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A glimpse into the past: Vernon’s long grim winters

By Barbara Emery Moseley

A “long, execrable winter is about over,” proclaimed the editor in the March 17 Reformer. Execrable is not an adjective in common usage, but it is derived from the Latin “to curse”, and aptly describes the past months.

The word reminded me of some old-time Vernon winters, stories of which were uncovered in my historical research of our town.

One grim incident was found in the Phoenix of February 18, 1860. (The Phoenix was a weekly newspaper published in Brattleboro, and included items from surrounding towns).

Under the caption “Woman Frozen to Death” was this report: “Mrs. Ingalls, 42, wife of William Ingalls of Vernon, went to Hinsdale to visit a sick friend. When she had not returned by Saturday night, he searched. In looking about in Burrows’ meadow against which she would naturally cross the Connecticut River, her body was found on the west bank a few rods from the shore, with the face downwards and frozen stiff.”

(Jarvis Burrows was owner of a large tract of land in North Vernon encompassing acres surrounding today’s Town Office Building. The “meadow” would have been east of the building, spreading all the way to the river. Keep in mind this was fifty years before the building of Vernon Dam, so the river was much narrower and more shallow.)

It was a common practice at that time for people to cross to Hinsdale on what was referred to as “Jack Frost’s Bridge.” Its safety was questionable – another news item described the loss of a team of horses and the sled they were pulling, when the ice gave way.

An equally sorrowful story is found in the diary of 15-year-old Sarah Allen of Huckle Hill. On Friday, January 3, 1862, her entry reads: “Jason (her 27-year-old brother) came home today. I am very sick with the scarlet fever.” On the sixteenth she writes: “Vesta (her seven-year-old sister) died today of the scarlet fever. Mother, Jason and I were all that were at home.” Then, within five weeks, her 27-year-old sister-in-law died, leaving an 8-month-old daughter. What deep grief for the Allen family.

In another diary, 57-year-old Jane Scott writes on February 26, 1877: “O, how I miss the love and sympathy of my dear, precious husband, but Jesus knows it all.”

She was alone on her Pond Road farm near the Lily Pond, taking care of a cow, horse and pig. Her water pipes had frozen late in the fall, adding to her hard work. On dreary winter evenings, Jane brings boxes of apples up from the cellar, sorting out the rotting ones. After snowstorms, her two brothers-in-law “break out the road,” but she shovels a path to the barn and the woodpile.

Then, her March 8, 1878 diary entry is: “Heard the first robin of the season this morning. Also heard the birds, which tells us Spring is coming again.”

Widow Jane’s execrable winter was ending.

Photo by Professor Bop, used under Creative Commons License