AUBURN — The image of old-time Mainers spending their winters hunkering down against the cold — reading by firelight as they waited for the snow to stop falling — is a myth.

“There was no hunkering down,” historian Douglas Hodgkin said Thursday. “They were quite active in the winter.”

In an age before electric lights and automated furnaces, winter was something to prepare for, overcome and sometimes enjoy, Hodgkin said.

Not that it was easy.

“Winter was a constant concern, even in the summertime,” said Hodgkin, a retired political scientist at Bates College who has written several local histories.

On Thursday, he hosted a lecture at the Auburn Public Library on how the area’s people endured winter in the 19th century.

Using a variety of sources, including his great-great-great-uncle’s journal, Hodgkin portrayed a population that was simply too busy to hunker.

On the farm, summers were spent haying and producing enough food to last the winter. Winters were a time to fell trees and chop wood for stoves. And there were always chores, from milking the cows and feeding the hens to butchering animals and salting meat.

Hodgkin’s great-uncle augmented his income in south Lewiston by making sleighs that he would deliver as far away as the Bangor area.

In the cities, daily life was less affected. Shops and offices stayed open. Mills ran. 

Hodgkin showed rare photos of ice being harvested from the Androscoggin River and men shoveling off the canals in Lewiston’s downtown.

In each case, he had to guess exactly what folks were doing.

“Remember, people weren’t running around with cameras then,” he said. 

Some would have had fun.

In the newspaper, Hodgkin discovered a mention of a baptism that took place in the Androscoggin in February. Before the plunge, workers removed blocks of ice that were 3 feet thick.

Indoors were concerts, minstrel shows, operettas, lectures and historical exhibitions. Roller skating was big, first in a hall overlooking Lisbon Street and later in Lewiston City Hall.

It continued there until city leaders complained that the noisy rumbling and rolling disrupted their meetings, Hodgkin said.

Outside, ice skating was big. Folks paid to visit a man-made rink near the Frye School building in Lewiston.

And then there was Christmas. 

Hodgkin discovered that it was a pretty minor holiday among local Protestants around the time of the Civil War. But by the 1880s — thanks to the enthusiasm of Irish and then French immigrants — the holiday was big in both churches and local commerce.

“Christmas was basically imported,” Hodgkin said. News accounts in the 1860s described hearty partying among some Catholic immigrants. 

“I don’t know if the Protestants were envious,” Hodgkin said. By the 1880s, even their churches had Christmas trees.

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