Oak Hill & Vicinity: Snowstorms back in the day


By Mary Lou Nahas

For Capital Region Independent Media

Major snowstorms required shovelers, plows and other resources to clear the roads. Contributed photo

It seems that every weather forecast talks about snow, so let’s take a few minutes to think about winter weather and snow in the past in Oak Hill and Vicinity.

Ralph Hull, in his book “A Lifetime of Experiences and Memories,” said, “My dad and his brother, Will, would walk over drifted snow from Durham up to Mt. Pisgah carrying a saw, two axes and a scoop shovel. The shovel was used to clear the snow away from around the trees so the stumps would not be so high in the spring. We used to have a lot more snow than we do these days. 

“One time my dad helped cut ice on the Hudson River for two or three weeks. The ice was plowed with a horse and a large saw with two-inch teeth and a handle for a man to hold on to. The ice was marked three to six inches deep, depending on how thick the ice was cut. It was then marked off in 24 to 30 inch squares. The ice was stored in the big ice houses along the river. My father also cut ice for local ice houses. Dad and my brothers would put the ice on the bank for three cents a cake. We cut ice on the local ponds, on the Catskill Creek or wherever we could get it. My father often cut ice for John Smith’s Locust Grove Creamery. His icehouse would hold about 1600 cakes of ice. Up here in the mountains, sawdust was used for insulation and was readily available. So, we used the sawdust on the sides and on the top of ice. John Smith would use three or four cakes of ice a day to put in his butter room to keep the butter cool.  The rest was sold to local people to use in their ice boxes. This would pay the cost of putting in the ice.”

“I remember sleigh riding downhill from the top of Prink Hill, sometimes sleigh riding far as the Oak Hill Bridge. Sometimes we would start in Durham village and ride down across the old arch bridge and part way up Pa John’s hill.” 

Winter was hard work but also a fun time.

Memories from Gilboa on Jan. 20, 1936, record that there was “lots of snow about two feet deep on level. No one could get off hill until night after they went through with the snowplow. [Listening to the radio they] Heard that snow was bad all over U.S.A. also heard that King Geo of England died about 7 o’clock p.m. Tuesday Jan. 21 was a very good day, but lot of snow, drifted so badly they cannot work tomorrow. Thursday Jan 23. John did not go to work; the weather was terrible, now wind blowing so hard you could hardly see to the neighbor’s house. M. got his bus stuck fast in snow. Friday Jan 24. Still a bad day. No milk going today. M’s bus still fast in snowbank.  Jan 25. Weather has moderated This storm is said to be the worse since 1888. Monday Jan 27. A very cold day. John went with snowplow on the road. Plowed snow 10 and 12 feet deep.”

Ralph Hull remembered a day it snowed in March 1936: There were three feet of snow on the level and the wind blew for three days. All the snowplows broke down except an old Lin Caterpillar tractor with a plow which was very slow. There were drifts so high on Pisgah Mountain and on Rose Hill out of Cornwallville that you could walk over top of the telephone lines. The crust on the snow was a couple of feet thick and had to be cut out by hand with a scoop shovel before the Lin tractor could even get through. The storm gave many men work that winter. There was so much snow and such a hard crust that a milk tanker got stuck on Rt. 145 this side of Cooksburg. The driver walked to a farmhouse on Teator Road owned by Howard Rivenburg.  He stayed three days before he could get a snowplow to his truck.

Walter Ingalls remembered the 1939 storm in Oak Hill. A Linn tractor was used to clear snow on the back roads. It had big wheels on the front with a bulldozer tread plow on the right and left sides, made for snow removal on the back roads so the tread did not dig up the main roads. The town used a V plow and counties used “speed plows” (one wing for one side of road at a time). On rare occasions the town’s V plow would help clear roads when it was difficult for counties to keep up with snow removal.  Normally they would not plow out of district due to insurance and cost to run and maintain equipment.

Kenneth Brand is another who remembers the Linn tractor the town of Durham had. They used that in the ‘30s until maybe through the war years.

Ross McCabe, grandfather of Iris Cochran and Pat Elsbree, wrote a wonderful letter to relatives about a storm on Fish Road in 1943: “It started raining and freezing and kept it up for three days.  Monday the phone went out about eleven a.m., and it kept getting more slippery outside. That night the water froze, and it rained and froze all day Tuesday, and the trees began to bend over and break under the weight of the ice. Tuesday night about eleven p.m. there was a landslide or something off the roof and simultaneously, I saw a flash and then a large flare over by Mackey’s. [their neighbors down the road] So, I say, ‘Oh, there goes the lights.’ I reached up over the bed and switched on the light and sure enough no light. [In the morning they found that] the wires were down and all over the road. About ten o’clock the neighbor came over and said there were five electric light poles down between here and there [the Mackey house].  Finally came Wednesday. No phone, no light, no radio, no ice box or water, no nothing; then someone someway hit the thermostat on the stove and shut off the oil and the stove went out. Then the clock stopped; so, I said good, now all we need is for this house to catch on fire. Saturday was the same, but Sunday about three o’clock they got the juice, and about five o’clock, they got the phone working and so life began to function normally and that is the story of the storm.”

Ralph Hull wrote: “During the winter of 1944 we had a big snowstorm. The wind blew for three days afterwards. All the roads were closed in the Town of Rensselaerville. All the snowplows were broken down except for an old rotary plow which could only go about one-half mile a day in the heavy drifts. We had to take our milk out to Potter Hollow for ten days.”

Thelma Bell remembered in her book “Reflections” how they were visited by several snowstorms during our first few winters in Durham. “One Sunday the Cochane family invited us to spend the afternoon and evening with them. About 11 p.m., Marshall and I decided to start for home. When we looked out, our car was almost completely covered with snow. The roads were not even visible. On Thursday, four days later, we returned home from our ‘Sunday’ visit.”

Vernon Haskins even wrote a poem in February 1948 to The Snow Removal Boys: 

“The boss’s hair used to be grey

But now it is almost pure white

As he worries about the boys

Who are fighting the snow to-night.

With Stubby at the throttle

And Ernie on the hydraulic lifts,

They are dashing about the town,

Fighting the mountainous drifts.

Up on Cunningham mountain

Where King Winter wants his way.

The A. C. growls and grumbles

And keeps fighting all the day.

The two Freds and Wally

Are a most gallant crew,

If Ingalls gets the fuel there.

They will crack those banks in two.

On the West Durham mountain

Hear that motor roar?

Some snow-bound farmer

Knows the Linn is coming once more.

With Petie at the helm

And Bill and Norm on either wing,

All the folks know you’re coming

As the phone begins to ring.

With Everett and Howard held in reserve

As the regulars get some sleep,

It’s a cinch to keep the roads open

Unless the drifts get too deep.

Then that call on us shovelers,

That’s our part, to say the least;

Can’t you hear Charlie shouting?

“Shovel wide and through it to the east!”

Another to whom we owe a lot

Although it be fair, or snowing;

And that is Hyatt, our mechanic’

As he keeps those motors going.”

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