Last weekend’s cold snap had us gardeners scurrying to cover tender plants. Saturday’s dip into the mid-30s was the coldest May reading I can recall in the 40 years I’ve lived in Catawba County.
Sunday morning I saw 36 on my cellphone weather tab. A friend saw frost on the glass of her car in Newton.
I checked the web to see the average last frost date for this area: April 15. A popular gardening website, Dave’s Garden, put it this way for Hickory, NC: “Each winter, on average, your risk of frost is from October 23 through April 14. You are almost guaranteed that you will not get frost from April 30 through Oct. 9.”
So much for Dave’s guarantee. But suppose this recent cold kept going for days or weeks, or even months?
That actually happened a little over 200 years ago. Known as the Year of No Summer, 1816-1817 was a mini ice age. Talk about climate change! It began with the eruption of Mt. Tambora in Indonesia on April 15, 1815. Volcanic dust estimated to be equal dispersed over the northern hemisphere. By 1816, the thick layer of ash lowered global temperatures to essentially erase the entire growing season.
I’m familiar with this story because it was part of an American history presentation I’ve given about the decade 1810-1820. If you think we’ve got trouble these days, read on.
Stories about 1816 go something like this:
Signs of a possible cool summer were evident by spring. Mid-May brought unseasonable temperatures with frost as far south as Virginia. A strong cold front crossed New England on May 28 with light snow as far south as Pennsylvania. Those raising fruit or other farm crops were already in trouble.
Things warmed up a bit in June, but then a strong Nor’easter developed on the 6th when as much as a foot of snow fell on New England.
By July people began talking famine. Weather improved, though and hardy grains of wheat and rye and potatoes were doing well. In mid-August more frost arrived over New York and all of New England. Reports of temperatures below 30 degrees were common. Only 10 percent of the crop was harvested in some areas. Corn prices rose from $1 a bushel to nearly $3. There were reports of people eating raccoons, pigeons and mackerel as farmers, unable to afford to feed their livestock, sold off their herds and flocks.
An account of the year’s bizarre weather appeared in a newspaper in Brevard Station (Stanley), NC. “That year started out… so mild for the months of January and February that many folks let their fires go out and burned wood only for cooking; however, March was very cold and windy. Showers started the month of April but ended with snow and ice. In May the temperature was like that of winter. The young buds that began forming in April were stiff and frozen. Ice a half-inch thick formed on ponds and rivers in North and South Carolina. Crops failed to ripen, trees bore no fruit, corn died though it was planted over and over again.”
An area landmark, Rosedale Plantation, figures into the period. Charlotte’s oldest frame home was erected in 1815 by a man who died after losing Rosedale and its 911 acres in the economic disaster that followed the calamity of 1816. Remarkably, Rosedale survives and is open to the public. Full information is available at https://historicrosedale.org/
More locally, the white frame structure we know as Old St. Paul’s Lutheran Church was completed in 1818, decidedly after—not during–the calamitous years preceding.
On a personal note, one of my ancestors in was affected by the 1816 crop failure. Records from Adams County, Ohio show that by 1819, he owed $249 to the local storekeeper—a fortune in those days, but far less than his neighbors whose individual debts mounted to as much as $1,800.
We are going through some tough times now to be sure, but studying past trials can help put things in perspective. An excellent history about 1816 is The Year Without Summer: The Volcano That Darkened the World and Changed History published seven years ago by William and Nicholas Klingamon.Copies are available at both the Hickory Public Library System and Catawba County Library System.
PHOTO: Historic Rosedale plantation, Charlotte, was built just prior to 1816.