Wednesday, March 14, 2018

Winter 2017-18: Average/Not Average

Note: This was sent in before the 3/12-14 storm. Revised in italics to March 18th data. Will revise again after the 3/21-22 storm. 

How normal/abnormal was the winter of 2017-2018?

This winter’s precipitation had been in the normal range - until March. Unlike regions of the country that have wet and dry seasons, eastern Massachusetts averages approximately four inches of precipitation every month of the year. As of March 4, i.e., between the first and second nor’easters, precipitation had been one inch over average for the last 30 days and two inches above the average for the last 12 months. [As of March 18, 2.3" higher than average for last 30 days and 3.7" higher for 12 months.] Of course, the Assabet River fluctuates greatly in depth between winter and summer, but that is because in the green months, plants are taking up huge quantities of water and releasing that into the air, whereas in winter most it either sinks into the earth to replenish our town’s water supply or else runs off to the river. The Assabet has been well above average since New Year’s Day.   

Creek near Assabet River, 1/1/18
Photo taken from footbridge
Same creek, 48 hours later
Click on photos to enlarge
Temperatures were all over the place. From December 26 to the morning of January 11 the temperature never got above freezing, and several nights got to -10F. Even the fast-running parts of the Assabet River were nearly frozen over. Then, two days of temperatures in the 60s combined with steady rain almost completely obliterated the snow cover. February temperatures were mostly in the normal range of below freezing at night, warming to above freezing by day, but on February 20 and 21, spiked to record setting highs above 70F. Whatever snow and ice cover that remained was again wiped out. Tough year on local ski slope businesses. The first nor’easter of March came in like a lion, the second one (March 7-8) was more of a snow leopard. The wet snow of the latter broke branches on trees that had survived the high winds of the former. And ANOTHER wet snow storm March 12-14! And 10F the morning of March 18!!.

Theoretically, there will be some benefits from those ultra-cold January nights. Adult deer ticks can survive a moderately cold winter, to plague us in early spring. But if the deep cold killed them all off, then woods walkers have little to fear until the over wintering eggs hatch and tick nymphs become active, in May. Likewise, the cold may have killed a majority of the wooly adelgids that plague hemlock trees, providing a year’s respite (but no permanent salvation from eventual tree death). For hemlock tree owners the only options are insecticide spraying – or a chain saw.    

Chart shows average monthly precipitation, in inches, using Boston data
(raindrops and snowflakes). The swooping line is river volume. Figure
created by Felice Katz for book: MAYNARD: History and Life Outdoors. 
Total snowfall had been a tad above average. Winters put about 45 inches of snow on Boston and 65 inches of snow on Worcester. It’s a fare guess that Stow and Maynard are in between. Counting the March 7-8 storm Boston’s winter total was 41 inches. [The March 12-14 storm brought the Boston winter total to 57.2 inches]. The last two big years for Boston were 2010-11 with 81 inches and 2014-15 with a record-setting 110 inches of snow. Between the two, 2011-12 was a low snow year, at 9.3 inches.

The long-term trend is that winters have been getting shorter, but snowier. Of the ten snowiest winters since record-keeping began in 1890, six have been in the last twenty-five years. The reason is that eastern Massachusetts has been getting wetter (up 10 percent) faster than warmer (up one degree F). But at some point in the future that upward snow trend will collapse, because once nor’easters are above freezing temperatures those storms will be heavy rain events rather than snow events. Portland, Maine has already experienced a crossover. Weather records dating back to 1870 show a bit warmer, much wetter, less snow.

March 8, 2018 "Nice hat"
Of course, winter is not over until it’s over. April 1, 1997 was the infamous April Fool’s nor’easter that put two feet of snow on Boston and nearly three feet on Worcester. Two days earlier had been sunny and in the 60’s, so people were unprepared for the idea of a pending storm. The storm started as rain, but as evening fell the air temperature dropped a couple of degrees more than expected and snow was suddenly coming down at 2-3 inches per hour. Across mid-Atlantic and New England states, more than one million people lost power. Twenty years earlier there was a snowstorm on May 9, 1977. Not as widespread as 1997 (Boston got less than an inch), but suburbs west and northwest of Route 128 got more than a foot of wet snow. Because trees had already leafed out, the damage was tremendous. 

Observe that we are looking at pretty much twenty year intervals. So maybe these March storms were pre-ordained.    

Thursday, March 8, 2018

Boston Post Cane (award winner)

Gatehouse Media, the parent company of The Beacon-Villager and many neighboring newspapers, had submitted two of my columns to the New England Newspaper and Press Association annual convention for consideration for an award in the category Serious Columnists (sub-category weekly newspapers). I received third prize. This is a reprint of one of the columns.   

The Boston Post was a popular and influential newspaper some 100+ years ago.  In 1909, Edwin Grozier, the publisher, decided to promote the newspaper by donating ebony, gold-capped canes to the Boards of Selectmen of 700 towns in Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire and Rhode Island.  Engraved on the top of the gold head of each cane were the words "Presented by The Boston Post to the OLDEST CITIZEN of __________ [name of town and state]..."

The idea was that the towns would award these BOSTON POST CANES to the oldest male citizen for the remainder of his life, to be returned to the town upon his death, to be awarded to the next oldest, and so on.

Town of Maynard, Boston Post Cane
Courtesy Maynard Historical Society
(click on photo to enlarge)
The canes were made by J.F. Fradley and Co., a New York City silversmith and cane maker. Joseph F. Fradley (1843-1914) began a silversmith business in 1866. His business had an excellent reputation. J.F. Fradley items appear for sale in fine arts and crafts auctions. The business was managed by his son, George F. Fradley, at the time the canes were made. Although many of the newspaper articles about recipients of Boston Post Canes describe the cane heads as 14 karat gold, some of the internet photos show wear to reveal non-gold metal underneath, confirming that the cane heads were gold-plated rather than all gold. This makes sense. Gold, rather than gold plated, would have made the canes prohibitively expensive, even back in 1909.  

Women achieved the right to vote in 1920, but it took ten more years before The Boston Post approved a changing of the rules to allow women to be awardees.  

The Boston Post went out of business in 1956, but the Boston Post Cane tradition continues in many towns. As years went by some of the canes were misplaced, stolen, sold, lost or destroyed. Some went missing for years, decades even, only to surface again. In time, most towns decided to keep the original cane in a town office or at the local historical society, and either discontinue the practice entirely or else award a plaque to the oldest resident in lieu of the cane. 

Maynard's Boston Post Cane is on permanent display at the town building. It had gone missing around 1928, not recovered until 1981. In 1999 the Maynard Historical Society decided to revive the tradition of honoring Maynard’s oldest citizen by presenting him or her with a plaque from the Maynard Board of Selectmen. The most recent five: Elizabeth Dodd, Dorothy Barlow, Arlene Cook, Mildred F. Duggan, and currently Ben Sofka. Ben, a life-long Maynard resident, received his plaque in February 2017, shortly after he reached the age of 100 years.

Stow's Boston Post Cane is kept in the Town Vault in the Town Hall building, along with other historically important artifacts. Recipients are presented with a Boston Post Cane lapel pin. The cane had gone missing 1951 to 1971. Actually, it was in the Vault all the time, but misplaced. Since 1971 there have been 12 recipients. The most recent was Dr. Donald Freeman Brown - awarded the cane when he reached 99 years. He passed away in 2014, age 105. The honor and lapel pin have not yet been awarded to a newest oldest resident.

Boston Post Cane, side view
The Boston Post Cane Information Center [], maintained by the Maynard Historical Society has become a clearinghouse for all things BPC. The starting point was a 1985 article written by Maynard historian Ralph Sheridan. After his death in 1996, David Griffin took up the traces, and still gathers news of canes lost, found and awarded.

A few facts plucked from the website: As of last count, 517 towns continue or have resumed honoring their oldest citizens. Most have the original canes gifted them in 1909, but some are using brass-capped mahogany replicas purchased from the Town of Peterborough, NH. Some towns stipulate that to qualify, a person must be a current resident and living in the town the past 10 or 15 years. Watertown's cane went missing in 1910, and did not return until 99 years later. At the time Mary Josephine Ray of Westmorland, NH, passed away, age 114.8, she was not only the oldest ever holder of a Boston Post Cane, but also the oldest person in the United States.

Stow's and Maynard's neighbors do and do not continue the Boston Post Cane tradition. Hudson, Harvard and Sudbury awards plaques to their most senior citizens. Acton is considering restarting the same practice. Bolton and Boxborough apparently do not participate, either because these towns had too small a population to get a cane back in 1909, or because the original canes went astray. Starting in 1962, Concord decided to change to an annual Honored Citizen Celebration. The awardee is steward of the Boston Post Cane for a year and leads the Patriots' Day Parade.