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.
In June, 1883, a particularly heavy thunderstorm came through Derry. All over town there were reports of fires caused by lightning strike. Barns had their ridge posts turned into splinters and windows were smashed. Many of the town’s dirt roads were impassible due to the torrential rains that accompanied the storm. One house had the plaster knocked off the ceiling and the floor in one room was set on fire. The homeowner was knocked unconscious and awoke to find the room filled with smoke and the house on fire.
During this storm, lightning struck the corner of another house and then proceeded to come into the living room where there were nine people sitting waiting for the storm to end. A bolt of electricity struck one lady “on the back of the neck, ran down her back and down one leg tearing the shoe off her foot.” A man sitting close to her was also hit. The lightning tore off his shoe and then “ran across the room, making a hole in the floor and quickly made its exit into the cellar.” Everyone in the room was stunned and the two who were hit were “seriously injured” but survived.
Derry was hit by another memorable lightning storm in July, 1907. During the excitement a local milkman was making deliveries to the house of a local clergyman. Suddenly a bolt of lightning struck very, very close to where the milkman was standing. Immediately, the frightened man loudly exclaimed “Jesus!” An upper window in the house quickly opened up. The clergyman leaned out and asked the milkman if he was hurt. When he was told he was OK, the minster replied that he was glad that the milkman “knew who to call on in case of trouble.”
Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry and plans to hold office hours at the municipal center. He is the former chairman of the Derry Heritage Commission. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.