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Perhaps we should just suck it up

Yes, it’s cold, but just picture dealing with winter in the absence of any of our modern conveniences

Photos from the Wellesley Township Heritage and Historical Society and Waterloo Region Museum collections show how our predecessors coped with the weather. A Wellesley snowmobiler in 1931. [Submitted]
Photos from the Wellesley Township Heritage and Historical Society and Waterloo Region Museum collections show how our predecessors coped with the weather. A Wellesley snowmobiler in 1931. [Submitted]
Yes, all those Facebook statuses are accurate – it has indeed been cold lately. Perhaps you’ve seen your neighbours shivering as they fetch the mail, or heard cries of “Why hath thou forsaken me?” during ten-second treks from house to car.

Many of us may be feeling hard done by during another wintry blast this week, but just imagine life without our centrally-heated homes, warm and sheltered vehicles and equally well-warmed workplaces and shopping areas. Imagine, if you will, life a century ago. Things were a little different for our forefathers, who might not see any of the heartiness and pioneer spirit in today’s residents.

“I think they were just prepared: they knew cold weather was coming, so they would make sure firewood was ready,” said Stacy McLennan, researcher at the Waterloo Region Museum, of our predecessors. “In the summer, especially farm families would have been preserving food for use in the wintertime. Even some people who lived in town would still be doing that.

“Central heating comes in a little bit later, but certainly there were fireplaces and stoves that could heat your house. You could burn coal, and while that wasn’t as common here, a lot of the factories did burn coal to produce electricity.”

Back then, many of a household’s typical chores would have involved keeping the house warm. “I think sometimes we change more than the weather changes,” said David Phillips, senior climatologist for Environment Canada.

“It was a lot more difficult for people back then. One hundred years, 150 years ago we were coming out of a little ice age where conditions on average were much colder than they are now. And yet they didn’t have polar fleece garments and closed-in cars and well-insulated buildings; a lot of the times, a good chunk of the day was spent plugging drafts into holes in buildings to keep the cold out.”

Much like today, cold weather was no excuse for not getting work done.

“It was more of a relaxed season in some sense, because you couldn’t do as much outside, but you still had a lot of chores and work to be done,” said McLennan. “Especially if you were on a farm, you still had animals to look after. January and February are traditionally butchering time for pigs.”

People’s lifestyles would also continue much in the same way, as shown in the recently published diaries of Gordon C. Eby, a Mennonite farmer in Kitchener.

“They range from 1911 to 1913, and in the months of January and February, he’s still going to the market to sell vegetables, and he often goes to plays, and they still had people over for dinner on Sunday,” said McLennan.

Prior to the 20th century, a sleigh would have been the only practical mode of transportation in Wellesley Township. The Maple Leaf Journal: A Settlement History of Wellesley Township, a book distributed by the historical society, describes young people holding sleighing parties for entertainment, and a skating carnival from the 1890s to the 1940s.

So what’s different? While Phillips often hears complaints that any given winter must be the coldest winter on record (or the warmest, depending on whatever hyperbole is in the air), the truth isn’t quite so extreme.

“It wasn’t as if we would describe the climate as dramatically different back then. Generally speaking, if you look at the winter, the amount of snow would be a little bit more than now because it was colder, but it wasn’t dramatically different. … Colder winters were much more variable back then – it’s almost as if you had winter and summer, and once the cold arrived, it was sort of an honest temperature.”

Indeed, what was unusual at the time are the varying winters we’ve experienced in the past decade. “Back then, you’d get snowy decades and not-snowy decades, but it wasn’t dramatic from one year to the next. … It tended to be more consistent, fewer wild swings. If January was cold, February was cold, and December was too. Now, it’s more back-and-forth, up-and-down, yo-yoing all over the place, which presents its own challenges.”

But looking at the evidence, it seems the biggest change in the weather has been more subjective: “What I find is, people were more accepting of the weather back then,” said Phillips.

A little more local for your inbox.

Seven days. One newsletter. Local reporting about people and places you
won't find anywhere else. Stay caught up with The Observer This Week.

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