Maine Winters — Then and Now

Lea Wait, here. And although I can’t officially claim to be a Mainer (I was born in Boston, and have only lived here ‘year round for 20 years) I do live in midcoast Maine, in a house built in 1774 on an island in the Sheepscot River, one of Maine’s many tidal rivers, about twelve miles from the North Atlantic.

Cat inside (on my desk) watching snow outside

Normally along the coast we’ve had 25-40 inches of snow by this time of year. This winter we haven’t hit that total, although a few years back we had almost 80 inches in January alone. Our next storm is due tomorrow, though. We’ll just have to wait and see. We’ve had some single digit nights so far, but nothing below zero. Not so far.

Considering it all, no one is complaining. After all, we chose to live here. And this is 2019.  Most people have some form of central heat, whether a furnace or a wood stove.  Storm windows. Insulation. Grocery stores. Running water. Ovens and microwaves. Silk or thermal underwear. Fleece. Flannel. Wool. Plows. Salt and sand. And heated cars or trucks to get us from one heated place to another on plowed roads.

For hundreds – probably thousands – of years people survived here without most of those things.

I’m not an expert on the ways Abenakis and Micmacs survived winters.

But I do know a little about how Europeans lived here at the time my home was built. Before global warming. When the river wasn’t just patchworked with ice floes. It was  frozen so  hard  people used it for sleigh  races.

People prepared all year for winter. In snowy months men took sledges into the woods and lumbered.  Wood was chopped in summer so it would be dry for winter fireplaces. Fires were kept burning all day and night. On the coldest days, warmly dressed people slept 2-4  to a bed or pallet near the fire. Pine boughs were woven together in fall and piled around a house’s foundation. Snow would fill the empty spaces between the boughs, helping insulate the building. Snow was melted for water, for occasional washing, and for the soups and stews that, with bread, were sustenance. Fish, meat, vegetables and fruit were harvested in summer and dried, to be resurrected in winter stews. Clothes weren’t washed for months. Even infant’s clouts (diapers) were hung to dry in kitchens without rinsing.DSC00782

In Maine, small workrooms (jointly called the ell) connected houses to their barns, so animals could be fed without going outside. Privies were often located in the far corner of the barn. Roads were not plowed. Sleighs pulled heavy pieces of wood to push down deep snow so horses and sleighs didn’t sink in it.

But most people stayed home for the winter. “Winter well!” was a common farewell in fall. Those who didn’t live in town might not see neighbors until spring. Babies would be born, people would die, and no one outside the family would know for months. Sometimes a whole family would die, of disease or hunger or cold or fire or depression that led to violence, and no one would know until late spring, when muddy roads dried and were again passable.

1871 Winslow Homer wood engraving: “A Winter Morning – Shovelling Out”  Note wooden shovels.

I think of those people in winters like this one. I wonder how they felt. What they thought. How glorious spring must have seemed.

And I thank them. They, and others like them in other parts of our country, were survivors. And so our country survived.

A little cold and snow? Just part of life.

About Lea Wait

I write mysteries - the Mainely Needlepoint, Shadows Antique Print and, coming in June of 2018, the Maine Murder mysteries (under the name Cornelia Kidd.) When I was single I was an adoption advocate and adopted my four daughters. Now my mysteries and novels for young people are about people searching for love, acceptance, and a place to call home. My website is To be on my mailing list, send me a note at
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9 Responses to Maine Winters — Then and Now

  1. Reen says:

    When I was a little girl in a rural part of Massachusetts, one of my winter tasks while living with my great-grandmother Troy was to collect snow in a galvanized tin bucket and melt it on her cast iron kitchen stove. She would make sure the water was warm enough, but not so hot that it would crack the iron pipe. Then she’d give me the water to pour down the top of the pump to melt any ice and free the moving parts so I could pump the water. I loved Nanna Troy.

  2. Hard to believe that at one time people were able to use a gallamander to haul granite across the sea ice from Vinalhaven to Rockland. I remember (just barely) a blizzard in 1953 where the snow was so deep my father had to ski to the Union common because we were out of milk.

    • Lea Wait says:

      The house I live in was pulled by (legends say 20 yolk of oxen — that would be 40) across the frozen Sheepscot River from Westport Island to where it now stand, on a hill overlooking the river – in Edgecomb. And people say there’s no global warming???!

  3. Richard Cass says:

    Goofy as it sounds, I treasure the memories of summers at my uncle Dick’s dairy farms: the smell of cows (both ends) and the splintery seat of the two-holer. I wouldn’t want to go back, but i’m grateful to have had that small taste of “the olden days.”

  4. Judy says:

    Very interesting. Thanks.

  5. Amber Foxx says:

    Fascinating winter history.

  6. Elizabeth says:

    That certainly puts things in perspective! So interesting! Thanks for sharing.

  7. fangswandsfairy(alt) says:

    I have seen pics from “The County” where the snow on the road was pushed in to piles like walls on either side of the road. Nowadays 2 – 3 yards for a whole winter is considered excessive. I tol. d some people in Malaysia about the snow we had had the previous winter – they asked me if I was afraid of the snow. I had never thought to fear snow

  8. Kammy McCleery says:

    Your writing is perfect, Lea! It evokes the letter and the spirit of the time… Stay warm and know that you are loved…

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