200 Years Ago: Remembering ‘Year With No Summer’

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Front Page / Aug. 11, 2016 9:14am EDT

By Martha Slater

In Vermont, it was known as “1800 and Froze to Death.”

The year 1816 was also known as the “Year Without a Summer” and the “Poverty Year” because of severe climate abnormalities that caused average global temperatures to decrease by 0.4–0.7°C (0.7–1.3°F), resulting in major food shortages across the Northern Hemisphere.

On Sunday, Sept. 25 at 2 p.m., noted Vermont historian Howard Coffin will speak at the United Church of Bethel on “1800 and froze to death” as one of many events held there throughout the year to honor the church’s 200th birthday. On Christmas Eve, the actual 200th birthday of the church, there will be a big service event with a lot of music.

Built as a non-denominational meetinghouse for the whole town, the church was designed using drawings done by a famous Vermont architect, Asher Benjamin. It was the first church built in Bethel and was consecrated on Christmas Eve 1816. A state historic marker for the church will be dedicated there later this year. The marker will honor both the 200th anniversary of the church and the “1800 and froze to death” year.

“The church at Bethel will be the unofficial state monument to ‘the cold year,’” said Coffin. “I don’t think there’s ever been anything in Vermont, until now, that commemorates that strange year.”

Weird Weather

Evidence suggests that the weird weather was predominantly a volcanic winter event caused by the massive April 1815 eruption of Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies.

“It was a tremendous explosion that killed thousands of people and spread a cloud of ash around the world,” Coffin said. “That cloud had world-wide effects.”

According to Wikipedia, “Cool temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in Britain and Ireland. Families in Wales travelled long distances as refugees, begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland, following the failure of wheat, oats, and potato harvests. In Germany, the crisis was severe and in western Switzerland, the summers of 1816 and 1817 were so cool that an ice dam formed below a tongue of the Giétro Glacier.

“The year 1816 was known as ‘The Year Without a Summer’ in New England because six inches of snow fell in June and every month of the year had a hard frost. Temperatures dropped to as low as 40 degrees in July and August as far south as Connecticut.”

In Vermont, historian Walter Hill Crockett, wrote, “The leaves of the trees were killed and even the beeches did not put out leaves. Sheep had just been sheared and where it was possible, the fleeces were bound around the bodies of these animals to keep them from freezing. There was great suffering, but little, if any, actual starvation. Days of fasting and prayer were observed in the churches. As a rule, people helped each other.”

“They built the church in Bethel in 1816,” Coffin said. “It was the worst year to build anything, because it was so dark and cold and snowy. After a mild winter and spring, on June 6, the temperature plummeted and it began to snow. Some parts of Vermont got over a foot of snow, it drifted, and some people died as a result of the storm. From there on, the weather was unseasonably cold and there was frost every month. Farmers lost their crops.”

Side Effects

“People were terrified,” he added. “A religious revival had begun several years before and more and more people went to church, sure that God was doing this.”

Coffin noted that “one of effects of all this was a migration of about 15,000 people who left Vermont and went west into New York State. For example, people from Hardwick went to the Genesee Valley of New York State. One of the families that left Vermont was the Smiths from Norwich, parents of Joseph Smith, who was born in Sharon. They went to Palmyra, N.Y., where Joseph found the golden tablets; and the Mormon religion was born.”

“That year was known as ‘the year without sun,’ ‘the cold year,’ and ‘the year without a summer,” he said. “There was a strange sideeffect to all of this—drought— and the smoke from forest fires in New York State drifted across Lake Champlain, making it hard to breathe in the Champlain Valley.

“As 1817 began, there was a phenomenon that hit Vermont called ‘St. Elmo’s Fire,’” he added. “People’s trees and fence posts, and even their hair, lit up with a glow.”

St. Elmo’s Fire is a weather phenomenon in which luminous plasma is created by a coronal discharge from a sharp or pointed object in a strong electric field in the atmosphere (such as those generated by thunderstorms or created by a volcanic eruption).

“Clearly, this area of the state was badly hit,” Coffin said. “People lost crops and there were severe food shortages. The hardest hit areas in Vermont were the Champlain Valley and up near the Canadian border. In the town of Richford, for example, almost everyone left.

“It was financially difficult for everyone,” he added. “After the war of 1812, the state was in an economic slump and the weather in 1816 worsened everything. The raising of the church in Bethel was a statement of faith by those who stayed there.”

Coffin quoted the Rev. S.A. Parker, minister of the church in the 1890s, who said, “It is a structure worthy of the men who built it. It has stood these 80 years and if properly cared for, it will stand for centuries.”

As it begins its third century, Coffin, who is a member of the United Church, now led by Pastor Tom Harty, noted proudly that the church membership is growing.

Looking for More Info

Coffin is looking for more information about the year of 1816 in Vermont and would like to hear from anyone who has family diary accounts or other stories to share. He can be reached by calling 223- 1909 or e-mailing hjcoffin@comcast.net.

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