The Summer(?) of 1816

It is told that finalizing the state line between Vermont and its neighbor to the west resulted in one old farmer suddenly living in New York, though he hadn't moved in nigh onto fifty years. Asked how he felt about it, he said that it suited him just fine. "Couldn't take 'nother one o' them Vermont winters," said he.

Stories about the weather abound. But no fiction is stranger than the truth about 1816, the year summer was apparently entirely forgotten.

Spring started off fine after a severe winter, dry and warm by the end of April, with flowers bursting into color, trees blooming, and the earthy smells of the new season in the air. May, however, was annoyingly cold and dryer than normal; many blamed it on huge sunspots, visible to the naked eye for the first time in memory. It was 90 degrees on June 5; by the following day, the temperature dropped to 40, and the snow that was falling melted as it touched the still very warm ground.

It was snowing again on June 7 and continued until noon the next day at Waterbury. By that time there was a foot of white on the ground in Montpelier, over eighteen inches in Cabot. Many crops and leaves on trees were killed; farmers wearily replanted. Birds which had not taken shelter perished and newly shorn sheep froze to death.

June 9 found inch-thick ice on shallow ponds and foot-long icicles were noted. A good early crop of oats kept many from going hungry; it was the first time most had even tasted oatmeal. Seed prices were by now up to five times the norm, but farmers were thankful even at that.

"Some account was given . . . of the unparalleled severity of the weather. It continued, without any essential amelioration, from the 6th to the 10th instant -- freezing as hard five nights in succession as it usually does in December. On the night of the 6th, water froze an inch thick -- and on the night of the 7th and morning of the 8th, a kind of sleet or exceeding cold snow fell, attended with high wind, which measured in places where it was drifted, 18 to 20 inches in depth. Saturday morning the weather was more severe than it generally is during the storms of winter."

-- North Star, Danville, Vermont, June 15, 1816

July was not much better. Some parts of New England got rain, but Vermont remained dry as a bone. A frost on August 21 killed more beans, potatoes and corn, and the mountains were snow-covered. Farmers burned their hay, sacrificing it to save the corn. By September, frost had killed corn well south into Massachusetts.

By September, most of Vermont had been a full three months without rain. Fires which swept through parched forest land filled the air with acrid smoke and a general darkness. Another killing frost struck the final blow on the tenth, wiping out whatever had managed to survive to that point. A meager crop of unripe potatoes was harvested. Better than nothing.

That winter, cattle starved for lack of hay. There was much human suffering but little starvation as the more fortunate shared what they had. Importing food was difficult with little money available with which to buy it. A full day of converting trees into salts and potash would yield about 30 cents.

Fish had became a staple diet, with people in the east operating large nets day and night on the rivers and trading fish for maple syrup. Boiled wild foods and porcupines also sustained many.

This having been the worst of a string of bad years, many moved west, thinking the weather had turned permanently. Richford was nearly a ghost town, the remaining few barely surviving; Waterford had so few residents that no Town Meetings were held for several years; Granby's population fell so low that the town gave up its incorporation. Unable to sell their land, many just up and left. New immigration eventually brought in people who had no memory of the hard times.

Mount Tambora, a volcano in the Dutch East Indies, had erupted the year before. The resulting cloud of dust, ash and cinders in the upper atmosphere is said to have been the cause of the drastically lowered temperatures and the summer of "Eighteen Hundred and Froze to Death".

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October 14, 2013