, Derry, New Hampshire


October 11, 2012

Column: Lightning strikes were trouble in age of bucket brigades

My mother was paranoid about lightning. Whenever thunder started to boom she begin to panic. Immediately, she’d make the whole family huddle together in the middle of the living room for the duration of the storm. The TV and radio would have to be unplugged and no one was allowed to talk or make phone calls. If the telephone rang we couldn’t answer it — no matter how many times it rang. We couldn’t get water from the faucet, use the bathroom or open the refrigerator. We were also not allowed to touch any light switch, so if the lights were off (or on) before the storm, they stayed off (or on) until at least 15 minutes after the last lightning strike was heard.

My mother may have had an extreme case of lightning phobia. Historically however, lightning has for centuries been a real threat to our life, limb and property.

In the town’s earliest days, lightning was much more dangerous than it is today. Two hundred years ago most of the town’s forests had been clear cut to make way for pastures and fields. Farmhouses and barns were usually the highest things for miles around and as such were targets for bolts of lightning. Until recent times, we had no modern and effective fire department and a bucket brigade was a highly ineffective way to quench a roaring fire in a hay-filled barn.

The earliest example of local lightning damage I’ve found occurred in 1771. The south side of John Stewart’s house was struck by lightning which broke a beam in the cellar. The lightning then passed through the house, tearing a door “all to pieces,” planks on the floor were lifted up and several windows were smashed. It next attacked the fireplace “driving the soot, fire and ashes out of the chimney and throwing one rock out of the hearth.” The bolt exited the house through the back door on the house’s eastern side. Outside, it ripped off the bottom of a pail and threw it nearly 100 feet across the lawn. Somehow none of the eight people in the house was hurt.

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