In ancient times, before snow blowers and snowmobiles, we had real winters. It snowed from late November until the end of March. Frequently we had snow for Halloween although the early snow did not usually stay around, just a warning of what was to come.
We lived a little over a mile and a quarter from the highway on the first concession. Once winter set in we were pretty much homebound. Township roads were not plowed and it was a either a team of horses and sleigh or cutter, or walk. About Christmas time when winter was really and truly closing in, Dad took our Model A Ford car to the end of the concession and parked it in our friend’s farmyard just before the highway corner. Dad had to drain the water out of the radiator and take the battery into the house to keep it from freezing. Antifreeze had not been invented either or was too expensive for us to buy and cold batteries had very low cranking power. Cars of that vintage had frost-plugs on the side of the engine that would push out if the motor froze so the block would not crack.
When we wanted to go to town we took the team and sleigh and the car battery to the corner, put the horses in their barn, put the battery in the car, put a mixture of water and alcohol in the radiator and hoped the car would start. If the car would not start, and it had a mind of its own, then we had to go on the last mile and a half into town with the horse and sleigh. Dad never put the horses away until he had the car started, just in case.
You might think that it was a good idea to let the car warm up especially with two little kids. That was not going to happen. The only heater the Model A had was a pipe mounted on top of the engine exhaust and poking up through the floor of the front seat. It was called a muffler heater. It was Henry Ford’s joke. No fan, no heat and no defroster. On frosty days it was the arm-out-the-window scraper on the windshield. We did not travel very far in the winter. The other reason that we did not travel very far was that because of the war raging in the mid-1940s gasoline was rationed. You needed a coupon from a ration book to buy things like gasoline and sugar.
Supplies were stocked up for the time when we could not get to town for groceries. Shopping was done with an eye to the week or two when we would not leave the farm. That certainly meant that canned food, flour and yeast and cured meats were the staples. Our winter trips to town in the 1940s were once a week at most and once a month at worst.
The first sign of winter was storm windows day. The storm windows in those days were big wood-framed creatures that were stored in the woodshed over the summer. They had to be carried up a ladder to the second floor and fastened in place outside the window. Carrying them up the ladder was a he-man job and fastening them in place while holding the window was a feat of magic. This job had to be done on the last calm day in November. The slightest gust of wind could turn the window into a kite without a tail. It was also fairly dangerous job for the person trying to hang onto the window while near the top of our old wooden ladder. The downstairs windows were just as big and heavy but Mother could hold them in place while Dad activated the fasteners.
When winter set in, every farm had a well-tramped trail from the house to the barn and from the house to the outhouse. Often better trampled to the outhouse than the barn. The fields were a sea of white except for a few tracks made by rabbits or our dog.
The magical part of winter on the farm was to stand outside on a really cold night when the snow covered the ground and see the snow glow and sparkle. The sky was a mass of twinkling stars and Dad would point out the constellations one by one. There were no town lights or car-lot lights to interfere with this spectacular view. The only sound was a lone dog barking several farms away or the lowing of one of our cattle tucked away in its stall for the winter. If we were lucky, we might get to experience the aurora borealis (northern lights). This was our winter wonderland.
In the middle of the 1940s, I was in grade one and we lived about a mile and a half from the school. Dad and the neighbour took turns taking us to school in the morning. The neighbours had five school-aged children. Their father had a really nice cutter and a driver. A driver was a sleek horse that pulled a buggy or cutter. All six kids plus their dad made a pretty snuggled-up group for the ride to school. We had only two big draft horses and they pulled the sleigh. Dad built a wooden box on the sleigh to give us some protection from the weather. One morning, on the way to school, the sleigh hit a pitch-hole where the snow had drifted like the waves of a surf. The sleigh turned on its side and pitched us all into the snow. Our old horses just stopped and looked around to see what was going on. Dad and the older kids got the sleigh back on its runners and on we went. Nobody got hurt but our lunch buckets got well shook up.
We got a ride to school but we walked home.
At school the snow provided us with winter fun. In the field beside the school the bigger kids tramped out a fox and goose circle like the spokes on a wheel. It was like touch-tag but the fox chased the geese. You had to stay on the path. One step off the path and you were out of the game. We also built snow forts and had awesome snowball fights. I think a couple of the big boys chose up sides and then we built our opposing forts at morning recess and as soon as we finished our lunch the war was on. I expect that I was the last soldier chosen because I was a little kid with glasses.
I also recall what happened when your fort was overwhelmed at the end of the snowball fight. The losers got their faces washed with snow. I only hoped that it was some little girl who lined me up for a washing so I would get scrubbed less vigorously. If one of the bigger guys washed your face they would also put snow down your neck.
Most winter days the teacher let us stand over the big register in the center of the room and dry out a bit before afternoon class. The wool mitts were left over the register to dry and they produced an odor of wet sheep that would turn most of us off mutton for life.
We had a pond just down the road from the school and after it was well frozen over we scraped it off at morning recess and skated at noon hour. I learned to skate on that pond by pushing an old wooden chair around the pond. At first, we only scraped a circle around the outside and skated around. Then somebody got the bright idea of scraping off the whole pond and playing hockey. I am sure that it was not my idea, I didn’t skate that well, but I got a hockey stick for Christmas that year and I likely was keen to have a few shots on the goalie. I feel certain that the girls were not in favour of hockey versus cruising in circles. We did not have a puck so we used a piece of coal. The first week of hockey somebody hit a slapshot that got Bobby square in the mouth and took out his front tooth. Bobby’s dad was on the school board and that was our first and last hockey game. The girls side won, it’s a wonder that we didn’t all turn out to be figure skaters.
Looking back on that experience we should have used a road apple or prairie oyster (horse turd) for a puck.◊