DerryNews.com, Derry, New Hampshire

March 14, 2013

Column:

Rick Holmes
Derry News

---- — It’s been a miserable winter and it has long overstayed its welcome. I’ve heard some scientists blame it on climate change. These experts have data to prove that our climate today is different then it was a century or two ago and the effect a degree or two can have on the ecosystem. I can see that things aren’t the way they use to be when I’m shown satellite photos of the glaciers in Greenland. And no, I don’t know the reason. Is it a result of man’s running the environment or a natural cyclical event that happens every millennium or so? Maybe it’s one; maybe it’s the other; maybe it’s both. I do know however that here in Nutfield we’ve been talking about climate change for over a century.

I also know it’s easy to confuse weather with climate. Weather is the temperature and precipitation today, this week, this month; climate is the temperature and precipitation averaged over a century or more. Here in New Hampshire, we live in a continental climate which means we get about 3 inches to 4 inches of precipitation each month with long, cold winters and short warm summers.

There are years when it doesn’t seem like we’re fitting into those climate averages. I’ve seen cool summers and warmish winters. In 1816 we had a foot of snow in July and other years we’ve had open winters. The vagaries of the weather in old Nutfield are amazing. During my life, I remember one winter day when it was minus-30 degrees and I survived — barely — a summer’s day when it hit 106 degrees in the shade.

The year 1903 was one of those years when the weather was the chief topic of conversation. It was a year that nobody liked! In May, the Derry News announced that it was certain that we we’re going through a climate change. The winter started off cold and snowy. One day in January, the temperature fell to 15 degrees below zero and a snow storm blanked the town. Later in the day it warmed up and rain fell by the bucketfuls. Soon, however, the temperature fell below zero and everything froze up solid. The groundhog on Feb. 2, 1903, (Candlemas Day) didn’t see his shadow. And as that clever little rodent predicted, February and March were mild with little snow.

The spring of 1903 started out pleasant and Derry folk were picking mayflowers in March. April however proved to be miserable with snow and ice. The ground was too frozen for farmers to plow their fields. In May, it warmed up but now Nutfield went in to a drought, where for months there was hardly any measurable precipitation. And farmers who put out their tomato plants on Memorial Day had them soon killed by a three-day frost.

The dry-spell continued into the summer and wells went dry. Men could only shake their heads in disgust as the hay crop became stinted by the lousy weather. June was cold with an easterly wind blowing nearly all the time. July and August were described as “the coolest in this section that has been known in the memory of man.” The drought and the winds continued to the end of the season. As fall approached, the streams and brooks were bone dry and the lakes and ponds weren’t looking all that good.

The first frost came early in September, killing what crops that had survived the drought. This was followed by a terrible storm on Sept. 6 with several houses hit by lightning. The storm was also accompanied by hail — some of which measured up to 3½ inches in diameter. Hundreds of window panes in the Nutfield area were smashed by the hail. Any apples still on trees were made worthless except for cider.

The drought ended in December but by this time the ground was frozen rock solid. Any rain that fell just puddled on the surface and didn’t get absorbed into the ground to refill the wells and springs. Farmers had to carry water long distances to supply their livestock. Lakes and rivers remained low and some mills that depended on water power were closed.

The rest of the winter had the usual snowfall but the cold was monumental! The first week in January 1904 saw the temperature at a house near Beaver Lake register minus-28 degrees, at Derry Village it was minus-16, and by the Depot on Broadway it read minus-22. Derry was actually warm compared to Claremont — all things being relative I suppose. There it was 50 degrees below zero! All over Nutfield, water pipes were frozen and no one was happy — except the plumbers. A brief January thaw was followed by local temperatures falling to minus-10 degrees.

The editor of the Derry News in January reflected: “Theories have been advanced in recent years that our climate is changing, that the New England winters were becoming slowly modified, and that an old-fashioned winter has been outlawed. The weather of the past 36 hours does not appear to confirm the wisdom of the prophet.”

Probably the editor was confusing weather changes with climate change — but it tells us that people in Nutfield were debating climate change 110 years ago. And my last words on the subject is: I know the winters were far worse when I was a boy. I remember that when I was 5 years old the snow was almost as tall as I was.

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Rick Holmes is the official town historian of Derry. His office hours at the Municipal Center are Mondays from 8 a.m. to noon and Wednesdays from 4 to 7 p.m. Several of his books on local history are available at Mack’s Apples and Derry’s libraries.