February 1991

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Early Keuka Winters

David Jensen Remembers


Kay F. Wilson

The following impressions come from the 1982 Memoirs of David E. Jensen. Born in 1909, Jensen grew up on a lakeside farm in Milo, across the lake from Keuka College. Despite his background as a poor farm boy with a conspicuous harelip and speech impediment, Jensen earned scholarships to Cornell (M.A. chemistry) and the University of Rochester (M.S. geology) and became a world-renowned mineralogist. Jensen started as a part-time assistant at Ward's Natural Science Establishment in Rochester in 1930, became ahead of the Mineral Department in 1947, then ahead of the Geology Division in 1950. He retired a company vice-president in 1974.
Jensen was a long-standing member of the Rochester Academy of Science as well as numerous regional and national mineralogical and geological societies. His publications include: My Hobby Is Collecting Rocks and Minerals, 1955; Revision of George L. English's Getting Acquainted with Minerals, 1958; and Minerals of New York State, 1978.

The farmhouse had a range in the kitchen and a Round Oak stove in the dining room with a register in the floor of my bedroom above. I recall waking on cold mornings and hustling downstairs to dress next to the stove in which the coals from the previous night would still provide warmth. We burned coal in the winter, wood in spring and fall.

For Saturday night baths hot water was dipped from a reservoir at one end of the kitchen range. The water was added to cooler water from the cistern pump and poured into a galvanized tub set on the kitchen or woodhouse floor, and the bath would proceed.

The west portion of the house with master bedroom, formal dining room, sitting room, and north parlor was closed off in winter. Pans of sausages and other foods could be kept without refrigeration in the north parlor.

Travel in the winter around 1914 was not always great fun. We had to visit the grocery store and meat market in Penn Yan at least once a week. The trip was usually made on a Saturday morning. The three of us bundled up, and often a slab of soapstone was heated on the stove and wrapped in an old sheet to be tucked between our feet. A heavy blanket and a buffalo robe were wrapped snugly around our legs and we were away. The horse and cutter always got us through. At times, deep drifts forced us to leave the main road and detour over a neighbor's hay field that had been swept free of snow by the wind.

All was well, provided the sleigh did not turn over when moving through drifts. Tipping out of a moving sleigh into a snow drift was not what one might call a sport to enjoy, even though it was remembered. It was almost three miles to Penn Yan and there were three small hills and valleys en route. Anything might happen, and usually did.

About a mile south of the Miller-Jensen homestead was the residence of John Beard, who always was ready during heavy snowfalls to hitch a team to a big bobsled and keep the road open to Penn Yan. This occasion was ever made more jolly by the frequent imbibing of spirits fermenti while en route. The action, however, was free gratis to all residents along the road, and there was no other way to keep the highway open for the smaller sleighs.

Once in Penn Yan, there were two large horse barns we could go to, one on Wagner Street, the other on Maiden Lane. We often chose the latter as it was near the Arcade Building where Uncle Dave had his insurance office and also near the A & P. There were waiting rooms in both horse barns; most conversations were about the weather; and the rooms were draughty in spite of potbellied stoves that held warm fires.

At Penn Yan there was an ice storage house where blocks of ice, which had been harvested from the lake, could be kept for a long time into summer. The ice harvest commenced as soon as the ice was well over a foot thick. Blocks were marked out, then sawed. They were removed from the water and put up through chutes to the storage building with the aid of a team of horses. Once in a while a team would fall through the loose ice, and it required some man power to rescue the horses from a cold dip. The blocks of ice were kept separated by a coating of sawdust.

Some nights during the coldest months one might easily hear loud booming as the lake ice split. Later, at daylight, one might discern long, jagged cracks running from the east to the west shore of the lake. Little open water could be seen along the cracks, but these were the areas where the spring breakup usually began.

The heavy lake ice had other noticeable effects. The Allings had a boathouse at the end of their shore property. Heavy wooden logs were driven with a pile driver in groups of three and chained together for additional strength. Invariably, the invisible movement of the ice would slowly work on the piles until they were raised from their lake bottom moorings and left afloat. The Jewel family from Elmira had cottage and boat dock about a half mile south of our farm. They thought that the lake ice problem could be easily solved by simply filling 50-gallon oil drums with cement and positioning them around the boat dock. Well, the idea was good to think about, but weather and climate had other ideas.

I never was an out-of-door sports enthusiast in the winter. I did have a long Flexible Flyer that was useful in moving downhill, although I soon discovered that it was more work to struggle uphill in order to slide down again. For Christmas one time I received a nice set of skis and had visions of skiing down the long hill east of the house. The dream soon ended, however, because the hillside was uneven and grassy. Then one day I got up enough nerve to try the slopes at the country club some two and a half miles north. The result was an experience.

Bobsleds were a thing to think about only. Our neighbor Kenneth Bullock and friends of similar age did ride a bobsled down Willow Grove Hill. This was a dubious stunt, because a large horse-tethering block rested at the base of the hill. Another place noted for bobsled riding was the so-called Widow Hill that went westward to Potter and Rushville. There were often reports of mishaps on this hill.

I had a set of skate blades that could be fastened to my shoes. I tested them once on the lake ice in front of the farm but soon found that the ice, instead of being nice and smooth and glassy, was crusted most of the time with blowing and drifting snow. The lake ice also had large and extensive cracks. In fact, one could often hear cracks developing when it continued to freeze.

Such was winter life as I remember it over sixty years ago. The farm boy has come a very great distance in time and space from Keuka Lake in Yates County!

1991, Kay F. Wilson
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