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Snowed In

Remembering the great blizzards of yore

John, Ann and Philip Mohler — the grandchildren of John and Ruby Williams — at their home across from the Masonic Lodge in Prince Frederick, February 1948. <<photo courtesy of Janet Williams Walker>>

I love winter. My growing up was Colorado, and cold-side Oregon, and cold and snow are in my blood.
    But not in Maryland. Real winter has been missing so long that I fear global warming has turned it into a memory.
    My hopes for a last chance at winter 2013 rose with this week’s forecast of snow, lovely deep snow. Rain fell instead, and with it my hopes.
    But Beverly Spicknall of Owings remembers real winter.
    “There was always sledding when I was a child,” she told me. “We couldn’t get the family out with the snowplow because of the snow that drifted over the fences. Snow has definitely changed since then.” 

The Great Storm of 1940
    The great storm of 1940 remains a vivid memory to Hazel Olsen, who grew up in Farmville, Virginia, just west of Richmond.
    “We didn’t have school or church,” said Olsen, now of St. Mary’s County. “School closed for two weeks. They brought snowplows down from Wisconsin and Minnesota. Our neighbors were dairy farmers and had to get their milk to market. So they plowed several miles. It took all day. When they reached the highway, the roads hadn’t been plowed.”
    My curiosity piqued, I searched for more on this great storm. On January 31, 1940, The Baltimore Sun printed an AP report from Prince Frederick:
     "Calvert Countians, still digging out from under the snow left by last week’s blizzard, had something new to talk about today — temperature 14 degrees below zero. The record, lowest in the memory of any Calvert Countian, was set yesterday at three places in Owings, highest spot in the northern part of the county."
    Minus 14 degrees?
    The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration backed up Olsen’s story: “Farmville recorded 24 inches in 24 hours, setting a new record in the state. The six days following the storm, low temperatures dropped below zero with the coldest day setting a new all-time record of 12°F.”
    To the east, the stories were equally chilling. The Sun added that the month of below-freezing weather had slowed shipping. Harbors were frozen and small commercial fleets trapped. A Coast Guard patrol boat abandoned its patrol and returned to Ft. McHenry.
    The Naugatuck, a large tug from Norfolk, kept the approach to the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal open. The icebreaker Annapolis escorted a steamer from Philadelphia to Baltimore, where it arrived nine hours late. The icebreaker’s captain said the ice was up to 10 inches thick on the eastern approach. The Eastern Shore had ice piling up three to four feet.
    The Naugatuck also broke the ice to Annapolis so oil barges could get to the Naval Academy, where supplies were running low. The ice around Annapolis was so thick that one ship spent a day caught in an ice floe at the mouth of the Severn.
    The Washington Post of January 25, 1940, added that a steamship rode out the storm anchored off Hooper’s Island, and a 330-ton freighter ran aground there.
    Landward, the Post described Southern Maryland as buried under heavy snow, with drifts of six to eight feet. In Calvert County, Solomon’s Island Road was passable only to Prince Frederick. In Anne Arundel County, all main roads were closed. St. Mary’s County from Charles County was closed beyond Mechanicsville after the last snowplow broke down. Only one doctor was available for Leonardtown and St. Mary’s Hospital, which was filled to capacity.

Snows of the 1930s and ’50s
    Jack Williams of Prince Frederick was away at college and missed the 1940 storm. Still, his memory is not short on big snows.
    It might have been 1933, Williams estimates, that sleigh riding was so good. He was a student at Prince Frederick School, the large white Masonic Lodge on Main Street. His house stood across the street atop a sleigh-riding hill. In later years, he took his children to the same spot to sleigh ride.

Hugh Jackson and his car on the Patuxent River in Lower Marlboro, circa 1940. <<photo courtesy of Mae Jackson King>>

    “Once we packed the snow down, then we would see who could go the farthest. One morning before school, I went sleigh riding and didn’t count on the ice. I went so far in the woods that I tore my clothes up and had to go back home for new clothes.”
    In the evenings, the kids set old tires on fire to light the hill for more sleigh riding.
    Back then his grandmother in Prince Frederick had milk cows. Jack milked the cows morning and evening, then delivered the milk. He remembers delivering milk to the school principal. The snow came to the top of his new quarter-high rubber boots.
    In 1935, the Williams family was living on a farm in the Barstow area, a mile down the road that runs beside the College of Southern Maryland.
    “That winter we had a big snow in January or February,” Williams recalls. "My dad was the kind of person who has to get out to the highway somehow. So we built the snowplow. Built it from barn siding. It was a triangle. The sides were probably four foot high, well supported by four-by-fours. When we were ready to go, we had a yoke of oxen that pulled the snowplow. We took our shovels with us. We had the biggest trouble because of the drifts.”
    In 1954 or ‘56, Williams lived in Barstow and worked in the Prince Frederick office of an insurance company.
    “I had no vehicle that could get me on the main highway,” he said. “I laughed at myself that I thought it was important to go to the office. I put my suit on and walked the two miles to Prince Frederick. I took my shovel and cleaned the walkway off the main street to the insurance office. Of course, nobody came.”

The Cold Old Days
    With data back to 1895, NOAA reports only two Januaries colder than 1940’s 23.1 degrees above zero: 1918 at 22.0 degrees, and 1977 at 22.7 degrees. That’s cold enough to freeze the Bay — and to dare drivers onto the ice.
    Dale Norfolk, whose parents were farmers around Chaneyville, remembers such uber-cold weather. He’s seen a photo from before 1940 showing Hugh Jackson driving his truck on the Patuxent River between Lower Marlboro and Benedict. It was a Model A or T with six to eight men hanging onto it with a rope.
    On that other very cold January in 1977, my neighbors in St. Leonard, Betty Jane and Dale Middleton, came down from their Beltsville home to check out their summer vacation spot at Selby-on-the-Bay in Edgewater. Betty Jane saw drivers on Selby Bay skid and swing their cars around.
    Still, a minus 14-degree reading is hard to believe.
    John Zyla, a weather historian in St. Mary’s County who worked at the Battle Creek Cypress Swamp Sanctuary, found evidence coming close. Huntington had temperatures of minus 10 degrees during that month. But he, too, wondered about a temperature of -14 degrees at Owings when Solomons was a plus seven degrees that day.
    “It’s always possible,” Zyla said. But based on everything I see, I would think it’s highly unlikely.”
    On the other hand, agencies used different methods to collect weather data and may have had varying results. Meteorologist Dave Tolleris at forwarded a report from the Maryland State Climatologist Office: “The storm was blizzard here in VA and NC. JAN 23-24, 1940, set the record for the MOST snow ever in Richmond International Airport — 21.7 inches; the Central Piedmont — FARMVILLE had 30. Over 16 inches fell in Southern MD, maybe 20 inches, and the nights that followed featured SEVERAL days of min temps -5 to -18F.”
    Those were the cold old days.
    I don’t mind missing out on minus 14-degree weather. But I still miss the big snowstorms.

I miss the snow, too! The winters stink and the summers are too hot. Proof enough for me to believe in climate change.