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The Mast-Head: Winter Snapshot

Wed, 12/09/2020 - 13:31

Ice pellets fell from the sky on Tuesday morning, just as East Hampton was heading to work or taking the kids to school. I was, bizarrely, washing my truck when this began to happen; someone had somehow covered the entire passenger-side cab with coffee “light and sweet,” as they say in the delis around here.

It was cold enough that the suds froze everywhere on the truck, that is, other than the hood, which was warm from the drive from Amagansett. Water came from the hose only in a trickle until the ice inside broke up and spit from the end.

Sometime later, I heard about vehicles sliding on the roads and a three-car accident that briefly shut Montauk Highway near Stephen Hand’s Path. Around 9 a.m., a village highway truck was out spreading salt. Winter, it seemed, arrived a little early. But it will almost certainly warm up before the end of the year. Try as I might, I cannot remember any significant snowfall in December in all of my 50-plus years here.

East Hampton had a white Christmas in 1811. An all-day storm had blown in on the 24th, Christmas eve, dropping a foot of snow before moving away. The following day was bitterly cold, reaching only 16 degrees, Nathaniel Dominy IV wrote in his weather diary.

Dominy, for those who do not know, was one of several generations of East Hampton craftsmen of that name. East Hampton Village is nearing completion of a replica of their homestead on North Main Street, across the way from the I.G.A. store. It incorporates two workshops that had been saved when the house they had been attached to was torn down in 1946.

The Dominys could build or set right just about anything. Among their preserved account books are references to a busy watch-repair business, but they mended rakes, shotguns, and wagon parts as well. They built windmills and furniture now considered exemplary examples of late-Colonial period American craft. For me, though, I like the weather diaries best, maybe because that is all they are.

Dominy put dividing lines into the blank-paper books himself, getting a month onto two pages, marking first the date, then the numerical day of the week (one through seven), left room for a brief description of the day’s conditions in the middle, and, in the right margin, the day’s high and low temperatures.

Flipping through scanned copies of the diaries, made available by the Winterthur Museum in Delaware, I am struck that the winters do not look all that different from today’s, even though they were written during a cold period known as the Little Ice Age. December winds were mainly from the northwest. The temperature bounced around in the 30s and 40s, and snow was infrequent. It rained on Christmas Eve in 1806. It rained on New Year’s Eve, too.

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