By Wendy Peterson Biorn
In 2009, Rene Zellweger starred in the film, “New in Town.” Her character was an executive from Florida, sent to New Ulm, Minn., in the dead of winter. She arrives at the Minneapolis airport and notices everyone dressed in heavy coats, boots, hats and mittens. She is in high heels and a dress.
Her comment of “How can it be THAT bad?” is quickly silenced as she walks out the door and is hit by a gust of icy wind and snow that almost knocks her off her feet.
How can it be that bad? Interestingly enough, this winter is not even close to the coldest we have experienced in the past. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, the coldest recorded air temperature was -60° near Tower in 1996. The Carver County News recorded a -40° in 1879.
Technology has helped us deal with the cold through the use of central heat and heated cars, but have you ever wondered how people managed in the cold, prior to 1900?
Travel at and around the turn of the century was conducted by either car (some of which didn’t have a roof), or by horse and buggy or sleigh. Neither mode of travel had today’s seat warmers and heaters, making a trip exceedingly cold.
One item commonly used to stay warm was a foot warmer. This was a simple rectangular piece of stone, about 9 by 12 inches, with a metal handle. The stone was heated up on top of the stove, then wrapped in a blanket and placed on the floor of the sleigh to keep feet warm. In addition to wearing heavy coats, a blanket of horse or buffalo hide was thrown over top of everyone, for warmth. Heavy buffalo coats were the rage during the 1800s and were by far the warmest and the heaviest.
At home, the edge was taken off a cold bed by using a bed-warmer. A bed warmer is made of a metal pan attached to a long handle. Coals from the stove were placed in the pan, the lid was shut, and by using the long handle, it was placed between the sheets and moved around, warming it for the inhabitant.
Early homes relied on either an outhouse or a chamber pot. In either case, it necessitated going outside into the frigid cold. Just getting to the outhouse after a blizzard was an inconvenience we cannot imagine today. That is until our electricity goes out, and the toilet won’t flush.
Older homes were designed with practicality in mind. They did not have the open concept that is currently so popular. Rooms were box like and could be shut off individually to facilitate the heating of just one room. This eliminated the extra work and cost to heat the whole house.
The kitchen was often the largest room in the house, because it had the largest stove. People could move beds into the one room, close the doors, and use the cook stove for heating.
The insulation in many cut-lumber buildings often consisted of nothing more than newspapers or straw. Most buildings were heated by burning hand cut wood, which was readily available in the “big woods.” Single pane glass was the norm. The draft in the houses must have been massive and while the cost of wood heating was limited due to free manual labor, it still would have been quite a chore to heat homes.
Winter can be “that bad,” but we hardy Minnesotans have learned to adapt and occasionally enjoy the notoriety it gives us.
Wendy Peterson Biorn is the executive director of the Carver County Historical Society.