Winter in Deep Valley really begins with the first snowfall of the season, which is eagerly anticipated by children and adults alike. A fresh coat of white, glistening snow covers the otherwise brown, barren trees and lawns. The snow brightens our spirits as thoughts of winter fun await.
Maud Hart and Bick Kenney (Betsy and Tacy) enjoyed many of the typical turn of the century winter activities in Mankato (Deep Valley) including sledding, tobogganing, ice skating, sleigh rides and sleigh bells, and snow balls and snowmen.
Maud shares many delightful memories of a Deep Valley winter wonderland in the Betsy-Tacy books. Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown gives us a glimpse of what life in Mankato was like in 1904-05. The excitement of a child is evident when Betsy experiences the first snowfall in late November when she made her first expedition to the new Carnegie Library. “Gray clouds like battleships moved across a purplish sea of sky. It looked like snow.”
Betsy left the library to have lunch at Bierbauer’s Bakery and, “on her way back to the library she looked eagerly for snow.” After lunch she returned to the library. “Betsy returned to her chair, took off her coat and hat, opened her book and forgot the world again. She looked up suddenly from “The Miraculous Pitcher” to see flakes coming past the window.”
Maud writes in Chapter 9: “Snow loaded the bare arms of the maples, it lodged in the green crevices of firs, it threw sparkling shawls over the brown bushes shivering on Hill Street lawns…Men and boys shoveled “Indian trails” for the children to walk to school. Along with the scraping of shovels came the frosty tinkle of sleigh bells, as runners replaced wheels on the baker’s wagon, cutters replaced carriages and buggies and farm wagons creaked into town on runners….Skates were sharpened; and down on the river, snow was swept from the ice.” Tacy’s brother Paul made a giant snowman and Tib’s brothers, Freddie and Hobbie, built an Ice Palace. Margaret and the Rivers children took out their sleds, “painted brightly with pictures of flowers, dogs and horses”.
Betsy and Tacy thought they were now old enough to go bobsledding, like their sisters Julia and Katie and their friends, and Mr. and Mrs. Ray gave their approval. “Long, low and reckless, the bobsleds flew from the top of the Big Hill along a hard-packed frozen track in a thrilling sweep, almost to the slough.” On the east, Lewis Street ended at the bottom of the “Big Hill”. In 1904, Lewis Street went all the way to the slough to the west. It no longer extends this far, but in Maud’s day Lewis Street went on for more than eight blocks!
Coasting at night was perfect when there was a bright moon. Everyone was wrapped stiff with clothing in coats, mittens, caps and hoods to keep warm. “Bright knitted scarfs called fascinators were stretched over their foreheads, crossed in the back and tied around their necks.” Six people took their places on the bobsled, with one person to push off. Down they sped, the cold air slashing their faces. Down, down, down. Block after block. Almost to the slough…The run down was worth the climb back up with the snow crunching under their feet.”
Bobsledding in these days was common in Mankato because of the many hills that provided perfect sledding or tobogganing runs. Older residents remember the tales of sledding down the steep Main Street hill.
The best part of enjoying the outdoors in the winter was coming inside to warm up. Betsy and her friends came inside to the sound of popcorn popping and they put “apples to roast on the back of the hard-coal heater”. They played the piano, sang songs, and rolled up the rug for dancing in the dining room.
Winter certainly isn’t all fun, especially when a blizzard threatens. Although Maud doesn’t write about a winter blizzard in the Betsy-Tacy books, she did experience the blizzard of 1909. In January 1909, a blizzard isolated Mankato from the rest of the world, halting telephone service, telegraph and transportation services as rain and sleet gave way to wind-driven snow.
Reported in the January 29, 1909 issue of The Free Press: “wires and poles were snapped off by the weight of the ice that had formed on them and the wind blew a terrible gale. Ice particles beat pitilessly in the faces and eyes of all who were obliged to go out and snow drifts encumbered their feet.“ Electric lights and streetlights were cut off to avoid accidents caused from touching or stepping on crossed wires. School closed, trains were delayed hours and rural route mail carriers did not go out in the fearful storm.
Many of the same winter activities are enjoyed today and will never get old. But with time comes change. We now have snowmobiles, snowblowers and indoor ice arenas. Can you imagine a bobsled coming down the middle of the street? Or hearing the chime of sleigh bells and horses hooves on a snow filled street? You can almost feel the cold wind on your cheeks, hear the sleigh bells ring and smell the popcorn as you read Betsy and Tacy Go Downtown.
(Note: This article will appear in the next issue of the Deep Valley Sun, the Betsy-Tacy Society newsletter. If you’re not a member of the BTS, check out their website, www.betsy-tacysociety.org and consider joining. Membership dollars help support the Betsy and Tacy house museums.)