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Tim Blagg

Blagg: ‘Year without a summer’

OK, I admit it, I’m hankering for a bit of spring warmth — birds building nests, green shoots sprouting up through last year’s plant debris, enough sun to warrant sitting out on my bench and luxuriating in its rays.

I’m winter-worn, tired of ice and snow and slush and ugly snow plow drifts covered with mud.

I’m sick of having to wear my wool jack-shirt while watching TV because we keep the house cool to save fuel.

Enough, already.

But just when I start to feel sorry for myself and complain about the weather, I think back to 1816 — “Eighteen Hundred and Froze To Death.”

It was known as the “Year Without a Summer.”

The United States was young, then — veterans of the War of 1812 and even The Revolution were still around to share their stories of fighting the British. The White House, burned by British forces in 1814, was in the throes of reconstruction, but was not yet habitable.

James Madison was president, and there were just 18 states in the Union (Indiana would be admitted in December).

People around the world began noticing that something was wrong early in the spring — even sunny days were never quite clear. There was a “fog” high in the air over everything. Some scientists suspected that it was connected to the eruption in 1815 of Mount Tambora in what is now Indonesia. Others knew that four other volcanoes had also erupted recently.

Combined, millions of tons of dust and ash from these explosions had created a stratospheric cloud that partially screened the sun.

In addition, there was unusual sunspot activity — easily seen by the naked eye — which reduced solar heating.

Analysis today indicates that the average temperature was reduced that year by about 1.5 degrees.

That was enough — there was at least one frost every month that year.

William G. Atkins, writing in the “History of Hawley,” described the result: “Severe frosts occurred every month; June 7th and 8th snow fell, and it was so cold that crops were cut down, even freezing the roots ... In the early Autumn when corn was in the milk it was so thoroughly frozen that it never ripened and was scarcely worth harvesting.

“Breadstuffs were scarce and prices high and the poorer class of people were often in straits for want of food. It must be remembered that the granaries of the great west had not then been opened to us by railroad communication, and people were obliged to rely upon their own resources or upon others in their immediate locality.”

There was no “social safety net” in those days. If your crops failed, you faced starvation.

There were famines around the world.

Transportation was difficult — and expensive — in those days before the railroads were built. Rivers and canals, which normally carried bulk cargo, were still frozen solid in August as far south as Pennsylvania.

The little hamlets of western Massachusetts were isolated, totally dependent on their own resources, which were sorely curtailed by the continuing cold.

But their sturdy Yankee inhabitants persevered, finding ways to help each other survive.

And the vivid accounts of those days make my whining in the middle of my comfortable existence embarrassing.

Blagg has been Editor of The Recorder since 1986. He lives in Greenfield and is a military historian with an interest in local history. He can be reached at: tblagg@recorder.com or 413-772-0261, ext. 250.

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