Enjoy the weather; in 1906 they shovelled snow

The following is a re-print of a past column by former Advertiser columnist Stephen Thorning, who passed away on Feb. 23, 2015.
Some text has been updated to reflect changes since the original publication and any images used may not be the same as those that accompanied the original publication.

Everyone hopes for some sunny, warm weather in October.

We are particularly pleased when Thanksgiving weekend coincides with a warm spell.
There are years when we are not so lucky. One of the worst occurred in early October, 1906, with a rain storm that turned into a blizzard.

The storm of October 1906 came up quickly and unexpectedly. On the morning of Oct. 8 the weather was sunny and warm. Several horticulturists boasted that they had flowers still in full bloom, unharmed by frost or excessive rains.

Newspapers reported a couple of people picking sizeable quantities of raspberries during the early days of October.

Like most fall storms, the one of 1906 blew in from Lake Huron. Goderich experienced strong winds on Oct. 8, and late that day heavy rains plastered the towns along the shore. Conditions worsened there on Oct. 9, and the temperature fell. Soon the precipitation was an unappealing mixture of rain and snow.

On Oct. 10 reports came from Goderich that a full blizzard was raging along the lake. That evening trains had difficulty completing their runs to Goderich, Kincardine and Southampton. When the storm eventually died down accumulation amounted to aheavy snow.

The storm moved slowly to the east, reaching Wellington County 10 or 12 hours after Goderich. Rain and winds here hit with full force on the morning of Oct. 9, and the heavy snow began to fall on the afternoon of Oct. 10, continuing through the night.

Accumulations varied considerably across Wellington, in part due to the winds. Some areas reported less than six inches of snow. Others, such as Fergus, boasted about 12 inches on the ground. Something in the range of eight or ten inches was probably the average. When trod upon, it turned to slushy ice. In any case, it was heavy and wet, and a back breaker for homeowners to move, assuming that they could find their shovels.

Damage was heavy across north Wellington and its neighbouring counties. The trees still had most of their leaves, and the snow stuck to them like Elmer’s Glue-all. Some trees had not yet begun to turn colour. The mixture of green and white on the branches was a rare sight. Limbs and entire trees bent over, some of them touching the ground.

Hundreds of tree branches snapped off their trunks, making roads and sidewalks even more treacherous for anyone sufficiently foolhardy to leave the house on the morning of Oct. 11.

Fruit trees suffered much damage. Most of the apple crop had not yet been picked, and the snow added to an already heavy load on the trees.

Telephone and electrical wires were broken or downed everywhere, but that was not as great a problem as it would have been a generation later, when those services had become vital to daily life.

One event affected by the storm was the West Garafraxa Fair, scheduled for Belwood on Oct. 11 and 12. Exhibitors were to bring in their entries on the morning of Oct. 11.

By noon only a few had managed to struggle into the village. At 1pm the directors held a consultation with the exhibitors present. They decided to proceed with the show as scheduled for items shown inside, cancel the outdoors exhibits and reduce the prize money by half. By mid-afternoon more exhibitors arrived, offering a reasonable showing of flowers, baking and preserves.

An amateur show that night went ahead as scheduled, but was not well attended. By then the temperature had risen considerably, melting the snow but making travel even more treacherous.

The West Garafraxa Show continued on Oct. 12, but closed early, at 4pm. The storm already seemed only a bad dream. That day dawned bright and sunny, and the sun ate away all day at the accumulation of snow and slush. In the evening the Agricultural Society sponsored a closing concert, by the popular Stuart and Burton troupe from Toronto. It was a full house.

After the snow melted, the temperature rose to figures above normal for two weeks, much to the pleasure of farmers, who had yet to complete their fall ploughing, and the harvesting of their turnips and other root crops. That work proceeded as soon as the fields dried a little. Some farmers urged their neighbours to feed the root crops immediately rather than try to store them, believing they had been damaged by the frost and snow.

Street corner wags told their friends that Wellington had experienced all four seasons in four days: summer on Oct. 9, fall on Oct. 10, winter the next day, and spring with the bright sun on Oct. 12. Old timers scoffed, telling youngsters that the 1906 storm was nothing compared to 1869.

Those claims about 1869 had merit. From surviving reports, there can be little doubt that the winters of the mid-19th century were longer and far more severe that those of more recent times.

Back then first frosts often struck in the waning days of August, and invariably there was a heavy freeze by mid-September. In the northern portions of Wellington there was more than one year that experienced a touch of frost every month on the calendar.

Even so, 1869 was unusual. On Sept. 27 farmers were in the midst of the grain harvest. When they first glanced out the window that morning, they saw several inches of snow on the ground. That was just the latest setback in what had been a particularly vexing year.

Spring had been late and wet, delaying the planting of crops. The snow soon melted, though, and a subsequent week of warm weather gave harvesters a break at the beginning of October.

The good weather did not last. On Oct. 7 thermometers plunged, and a cold rain started to fall, continuing through the next day. Those conditions kept the attendance at the Minto Agricultural Society’s Fair at low levels on Oct. 8.

The rain continued for another four days, mixed at times with wet snow. Hollen’s Methodist Church held a soiree on Oct. 10, but the turnout was miserable. Two days later the temperature dropped well below freezing in the central and northern portions of Wellington. The rain turned to snow, falling in a full blizzard.

The North Wellington Agricultural Society had its 1869 fair scheduled for Rothsay that day, Oct. 12. Organizers feared it would be a failure. To the surprise of the directors, a good crowd braved the conditions.

Arthur’s Fall Fair came off successfully the next day. By then the snow had stopped falling, but it was still a miserable day, with bitter winds and some rain. The temperatures did not rise sufficiently to melt all the snow. It was the start of winter, and there was snow on the ground continuously from Oct. 12 until late April of 1870, and later than that in a few sheltered spots.

A few farmers took advantage of sunny days to salvage the remaining grain in their fields in late October. By month’s end more snow had fallen, forcing the cancellation of several ploughing matches in the county.

The fall of 1869 was one that residents did not want to repeat, and one they would never forget.

*This column was originally published in the Wellington Advertiser on Oct. 13, 2006.

Thorning Revisited