Winter settled into central Ohio in late December, bringing below-zero temperatures with it.
Over the past couple of years, we may have become spoiled by relatively mild winters. This winter may be a reminder that although we live in a temperate climate, temperatures over 100 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and occasionally below zero in the winter can and do happen.
Formal records of the weather have been kept for central Ohio since the late 1870s. In December 1878, the low temperature for the month was minus-7 degrees. In January 1879, the thermometer dipped to 20 degrees below zero. The winter of 1883-84 was similarly chilling, with a low temperature of minus-4 degrees in December, followed by minus-20 degrees once again in January 1884. That said, most of the other winters in the late 1800s weren't quite as cold.
Before the 1870s, the records for the weather in central Ohio are less official and more anecdotal.
Local merchant Joel Buttles kept a diary and recorded the weather as he observed it in Columbus for a number of years. His records complement the careful notes and research by early Ohio historian Caleb Atwater.
A later history noted: "Writing from the best information he could get, Mr. Atwater gives the following account of a series of winters: 1785-1790 mild; 1791 and 1792 severe; 1793-1795 mild; 1796-1800 severe. In 1796, the Ohio River was frozen over in November, and a winter followed which was remembered for more than forty years afterward as the severest known in the history of the state. The mercury sank to eighteen degrees below zero on January 8, 1797, and dropped several additional times below the zero point in the course of the season."
Apparently undeterred by the Siberian weather, frontier surveyor Lucas Sullivant established the village of Franklinton on the west side of the forks of the Scioto and Olentangy rivers in fall 1797.
The early settlers faced difficult tasks in carving out homes for themselves in the new country, but at least the weather was on their side. Atwater reported the winters from 1801 to 1807 were mild.
The residents of Franklinton were joined by the new capital city of Columbus in 1812, and both villages enjoyed reasonably moderate winters, punctuated by occasional windstorms and a bit of flooding from time to time.
Then 1816 arrived.
For nearly a generation, 1816 was known in the United States as "the year without a summer." A newspaper description from 1850 recalled the long winter of that year:
"January was mild, so much so as to render fires almost needless in sitting rooms. December, the month immediately preceding this, was very cold. February, except for a few days, was as mild as January had been. The first half of March was cold and boisterous, the second half mild. April began warm, but grew colder as the month advanced, and ended with snow and ice. In May buds and fruit trees were frozen, ice formed a half an inch thick, and the fields were again and again replanted until the planting season had passed.
"June was the coldest ever known in this latitude. Frost, ice and snow were common. Almost every green herb was killed. Snow fell to the depth of ten inches in Vermont ... July was accompanied by frost, and ice as thick as common window glass was formed ... August was more cheerless, if possible, than the other summer months had been. Ice half an inch thick was formed, and Indian corn was so frozen that the greater part of it was cut down and dried for fodder. Almost every green thing was destroyed, both in this country and in Europe ...
"September supplied about two weeks of the mildest weather of the season, but the latter half was so cold and frosty that ice was formed a half an inch thick. In October frost and ice were common. November was cold and blustering. Snow fell through that month sufficiently to make sleighing. December was mild and comfortable."
While the worst of this weather was seen in the eastern states, central Ohio was touched by it as well. A later account reported, "During the season of 1816 very little vegetation matured. Throughout the summer, the sun's rays seemed destitute of their usual power, and all nature assumed a somber aspect."
Fortunately, we have not seen a year without a summer since that memorable one. One might wonder how people spent their time during these long cold winters. Their options were more limited than ours, but in many ways, they had fun in the same ways. People met socially with family and friends. When the rivers and ponds froze, skating parties were held. When the snow was deep enough, sleighs took the place of carriages on local streets.
Then as now, we made the best of life in an occasionally cold place.
Local historian and author Ed Lentz writes the As It Were column for ThisWeek Community News.