Second of a series on winter
It was challenging to keep a dwelling warm during winters of the early 1900s, according to Houston, Minnesota history columnist Ingrid Julsrud. The first seven years of her life, the family lived in rented houses that had no basement. The floors were cold; each autumn, her father purchased a large roll of tar paper or heavy blue paper and wrapped it around the foundation of the house. He attached it just above the stone foundation by nailing through wood laths. She surmised that he put rocks or bricks around the bottom to keep the wind from tearing the paper. After a snowfall, he would shovel snow around the bottom.
There were no storm doors, so the screen doors were covered with the same paper. There were no storm windows nor sheets of plastic in that era. “Sometimes, the frost was so thick we couldn’t see out,” she recalled. “Then we kids put our tongues against the windows to melt a spot large enough to see through.”
The children’s alarm clock was hearing their father “shaking down the furnace,” removing the clinkers and dropping them into a metal pail before shoveling on the coal. “He left the drafts wide open for a while to allow the poisonous gases to flow up the chimney. We never had a chimney fire.”
The children would remain in bed until the heat began to rise through the registers. Then they would quickly dress and descend into the warm kitchen for their mother’s buckwheat pancakes. It was a popular cold-weather breakfast, enhanced with maple syrup and salt pork or crispy bacon. A cup of batter was saved from each batch and then that evening, would be mixed with liquid and flour and then placed on a cupboard shelf ready to be prepared on a griddle the next morning.
She estimated half of the houses in Houston required similar countermeasures. When her family moved, they had a furnace and a basement. “We kids thought we were living in a palace.”
Summer kitchens, used to prevent excessive summer heat in the main kitchen, were also used in the winter for cold storage for home-butchered meat. The meat, cut into chunks, would be placed on the table and covered with a white cloth until being eaten. “After it froze, it kept well.”
As soon as it was cold enough, a hog on her grandfather’s farm was usually the first to be butchered. For blood sausage, the blood would be collected in a pail and set in the cold snow for cooling and stirring to prevent clotting. The process would be continued indoors where rice, flour, chunks of suet, salt, pepper and spices were added. Boiled in special cloth bags, this blood sausage, served with boiled potatoes, was a family favorite. The leftover sausage would be placed in the summer kitchen until her grandmother was ready to slice it and fry it in butter.
Another Houston resident, Mrs. A. P. Johnson was the only one who used a summer kitchen to freeze baked goods. Many thought the defrosted goodies would cause death. Considering the later use of frozen food, Mrs. Johnson was just ahead of her time.
Julsrud had fond winter memories of ice skating. Before there were organized winter indoor sports, kids were outdoors on the ice. Writing in 1988, Julsrud bemoaned that the milder temperatures no longer permitted skating during the Thanksgiving holidays on the big slough. Thanksgiving afternoon, the ice was crowded with skaters of all ages. … It is hardly cold enough to skate by Christmas time anymore.”
The big slough, in winter, provided an economic benefit for the ensuing summer months. By late January, the ice was thick enough – about 18 inches deep – to harvest. Before electrical refrigeration, ice was harvested and then stored for summer use. It was sawed into large slabs, pulled out of the water by a horse onto sleighs and taken to an ice house where layers of sawdust prevented melting, even in the summer.
After at least two weeks of harvesting, there was a large opening of black-looking water. “Luckily, no one ever fell in and drowned. It was the only time we kids were scared to go out onto the slough.”
Source: 1993 book, “Remembering Old Times; Houston during the Post Card Era,” by Ingrid Julsrud.