The Great June Frost of 1859
Old Time Tales of Warren County


The Great June Frost of 1859

The great June frost of 1859 is still vivid in the memories of many men and women living in Warren County in this year of 1932. That year 1859 had good reason to stamp itself indelibly on the memory of residents in all the region, for in June came the great white calamity of the killing frost that ruined the crops and stripped the trees of their leaves. Then a little more than two months later, Drake drilled his famous well near Titusville, struck oil, sent a thrill of excitement across all the country.

No man living in Warren County remembers the great June frost better than James Clark, Civil War veteran living at Torpedo. Born on a farm near Spartansburg in 1848, Jim Clark was a barefoot boy of eleven years, that evetnful June of 1859, when dire disaster in the form of frost, fell on Warren County and much of the region 'round about.

"It was Saturday, June 4th," says Jim, "a pretty morning but cool, and I and two other boys were to carry water for a log-rolling. We had all been running barefoot for weeks and had no shoes on that Saturday. There was a good crowd at the log rolling and us boys were kept busy with water pails, and having a good time watching the men work. Along about nine o'clock it clouded up with a cold wind blowing and about eleven o'clock it began snowing, not a flurry but a real winter snow storm. It kept right up and at one o'clock it was snowing harder than ever, and laying, too. By four o'clock in the afternoon there was a good two inches of snow on the ground and us boys in our bare feet. At first everybody took the snow storm as a good joke, threw snow balls and said they reckoned likely we'd have good sledding on the Fourth of July. But by the middle of the afternoon, when the snow kept on coming steady as a December fall, you could see a change coming over the men. A sort of fear seemed to settle down, even the cattle appeared to feel it. The crows had been circling over the woods, whole droves of 'em, cawing and raising a row, excited, like they act when a big storm's coming. The oxen were uneasy, seemed to want to get to the barn, some of them bellowed and pawed and were unruly. Work on the log rolling quit about three o'clock and everyone went home, worried, wondering what was going to happen. It just seemed as if calamity was in the air.

"Things looked pretty wintry when the storm let up about half past four and the snow began to melt. The early roses were in bloom and leaves and blossoms piled with snow. It had been a good season, the corn had been hoed twice and was coming strong. It looked funny all loaded with white snow.

"There was a lot of talk around the supper tables that evening, the women were worried too, wondering if we were going to have a hard freeze. We all lived pretty close to hard pan in those days. If crops failed the people had nothing to eat, nothing to feed their stock. People stood at the windows looking out at the snow, scared, afraid something worse was going to happen. About 4:30 the snow began to melt and before dark it was gone. Then it cleared up and began to freeze and you could tell by the feel of the air it would freeze hard. The folks sat up around the fire pretty late that night, going out every little while and looking at the weather. But I was a boy and tired and dropped off to sleep.

"In the morning I was up at daylight and saw a sight such as I'd never seen before and I've never seen since. All the crops were gone. Everything was frozen stiff, corn, grass, things in the garden. I was a tough, rugged lad, I'd laid away my shoes early in May and wasn't going to bother looking them up again. So I went off down across the pastures to fetch the cows and the grass and weeds were crisp and crackly with the thick frost under my feet.

"At nine o'clock it cleared off and the sun came out. Everything steamed and wilted. It made your heart sick. The farmers wondered what they were going to do. No grass, no corn, no feed for the cattle. The leaves began falling off the trees. They fell off most of the trees except the ash and a few of the hardier ones. In a few days some of the woods was as bare as winter. I found some young birds frozen to death in their nest in a briar patch. Even some young rabbits froze.

"The next winter was the worst the people in this section ever went through. There was almost no feed for the stock. The farmers butchered their cows or sold them if they could. Good horses were sold for twenty-five dollars. All we tried to winter was one team of horses, three cows and a brood sow. The farmers all over the country turned their cattle out to browse all winter, it was the only thing that kept the stock alive. We went into the woods and cut down young maple, birch, beech or basswood. The cows would eat the buds and the twigs, eat twigs as thick as a lead pencil sometimes. Basswood was their favorite, it was the softest. The horses and cows soon learned where to find the browse. When they heard a tree fall they would start off for the woods on a run. One neighbor of ours emptied his bed ticks and fed the straw to his horses. Some stock died and all the horses and cattle were thin and starved looking by spring.

"The cattle weren't the only ones that suffered; it was slim fare on most of the farms. We helped each other out. If one man had a little corn and the other potatoes they traded part of what they had. There were two weeks when we had nothing but potatoes in the house. Not even a little milk; the cow had gone dry.

"Fortunately the spring of 1860 was early, and how those cows and horses did go for the young grass! No one who saw that June frost of 1859 will ever forget it."

SOURCE:  Page(s) 321-324: Old Time Tales of Warren County; Meadville, Pa.: Press of Tribune Pub. Co., 1932


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