What a beautiful time of the year. As we drive through the countryside we see the bounty all around us with fruit and vegetables ready to harvest, roadside stands overflowing with fresh produce, and even bright yellow goldenrod to feed the honeybees for the upcoming winter. It's truly a gift to behold and something we are usually blessed with every year. In fact, conditions can be so good that you might find a watermelon plant growing near your back stoop a couple of weeks after you sat there and thoughtlessly spit out seeds from an earlier summer snack. What would happen if one summer our crops failed and we were left without all this food? This did happen back in 1816, causing hardship and hunger for the early pioneers of Chautauqua County.
This year, as part of our county's bicentennial there have been several celebratory events throughout the region as well as a look into the past in this column including early settlers, businesses, churches, and schools. It's obvious and well-known that pioneer life was hard under the best conditions, but during this research it was intriguing to find out some uncontrollable events made life even harsher.
The summer of 1816, not long after the end of the War of 1812, was "the summer that never was." It was said that crops continued to fail after several attempts to begin again and again due to freezing conditions throughout the summer months. This later became known as the "Cold Season." A book from 1904, "The Centennial History of Chautauqua County," described this summer where "blustering winds swept the hills and snow fell in the summer months. Ice formed in every month and in August ice half an inch thick was frequently seen. Flowers froze, corn was killed, and all attempts to raise other crops were abandoned." Under such conditions and due to the remoteness of the county at the time, settlers were left to fend for themselves and obtain what they could for sustenance from the wild such as venison and other naturally growing, hardy plants and roots from the forest. The 1904 book reported that the scarcity of food resulted in high prices such as flour at eighteen dollars a barrel and potatoes at one dollar and fifty cents a bushel. This time that followed was known as the "Starving Season" and continued until the next year and harvest.
The seasons of summer and fall in our climate offer an abundant harvest.
So what caused these harsh weather conditions? Some quick research shows that this was not unique to Chautauqua County, but felt across the whole northeast and beyond to other countries causing great food shortages, food riots, famine and resulting deaths, particularly in Europe. It seems low solar activity, in combination with a volcanic eruption from across the world at Mount Tambora, in 1815, spewed volcanic dust into the upper atmosphere which caused temperatures to fall. A note or two of interest from this catastrophe are some other consequences from this weather anomaly. By one account, the cold weather of 1816 forced authoress Mary Shelley to stay indoors in Switzerland where she ended up writing Frankenstein as part of a friendly ghost writing contest. The harsh season of 1816 also encouraged an exodus of people to move farther inland from the northeast for more favorable conditions, including Vermont and the family of Joseph Smith. His family ended up in Palmyra, New York, which led to the eventual founding of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. Of course, there must be many other lesser known stories of both hardship, endurance, and even other positive outcomes.
Throughout the 200 years of our county's existence there have also been seasons of extreme warmth at odd times, excessive and scarce precipitation, etc. that both early pioneers and those that followed had to bear. It's the hardy who survive during these times. How is it we complain or are so inconvenienced when we only lose our electricity for a few hours? Who's to say that such volcanic activity could not happen again? Would you be prepared?
Enjoy the harvest season and support our local farmers. It's healthier food, too. Make it a good week, Mary and Rosamond
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