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Tales of old-time winter woes

Hardy, uncomplaining travelers existed before heated car seats

Winter sleighing on smooth roads could be a delightful past time, as long as one stayed on the road. (Photo submitted)

The Gloversville Intelligencer (1867 — 1875) newspaper has fortunately been preserved in the ‘morgue’ of the Leader-Herald. Its pages reveal happenings in a world completely unlike today’s.

Winter articles suggest there was often little relief from the boredom of prolonged cold weather in our rural towns, except for occasional visits to neighbors, and brave winter travelers had to cope without the security of all-wheel-drive autos and cell phones. At best, they traveled by horse and wagon: at worst, they walked, but sometimes when they walked, even during the summer, they went the wrong way and died. Eighteen seventy-five, according to the Intelligencer, was a particularly bad year for area travelers.

The Intelligencer’s local news appeared under the names of towns, thus, under ‘Stratford Notes,’ on Jan. 7, it reported that Augustus Catwinkle had frozen to death in the woods.

“We find Mr. C. left his house at three and a half o’clock to go to the woods in search of timber. Night came on and he didn’t return. It being very stormy and cold, four men with lanterns started in pursuit of him, when it was found he had followed a log road five miles and then led off into the woods. The party followed his trail until after midnight, when they found he had struck a stream and attempted to follow it down, but owing to the darkness and the late rains, he fell in twelve or fifteen times, and must have got wet to his body several times. He had pulled off his boots and wrung out his socks three times, then attempted to build a fire, but either lost his matches or got them wet. At this point their lanterns gave out and the party had to return to the house to refill their lanterns, when they again continued their search.”

These heroic, unnamed searchers must have been hardened woodsmen, although how they determined Catwinkle wrung out his socks three times is anyone’s guess.

Poor Augustus Catwinkle was finally discovered dead the following day, leaning against a tree “within forty rods of a house and within a mile from home. The party who found him think he used every exertion to save himself until he was completely exhausted with fatigue and hunger. He was a German emigrant, thirty-four years of age, industrious, and leaves a wife and child to mourn his loss.”

When spring came, navigating the deep woods of Bleecker, Oppenheim, and Stratford became somewhat safer. The May 11 Intelligencer mentions a springtime occupation hardly known today.

“Some men are employed cutting ‘witch hazel,’ drawing it to Little Falls, where it is ground and shipped to Europe to make it into liniment. Report says it is worth six dollars a load.”

Surprisingly, tragedies like Augustus Catwinkle’s didn’t always occur during winter’s depths. On June 10, the Intelligencer reported another disappearance in the woods, this time under ‘Bleecker Notes.’

“Mrs. Grant, a widow lady living near the outskirts of Gloversville, started to visit her children living in Benson. She came as far as Henry Baird’s when night came on. She stopped and asked permission to stay the night, which was granted. In the morning, she did some work for Mrs. Baird, not starting from there until 4 o’clock, but as she only had a couple of miles to go, she thought she’d arrive before dark. Strange to say, she never reached her son’s.”

Mrs. Grant’s tragic disappearance was complicated by the fact that for more than a week, nobody knew she was missing. The Bairds, supposing she’d reached her son’s residence, quickly forgot her. Her son, who wasn’t expecting her, had no idea she wasn’t still home near Gloversville. About a week later, perhaps through casual neighborhood conversation, the Bairds discovered Mrs. Grant never arrived at her son’s. The Intelligencer related, “The alarm spread fast, the woods were searched far and near, but no trace could be found for some time.”

Finally, someone, perhaps out picking berries, found her shawl and a second search began. This time searchers found tracks indicating Mrs. Grant had taken the wrong road, gotten lost, and probably kept wandering, but the frustrated searchers still couldn’t find her. It wasn’t until May 29 that Bleecker fisherman Fred Sander discovered her body. “She sat leaning against a tree, dead. An inquest being held, the verdict was “death by starvation.”

Finally, on Dec. 9, again under ‘Stratford Notes,’ the Intelligencer related a tale of public transportation gone badly wrong.

“Last Monday our stage was on route for Little Falls in one of the first snow storms, and just before crossing Gillet Creek, the sleigh struck a piece of smooth ice. At the same time, a wind gust struck the sleigh and the hind bob-sleigh (rear pair of runners) turned at right angles upon the bridge. There being no railing, off went the bob-sleigh with the entire stage — including the passengers — falling into the creek 10 or twelve feet below, where there was two feet of water. All were wet and badly chilled. Had the team been precipitated down upon the passengers, it is impossible to tell what we might have to write. The passengers went to a neighbors, where they warmed and dried their clothing. Then all resumed their journey.”

What hardy, uncomplaining travelers existed before the advent of insulated parkas and heated car seats.

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