Our white Christmases seem to be getting a little thin on the ground lately. We seem to have had our snow early, followed by rain and ice and whatnot. As I write this, the snow cover we had has greatly diminished.
But then again, old-timers have always complained winters were lots worse when they were youngsters. And since I seem to have become a certified old-timer, it’s practically my job to insist we had colder weather and more snow when I was growing up in the 1950s on a Wheatland Township farm. In my defense, the official snowfall statistics for the area compiled by the Illinois Department of Natural Resources appear to back up those childhood memories. So maybe it’s not just the ravings of an old misanthrope after all.
According to those records, the biggest single month’s snow ever recorded in the area was in December of 1951. At 36.4 inches, it is still the all-time champ among local snowy months. Which is sort of odd, when you think about it, because historically, we generally get most of each winter’s snow in January and February. But then again, the big snows often seem to come relatively early in the winter.
The winter before that, the area had gotten over 20 inches of snow in December. It must have seemed as if we were entering a new Ice Age.
I remember that snowy 1951 December because my uncle was working part-time that winter driving a snowplow for Wheatland Township. For a little kid, it was a very impressive piece of equipment. And on that snowy Christmas Day when we were ready to go to my grandparents’ house for Christmas dinner, Uncle Gerald came past with the snowplow and cleared our way the three miles to my grandparents’ farm. Then, like now, it helped to know the right guy.
Winters in those years were special to me, as they often are to children. Each winter, my parents hosted hayrides using the bobsled running gear that was parked out behind the barn the rest of the year. Every winter, my dad would put a hayrack on the running gear, hook it up behind one of our tractors, and pull everyone down the country roads near our farm. Bigger kids hooked their sleds onto the bobsled with ropes and performed daring maneuvers as the tractor made its steady way down the road, while the adults and little kids rode on bales of hay on the hayrack, well covered with blankets and quilts.
Occasionally during those years, my sisters would take me sledding to the abandoned gravel pit a quarter mile north of our house. The walls of the old pit seemed nearly vertical to me, providing a fast thrilling ride to the bottom. Afterwards, my sisters would make hot cocoa on the stove and play their 78-rpm records.
I remember the first time I heard “Winter Wonderland” on my sisters’ record player, and thinking it was pretty neat that someone had recorded a song about our neighborhood. Dick Smith and Felix Bernard wrote the song in 1934, and by the 1950s, the tune had become a winter standard. “Sleigh bells ring, Are you listening? In the lane, Snow is glistening. A beautiful sight, We’re happy tonight, Walking in a winter wonderland,” seemed to nicely describe our yearly hayrides, even though the horses had been retired by the 1950s. But we did have a lane, of sorts, although it was lots shorter than the neighbors’ to the north. Although more of a driveway, the snow on it really did glisten.
The song seemed to describe a lot of familiar things: “In the meadow we can build a snowman, And pretend that he is Parson Brown. He’ll say ‘Are you married?’ We’ll say ‘No, man, But you can do the job when you’re in town.’”
We built lots of snowmen, and I kept pestering my sisters about the exact location of our meadow so we could get it just right. Turns out, our farm was meadowless. We did have a pasture, though, and my mother said pastures and meadows were pretty much the same, suggesting the pasture was just as good a place for the snowman as a meadow. It also had a handy slough where my sisters ice skated.
In addition, we really had a “Parson Brown” out in the country, although we called him Reverend Brown and I don’t know anyone who actually made a snowman in his image, or anyone who wanted to, for that matter.
The song nicely captured the feeling of coming inside after playing or working in the winter: “Later on, we’ll conspire, As we dream by the fire. We’ll face unafraid, The plans that we made, Walking in a winter wonderland.”
Walking around the farm in winter provided lots of sensory stimuli. It was always surprising how warm it was in the barn. Even with no heat, the cow and the other animals housed there managed to keep the temperature seemingly lots warmer than outside. And the barn’s rich smells melded into a single aroma that old farmers always recognize.
But heading into the house after hours spent outdoors hiking or sledding was always the biggest treat for me. There’s nothing quite like coming into a house from cold winter weather and smelling cookies baking—my family was big on cookies.
We had no fireplace on the farm, but we would make plans for what we would do the next day when we once again ventured outside. Arranging snow-covered mittens on the furnace register, putting our five-buckle boots carefully out of the way, and hanging up our coats was the prelude to relaxing and listening to records or the radio.
As the winter dusk would deepen into night, my dad would sit down to read the paper, my mother would pick up her crocheting or a magazine, and tunes like “Winter Wonderland” would softly fill the house in those days gone but hardly forgotten.