Carroll Staples (from left), Fritz Johnson, Ella Tinker and Carl Swanson enjoy skating on Goose Pond on Swan’s Island around 1924. COURTESY OF THE HISTORICAL SOCIETY OF SWAN'S ISLAND, MAINE

Being warm was a luxury way back when

ELLSWORTH — Todd Little-Siebold remembers talking to a man in Northeast Harbor shortly after arriving in Maine in 1997.

A Georgia native, the College of the Atlantic professor was telling the Maine man that he enjoyed cold weather.

“I really love winter,” Little-Siebold said.

“I hate winter,” the man retorted, and he went on to talk about how cold it was — even in his home — in the winter months when he was growing up in the 1930s and ’40s.

Cold and how it shapes our lives has been something Little-Siebold has thought about for awhile.

On Friday, Feb. 10, he will give a lecture on the subject as part of the Acadia Winter Festival. The talk, “Water Froze on the Nightstand Overnight — The History of Being Cold in Maine,” will take place at 7 p.m. in the Moore Auditorium at the Schoodic Institute (65 Acadia Drive in Winter Harbor). The talk is free and open to the public.

The driver turns to face the camera while taking a sleigh ride on the Hog Bay Road in Franklin in this late 19th-century photo.

One of the underlying points in Little-Siebold’s presentation is that the expectation of being warm in the winter — having a home where every room is 65-70 degrees, all the time, for example — is a relatively new idea.

Siebold will explore “how people’s expectations have changed as technology, their work lives, and convenience have shifted what we have come to understand as being “comfortable.”

Returning to his conversation with the man in Northeast Harbor, Little-Siebold said the man clearly remembered the first home in town to get a central heating system.

“He said they called it ‘Little Florida,’” Little-Siebold said. “He told me, ‘We just went over and sat there. We just sat in the heat.’”

Little-Siebold lives in an 18th-century farmhouse on the Bayside Road in Ellsworth, and his work on renovating the structure has helped to illustrate how different life was years ago. He said there was no form of insulation in the building, just some plaster on the outside of a wall and some plaster on the inside with dead air space in between.

Local residents have memories echoing the stories Little-Siebold heard from the man in Northeast Harbor. Ellsworth resident Dick Carlisle was born in Lamoine and grew up in Ellsworth Falls, and he remembers that winters while he was growing up “were real cold.”

A wood stove in the kitchen and later a coal stove in the parlor were the two sources of heat in the home. Vents in the floor allowed heat to travel up to the second floor. But still, he said, “it wasn’t a very warm house in the winter.”

“I could wake up in the morning, breathe out, and I could see my breath,” he said.

Carlisle, now 87, said his father would get fitted firewood delivered each fall to use in the wood stove. He and his sister were tasked with getting the wood, about five cords worth, into the cellar and stacked, a chore that kept them busy.

“I hated every year to see the wood come,” he recalled with a grin.

Ellsworth American publisher Alan Baker grew up in Orrington in the 1930s and ’40s. Like Carlisle, he also had chores in the winter months.

“I had to go out and pump water and bring it in,” he said, “and I had to lug in wood and pile it behind the stove and let it warm up before it got burned.”

Like Carlisle, Baker said his home had a wood stove in the kitchen. That was the single source of heat for the home, with registers in the ceiling to allow heat to pass to the upstairs. Later, Baker’s father bought and installed a secondhand wood furnace in the home, which Baker called “our first luxury.”

Preparing for the winter heating season in the 19th century was an arduous task. Little-Siebold said there are accounts of old farmhouses in New England that needed 25 to 30 cords of firewood to get through a winter.

That would be a tremendous quantity of firewood to prepare even today, with chainsaws to cut it, log splitters to split it and trucks to haul it. In the 1800s and early 1900s, though, the work would have been done with axes, crosscut saws and teams of oxen or horses.

“They spent a good amount of time each year, cutting, stacking and letting the wood dry,” Little-Siebold said. “Everybody did this.”

Some people cut down trees as a way to earn a living instead of to heat their homes. In 1904, the U.S. Department of Agriculture produced a document titled “Studies of the Food of Maine Lumbermen.” It found that the men consumed a staggering 5,000 to 8,000 calories each day (those driving logs on the rivers consumed fewer calories than those cutting logs in the woods).

Government guidelines today recommend from 1,600 to 2,400 calories per day for adult women and 2,000 to 3,000 calories per day for adult men.

The 1904 study found the dietary intake levels in Maine lumbermen to be among “the highest yet recorded for any class of American laboringmen.”

“The large amounts of food eaten must be attributed in great part to the severe labor in the open air and the cold to which the men were exposed,” the study concluded.

Another cold-weather job was cutting ice for use in ice boxes, before the advent of refrigerators. Brooklin resident Mary Fowle, who is 85, said her father cut ice out of nearby Walker Pond when she was growing up.

Snowplowing was another job, and though that is a job still done today (unlike river driving and cutting ice), it was a different experience then. Carlisle said his father drove a front-wheel drive plow truck with a V-plow that had a double wing on it. He plowed local roads, and it was time-consuming work.

“It would take him all day to go from Ellsworth to the Ellsworth/Otis line,” he said.

The traveling experience today is different, too.

“You see people out in the middle of a storm, all the time, for no reason other than because they can,” Little-Siebold said. “Back then, in a real storm, you had no expectation you were going anywhere.”

In the Knox County town of Union, these children have their sleigh hitched up for a dry run, complete with wooden horse adorned with jingle bells.

Other things that people today take for granted, such as indoor plumbing, were not standard features in many Maine homes seven or eight decades ago.

Without running water, Baker said the options for relieving oneself in his home growing up were a can in the bedroom (“one that you could sit on,” he recalled) or going to use the outhouse, which was located in a shed 20 feet behind the back door of the home. Fowle had a similar setup at her house.

Cold weather was not all bad news, though, at least not for kids. Carlisle, Baker and Fowle all had memories of sliding as children, often on plowed but un-sanded public roads.

Baker said he and his sister would ride a toboggan that his mother tied to the bumper of their old Plymouth. With his dad behind the wheel and his mom looking out from the back seat, Baker and his sister would ride on the toboggan as their father towed them down Center Drive in Orrington.

“It was a relatively flat road and he drove rather slowly,” Baker recalled.

Carlisle recalled jumping off the roof of the porch at his house into 3 or 4 feet of snow, as well as going skating on a nearby frog pond. Fowle had a similar skating experience, and said there was often enough ice to skate by late November. One year she got a pair of skates for her birthday rather than at Christmas, because her parents knew she would be able to use them before late December.

“Winters were colder and lasted longer then,” Fowle said.

Carlisle shared an amazing story about his mother, who also grew up in Ellsworth Falls. He said when she was younger she and others used to take a bobsled to the very top of Main Street in Ellsworth, by Fairground Road.

They had to wait until after 8 p.m., to be sure there would be no horses out on the street, and then they would get on the sled and go down the length of Main Street, reaching sufficient speed to go across the Union River bridge and up Bridge Hill as far as what is now the Courthouse Gallery.

“My mother said it would just be a blur when they came through town,” Carlisle said, estimating the sled may have reached a speed of up to 60 mph.

Donald LeMoine goes sledding on the Steamboat Wharf Road on Swans Island in this circa 1940 photo.

Generally milder winters along with advances in plowing, building insulation, clothing and heating technology make experiencing a winter in Maine today different from winters of decades and centuries past.

“You think about all the things that we take for granted — all the changes really add up,” Little-Siebold said. He called the warmth we have today, both in our homes and out of doors, “new,” “novel” and “historically unprecedented.”

Steve Fuller

Steve Fuller

Reporter at The Ellsworth American,
Steve Fuller worked at The Ellsworth American from 2012 to early 2018. He covered the city of Ellsworth, including the Ellsworth School Department and the city police beat, as well as the towns of Amherst, Aurora, Eastbrook, Great Pond, Mariaville, Osborn, Otis and Waltham. A native of Waldo County, he served as editor of Belfast's Republican Journal prior to joining the American. He lives in Orland.

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