The Coming of Winter – a Look Back to the 1950’s

As the weather turns cold and we transition from autumn into early winter, the aroma of wood smoke permeates the air as the last leaves of the stubborn oak trees finally release their grip and fall to the ground. Fortunately, I still enjoy the fall clean up, although all the modern power equipment that seems to fill half of our small barn certainly helps. As I consider everything we have today that makes our life easier to navigate, I am reminded of the days of my youth when the coming of winter involved a good deal more bone tiring work.

Today, I have a professional grade back-pack leaf blower that allows me to clean the two acres of gardens and lawns on our property in about 3 hours. When I was growing up in the 1950’s such work would have been a family affair that would have taken up an entire weekend. Back then, we raked every darn leaf by hand, often stopping every few minutes to remove some pesky oak leaves that clung to the tines of our rakes in their effort to avoid their fate of being deposited into a pile that would soon be lit on fire.

I can recall many Saturdays and Sundays during late October and early November when the air was heavy with smoke from burning leaves. The process usually went quite smoothly unless it was dry and a bit windy and someone’s burning pile got a bit out of hand, creating a brush fire that required the local volunteer firemen to delay their own leaf raking in order to make a house call.

Typical late autumn scene when it was common practice to burn leaves. Jack Delano photo from 1940. Norwich CT.

In the days before our roads were clogged with a myriad of $75,000 pickup trucks towing another $75,000 worth of power equipment designed to earn landscapers enough money to work ten months each year and then relax in Florida for two more, people who either couldn’t or didn’t want to clean up their own yards had a much cheaper alternative. Neighborhood kids. While we all balked at raking our own parents’ yards, we willingly borrowed our parents’ rakes and tarps to band together to clean up a neighbor’s yard for the couple of dollars we could earn for a few hours work. If we didn’t rip their gardens to shreds in the process, we were usually invited back to shovel their driveways once the snow flew.

Getting ready for winter also meant removing the screens on the windows and doors on the house and replacing them with an additional layer of storm windows and doors to keep out the cold. This was another all-day affair unless you lived in a large two-story colonial where it took all weekend. While double-glazed (thermal pane) windows had first appeared in the 1930’s, they were generally considered too expensive to retrofit them to an older home. I don’t know exactly when combination storm windows and screens were invented, but whoever dreamed those up should have been canonized, as they freed up two weekends annually for most homeowners by eliminating both the spring and autumn rituals of listening to fathers curse while struggling to change out the screens and storm windows. The original wood-frame storm windows were all made to fit a particular window since windows in old houses were seldom exactly the same size, and if the storm window didn’t fit properly, it was useless. Hardware stores all sold cards with pairs of numbered lead tacks that could be hammered into each storm window’s frame and each windowsill so that homeowners could match the correct storm window to every opening instead of using the trial-and-error method where the proper match was always the one at the bottom of the stack.

Every hardware store sold cards of numbered tacks like these for matching storm windows and screens with the correct opening.

And then there was the car to prepare. There was no such thing as year-round, all-weather anti-freeze back then. Water was mixed with Ethylene Glycol to prevent it from freezing. This mixture didn’t evaporate or rust out the engine block like the earlier use of straight alcohol had done in the 1930’s, but it did gum up the radiator. People dealt with this problem by draining the mixture in the spring, flushing the radiator with clean water, and then filling the radiator with pure water. Motorists would not put a fresh winter mix back into the cooling system until the following autumn. After the Ethylene Glycol was mixed with water it was necessary to determine at what temperature that mixture would begin to freeze. That required vehicle owners to have an anti-freeze tester – a small glass tube that looked for all the world like a turkey baster, but with balls that floated when the mixture was sucked out of the radiator. The more balls that floated, the colder the temperature could drop before the mixture froze and cracked the engine block.

In addition to the anti-freeze routine, cars needed to be tuned up before the winter set in. That meant new spark plugs – then good for a 10,000-mile maximum as opposed to today’s 100,000-mile-plus units– new points and condenser, and if it had been more than 2 years since they were changed, new wires from the distributor to the spark plugs. A car with a weak spark simply wouldn’t start in cold weather, so regular tune-ups were an absolute necessity.

With the exception of a few Jeeps and the military inspired Dodge Power Wagon truck that was introduced in 1946, prior to 1957 there were no 4-wheel drive light vehicles sold in the United States. Front-wheel drive wouldn’t appear on US built cars until 1966 when Oldsmobile introduced its Toronado model. That meant that the family chariot was almost without exception a rear-wheel drive model that needed extra traction in the snow.

Small Jeep CJ models such as this were one of the few options available for plowing driveways in the early 1950’s.

The first commercially produced passenger car snow tire was the Suburbanite made by Goodyear in 1952, however purchasing an extra set of tires just for winter use didn’t really catch on with the public until the end of the decade. That meant that most folks resorted to using tire chains on days when it snowed. Putting on a set of tire chains is not particularly difficult if you are doing it in a well-lit, dry garage on a flat surface. Do it outside in inclement weather when you are dressed in a business suit and an overcoat and it becomes a really miserable experience, but that was the way it was in the mid-1950’s. As automobiles became more streamlined throughout the decade, and rear tires were more concealed by the lower rear fenders and sometimes skirts, installing chains became more difficult. Most people carried their tires chains in a burlap bag and placed them in the truck alongside of the spare tire that stood vertically in a small well along the right side.

Note the tire chains on the rear wheels of my father’s 1956 Dodge. The limited access through the opening in the fender made installation of these chains more difficult as cars became more streamlined. This photo was taken in December 1955 after the first major snowfall. Note that the sides of the car are clean – the town seldom treated the roads with anything other than sand, and whatever sand they did use wasn’t applied until the snow had stopped falling and the roads had been plowed.

Personal snow blowers didn’t become commercially widespread until around 1970. Unless you owned a Jeep or a bulky Dodge Power Wagon, there wasn’t much else that would handle a snowplow. Many homeowners – my father included – purchased garden tractors and outfitted them with plows. Better than shoveling, they were still quite limited in their ability to move and stack snow. Manually lifted and lowered, and then manually angled by getting off the tractor, releasing a pin and turning the plow before locking it in the new position with the pin again, plowing a good-sized driveway with a garden tractor of the day was time consuming and had to be done several times during a major storm to keep up with the volume. After a few years of getting wet and cold while attempting to keep our driveway passable, my dad broke down and purchased an early model military style Jeep and fitted it with a hydraulic plow. Dad was suddenly the most popular guy in our neighborhood.

This garden tractor got the job done, but plowing during a storm was wet, cold, and time consuming!

While we didn’t walk both ways uphill to school in raging blizzards like our parents claimed they had, we seldom had school cancelled unless the snow had started early the night before and was more than six inches deep by 5:00 AM. Buses picked us up sporting tire chains and the drivers slowly maneuvered their way to our school, sometimes getting us there just before lunch. Classes went on without those kids still in transit and the day counted as one of the required 180 that the state mandated. On more than one occasion, our ride home was cut short when our bus driver opened the door and announced that we were on our own. I can remember at least once when we trekked the last mile in snow half-way up our little shins. Of course, unlike today’s kids, we weren’t dressed in shorts and sneakers in the middle of January – our moms made certain we were severely over-dressed and prepared for any winter weather we would encounter before they let us out the door each day.

Other than plowing the roads after a storm, the town did very little else to make the roads safer to travel. In the 1950’s there was no use of salt or sodium chloride to aid in melting the snow. The steeper hills received some sand to aid in traction, but even that was used sparingly until later in the decade when the town installed sanders on some of the trucks. Prior to that, a member of the town road crew stood in the back of the dump body and shoveled sand in a spreading motion onto the road surface while the driver drove slowly down the hills after the crew had finished plowing the road. Since towns such as Easton and Redding only had two or three plow trucks, some of the less traveled roads weren’t even cleared until after the last flakes had flown.

The coming of winter wasn’t all drudgery, though. As kids, we couldn’t wait for the ice to freeze on area ponds and streams. Winters really were a bit longer in the 1950’s. The ice on the mill pond at the foot of Meeker Hill Road in Redding was a favorite spot and it was generally frozen enough to use sometime in very early December. By the middle of the month, the entire river was usually solid enough to skate from Meeker Hill to Church Hill Road.

If it snowed in December after the ice was ready, it was generally cold enough to remain all snow, making clearing the pond for ice hockey a very doable task for a bunch of kids who could always find enough time and energy to accomplish something they really wanted to happen. While none of us put a lot of effort into keeping our parents’ front walkways clear, our “hockey rink” couldn’t have been in much better condition had we had our own Zamboni.

We generally kept a fire going to keep warm, and one year we even commandeered the seat cushions from a crashed car that sat abandoned for several weeks at the foot of Meeker Hill and that no one had bothered to tow away.

One Christmas vacation we convinced our fathers to join us in a father-son hockey match. Much to our surprise, every father in our group agreed to participate. Also to our surprise, most them were darn good skaters! They easily smeared us while our mothers cheered them on. After the match, everyone – moms, dads, and even siblings, put on skates and glided up the river. At the old Noble Hoggson estate, Fairfield Manor, the then current owners had a bonfire going down by the boathouse and had enough hot cider – and alcohol for the adults – to satisfy everyone who happened by. All-in-all, it was a most enjoyable day despite the constant boasting by our fathers about how much better they played than we did!

We certainly weren’t the first to play hockey or skate on the mill pond at Meeker Hill. c.1905 photo from the Brooks Collection at the Mark Twain Library.

When the real snows came and keeping the ice clear became too difficult, we turned our efforts to the toboggans. We had acquired one from Mr. Adams – I think we bartered a number of driveway shovelings for a really neat 6-person toboggan. The other one was shorter and commandeered from the barn of one of our band of juvenile rouges’ parents.

We were tireless in our efforts to build twin parallel racecourses, complete with iced, banked turns, and a crisscrossing layout that would ensure a pretty spectacular pileup if both sleds reached the crossover at the exact same time. The courses ended with about a three-foot fall-off when the sleds went over a stonewall and onto a neighboring lawn below. At full speed, each toboggan would be airborne for up to 10 or 12 feet before slamming down into the snow and stopping abruptly.

Experimenting with different combinations of weight made each sled fairly equal in speed capability despite the difference in the number of passengers. It took us about a week of afternoons to get everything just right.

Boys will be boys!

Whether it’s good or bad, ten-to-twelve-year boys tend to be stupidly fearless when more than two of them egg the others to do something no sane adult would attempt. So, we raced! Multiple heats! Narrowly missing each other on some runs and purposely going off course on others to avoid certain mayhem.

I’m not sure that youth is wasted on the young, but to be able to relive a little of the excitement of those years would certainly be a welcome excursion and change of pace during these so-called golden years! Have a great holiday season everyone!!