That Is Mighty Cold

Week 51: #52 Ancestors – Winter

By Eilene Lyon

My grandfather, Laurence M. “Smitty” Smith left us with a small stack of typed memoirs written in brief spurts. The following passage opens a piece he titled “The Early Years.”

“During the winter of 1921-22 the religious fanatics in California were predicting the end of the world. Where I was living at the time this prediction was believable. From mid-January to mid-February there were over 20 days when the morning temperatures dropped to 20° below zero. With a foot of snow on the ground, that is mighty cold.

“My brother Loren and I were living with my father on a small farm north of Moscow, Idaho. It was about two miles to school and the only way we could get there was to walk.

Laurence and Loren Smith, the two youngest of the Smith family of fives sons and two daughters. Moscow, Idaho, about 1917. (Family collection)

“Actually we both enjoyed the challenge as I remember it. Dad saw to it that we were well wrapped up and had our overshoes on. The last bit of protection was a silk scarf wrapped entirely around our heads. The silk was transparent enough so that we could see through it to walk.

“My older brother lived in the north edge of town on a street which we passed on the way to school. When we were ready to set out for school Dad called, then when we passed the house Harry’s wife Callie called back that we had passed.

“So you see, it was perfectly safe and when we got to school we looked like a creature from outer space. There would be hoar frost all over the silk scarf and even our eye brows would be coated with frost. We thought it was great.”

That winter, Laurence was 13 years old and his younger brother, Loren, was 10. Laurence pointedly never mentions his stepmother in any of his stories, but his father had remarried in the summer of 1920. Though Loren’s education ended in the 8th grade, Laurence went on to become an electrical engineer. Being the only one in his family with a college degree did cause some friction with his siblings.

Grandpa’s older brother, Leon, also had just an 8th grade education. Like the oldest son, Harry, Leon had a mechanical bent and also like the outdoors.

“Leon liked to hunt and fish. He tried asking me along with him on hunting trips, but he soon discovered that I was no good at it. He had trouble figuring out anything at all I was good at…He was very much opposed to me going to college. After my college graduation, our relationship was somewhat strained.”

Clifford (left) and Harry Smith with pheasants and a hare, about 1926. (Family collection)

About his brother Clifford, Smitty remarked, “He considered me something of a dummy because I couldn’t handle a gun. When I visited him in later years he seemed to always have some derogatory remark to make about my intelligence and ‘what a dumb kid I was.’ Neither he or Loren went past the eighth grade in school, that is probably why they were always on the defensive.”

Leon Smith (known as Bill) on the left and Clifford Smith, right. (Family collection)

I suspect that Grandpa was actually rather defensive about his college education (and lack of sporting abilities) as much as the other way around. It’s a shame that his siblings weren’t supportive of his desire for a different sort of life.

Generally speaking, the other Smith children were successful in life, every bit as much as Grandpa, just in their own way. If their mother had not died young, I expect the relationships between her children would have been a bit more harmonious. It wasn’t just the winters in Moscow that were chilly.

Laurence Smith shoveling snow. Unknown date and location. (Family collection)

Feature image: Loren (left) and Laurence (right) with their father, Charles E. Smith, at the farm north of Moscow, Idaho, about 1922, after they survived the frigid walks to school. Photo most likely taken by Charles’s wife, Jennie E. (Wallace) Smith. (Family collection)

35 thoughts on “That Is Mighty Cold

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  1. The details of how they got to school are wonderful and so revealing about their character as well as their lives. I love that the parents had the older son call so they’d know the boys had made it at least that far. And how sad that your grandfather was resented for his education and his intelligence. Was he unusual for that community in going to college, or were his brothers unusual for only going through eighth grade?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I don’t think either path was unusual at the time. Moscow is home to the University of Idaho, so he didn’t even have to leave home for his education. But it was still an area of rural farms and I’m sure many people didn’t think higher education to be worth the investment.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. I suspect your reflection on how the harmony and respect for each others abilities might have been different if their Mother had survived may be right. It is rather telling that he never mentions his step mother. Their walks to school reminded me of my walks to school in the month of January when I lived in the Yukon. I didn’t have someone watching out for me, but I used to always reassure myself that if I was coming to so and so’s house, that I could go in to catch my breath. The only difference might have been the quality of the clothing for -50 degree weather.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. You lived in the Yukon?! Wow, that sounds like a horrible ordeal for a schoolchild.

      I really do think my grandfather’s personality was negatively impacted by the death of his mother when he was so young. I look at that feature image and see him standing so aloofly to the side, distant from his father and little brother and have to wonder what was going on in his mind.

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      1. If only we could go back and ask the questions that the photos bring to mind!

        I lived in the Yukon as an adult. Walk to school was my walk to work! It wasn’t a horrible ordeal, my son did the walk too. The cold without the wind isn’t so bad!

        Liked by 1 person

    1. I recall walking to work in college in Ohio in weather like that – it was pretty awful. It has gotten that cold here in Colorado, but only rarely. And when it does, I stay inside! Crackling fires, hot coffee, a blanket to snuggle under, hugs.

      I hope you’re warmed back up now.😊

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Yes. I went to school in Milwaukee, in the days when we weren’t allowed to wear pants to class. We could get windchills at those temps, actual temps around -12, so I’m remembering those days. Thought I would never get warm. I’m in Maryland now, near DC. No temps like that fortunately. Occasional big snows and single digits, but I’m home when that happens now.

        Liked by 2 people

      1. The freezer section of Whole Foods gets pretty cold. But seriously, Vermont. Woke up to minus ten one morning, after which I decided to bag skiing and stay in the lodge. Things worked out just fine.

        Liked by 1 person

      1. Lol. I know. The bus goes by my house every day and it’s half empty even though the school is just two miles down the road. When I was a kid, it was so full there was hardly room to sit.

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Coldest I’ve been in was -36F, and that was our first winter here. We were out of town when they hit -50 and honestly, I was disappointed. I paid $100 for this coat and it was rated to -55 — I wanted to test it!

    I’m the youngest of five and the only one who went to college. I used to get some teasing that wasn’t always good natured, but once I left home it pretty much went away. Now it’s back to me being “the smart one.” 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I think -24 is my record, and it was a doozy. I was managing resort condominiums at Christmas (full occupancy) when the pipes froze and started bursting. Ugly scene.

      I’m from many generations of college degrees on Mom’s side, but my dad and his brother’s were the first generation to go to college. No recriminations for me. Glad you get to be the smart one!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. What did his mother die from? The Spanish flu would have been around that time – 1921, or just about over? I think many people back then, boys and girls, didn’t go to school past grade 8? As long as you could read and write, that was enough, they just went straight to work.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. She died of sudden cardiac arrest at age 45. It really was a terrible blow to the family. She was truly the backbone and I understand she had a lot to do with her husband’s success in business, which faltered after her death. I think many children were completing high school by then, but college was still not a big draw.

      Liked by 1 person

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