a winter long, long ago, especially with the help of the older ‘kids’ in the Emmitsburg Historical Society.

Unlike today, children in the 1930’s and ‘40's didn’t have any fancy weather forecasts, weather channels or instant weather on the net. If a storm was approaching, their mom’s would rarely tell them, lest they raise hopes of school closings and the mischief those thoughts would bring the night before the storm.

If your mom was really, really good, your first inkling of a major winter storm would be in the morning when you awoke to discover Emmitsburg had become a winter wonderland. However, if you were lucky and had a friend, Aunt, or Uncle with rheumatism, you usually had fair warning of any approaching storm and thus never wasted a night before a storm in useless studying.

No matter how bad the storm was or how deep the snow, kids always got ready for school. Unlike the wimpy, pampered kids of today, our grandparents were expected to stand out in the cold and wait for the bus no matter how bad the weather. Only well past the appointed time of arrival did their moms finally acknowledge that school just might really be closed. But if the bus came, off to school they went, where they would spend the day wishing for more snow and an early end to the day.

Emmitsburg was a kid’s haven in the winter. With hills and ponds a many, it boasted some of the best sledding and ice skating around. While almost forgotten today, in younger days places like Bunker Hill, Havilih, and Popular Hill were names that every child knew. At any given time, thirty to forty sleds raced down these prime sledding spots. But if it was time-on-the-sled one was looking for, then Irish Town Road, as it was affectionately called back then, was the place to be. Starting at the top of the hill near Saint Joseph’s, one could slide clear down to the ‘Wharf’ at Flat Run Creek (just behind Jubilee).

When it came to skating, Emmitsburg was tops. Skating was so good, in fact, that kids in Thurmont would often be seen crying and even cursing their parents for not having the foresight to settle in Emmitsburg. By far, the best skating was at Toms Creek’s Bridge. A pond, almost a quarter of a mile long, formed behind the old Maxell mill race dam, and offered a smooth surface that twisted and turned through beautiful Tom’s Creek Valley. Whether your goal was to skate fast or to skim slowly hand-in-hand with the one you loved, Tom’s Creek offered it all.

Other prime skating destinations included Flat Run, whose thick tree screen provided protection from biting winter winds, and the Old Mount St. Mary’s Pond, drained long ago for a new student hall. But it was Fraily’s pond that offered Toms Creek’s its greatest competition. Located just to the west of town, 200 yards south of the Dough Boy’s statue, it was a popular spot for skaters who had grown too old to skate with their parents. Fraily’s pond was laced with small caves around its perimeter, in which fires would burn all night. On the ice, or around the fires, those who would soon face the horror of terrible wars frolicked with friends and loved ones into the wee hours of the morning.

Without TV to entertain them, everyone still found something to do. Whether you skated, sledded, or simply played cards, a winter storm offered a chance for everyone to stop and take notice of the good things in one’s life. But before winter play could begin, chores had to be attended to. If you lived on a farm, milking was always the first order of business for girls. For boys, it was the stocking of fire wood and coal, cleaning ashes from the stoves and burners, and drawing water for kettles that simmered all day, and provided the only warm water in many houses.

Winter storm breakfasts were reasons for feasts, too, often consisting of ‘pudding’ and corn cakes, pastries and other sweet treats. Pudding of course being a ghastly concoction of dead everything boiled down to pure artery choking lard. But boy did it taste good!

For those lucky enough to have a storm hit on their mother’s shopping day, a trip to town on a sled was the order of the day. Though the long walk back seemed a lot longer then the ride in, the sight of the town asleep in the snow provided memories that lasted lifetimes. Memories that are as vivid today as the day they were formed.

And yes, snows were much deeper back then, and according to Historical society members, it had nothing to do with the fact they were only a quarter of their present height! Many tales are told of fences disappearing for months at a time - fences that still dot the countryside, viewable to all who dare to doubt. Snows were so frequent and heavy that it was often possible to step over fences that were otherwise insurmountable.

Winter storms of course meant money for enterprising kids. Work clearing driveways and walkways could be readily found at ten cents an hour. While today’s kids have snow blowers to make quick work of it all, back then, kids moved snow one shovel full at a time. While cars were on their way to predominance, heavy snows often forced them to yield their role once again to horses. Untroubled by the cold, icy roads, or deep drifts, teams broke from the fields and pulled sleighs of gleeful children. Returning at dusk with their cargo full of joy, they were rewarded for their service with bran mashes and an hour long brushing.

Like the masters they loved, dog’s relished the fresh snow, too, playing with each other from first light till fatigue caused them to wander home. Some would bury their head deep in the snow, others would prance about, as if putting on a show. Only shorthaired little dogs failed to see enjoyment in snow, instead they sought warmth, curled in front of a hot stove.

As evening descended, all scattered toward home and the hot meals that waited by fires that would warm. Evenings were full of games of all sorts - Chinese checkers, gin rummy and games of that sort. But no snowy night was complete without the popping of corn. On really snowy nights, taffy pulling was performed.

Heated bedrooms were a luxury that few could afford and electric blankets, while nice, were yet to be born. The fire did beckon as bedtime approached, and the distance to the fire reflected the order of go. The goal need I say, was to suck up enough heat, in hopes of staying warm through the cold night to come. The one beauty of winter was it made friends of us all. It was impossible to be mad at one’s brother or sister, for you depended on them for warmth as you laid back to back.

Nestled deep in flannel sheets and under quilts of all sizes, children laid as still as they could, lest toes touch the cold reaches. With time and perseverance, sheets eventually warmed to their liking, and before they knew it, into sleep they had fallen. A sleep full of dreams and high only a child dares muster, such as another full day of winter’s white bluster.

Any story of snow would not be complete without recollection of snowmen and snow forts, and other creations imaginations would create. Taking cue from the oldest, a handful of snow was rolled until it grew. Starting with the youngest, who got first crack at the rolling, it grew in size till they could not move it. Standing in line, the next oldest would advance it, till they too could not move. The routine was continued till the oldest was done and there at that spot, the snowman was begun. Drawing coal from the coal chest, and a carrot for a nose, the face soon appeared. Racing to the attic an old hat was retrieved and with the addition of long sticks, the snowman was done. Often working late into the night, under the light of a winter’s moon, they added to his joy with a snow wife and maybe a child or two.

Snow forts and snow tunnels dotted the land, joining snowmen and their families as bastions against winter dreariness. Just when we thought they would melt out of sight, we would wake up one morning, and find a new snowfall of delight.

Well in spite of early predictions of a winter without snow, winter finally came through. As I watched my dogs frolic in the deep drifts of snow, I heard laughter seep from the past. I strained to hear more and began to imagine the source, but the cold wind was biting and my old dog stood shivering as if to remind me of his plight. Retreating inside, we warmed by the fire, and with my dog fast asleep, I consigned these memories to file.

Have your own memories of Winter of old in Emmitsburg?
If so, send them to us at history@emmitsburg.net

Read more articles by Michael Hillman