LEWISTON — Thomas Hodgkin woke up to snow and cold wind, the ground frozen solid.

In June.

His neighbors struggled with the season’s planting from June to August as corn, apples and garden vegetables shriveled and died in the cold. People planted a second time that summer. And a third. They wrapped rags around seedlings, hoping to protect them from frost as temperatures plummeted 30 to 40 degrees below normal.

It didn’t work.

Whole fields of crops froze. Spring lambs died of exposure and families struggled to keep their horses fed.

From his Ferry Road farm, Hodgkin watched his neighbors pack up and leave, heading west to the far-off land of Ohio. Maybe the weather would be better there, they hoped. It certainly couldn’t be much worse.


“Although there is a great scarcity of temporal food, I think true thankful hearts are much scarcer,” Hodgkin wrote in his diary that Thanksgiving.

The year was 1816, and that summer would remain infamous — among historians, weather experts and schoolchildren, delighted by thoughts of snowballs in June — for the next 200 years.

It goes by a lot of names. “The year without a summer,” and “The summer that never was”— and the telling, “1800 and froze-to-death.” At the time, cold, hungry Mainers blamed the weather on God, witches, deforestation, icebergs, sunspots and lightning rods.

The answer would turn out to be as strange as any of those: a massive volcano that had erupted half a world away one year earlier.

Two hundred years later, Mainers are coming out of one of the harshest winters on record.

And hoping this summer will be nothing like the summer of 1816.



The volcano was called Mount Tambora, and it hadn’t so much as rumbled for generations. Indonesian locals thought it was long extinct.

In early April 1815, the Sumbawa Island volcano exploded.

The eruption ripped off the top third of the mountain and spewed ash and sulfuric acid miles into the sky, well above the clouds, high enough to reach the stratosphere. Historians say the explosion was heard 1,600 miles away — roughly the driving distance between Lewiston and Miami — and ash was found more than 800 miles away.

Tambora would continue to erupt on and off for months.

Like earthquakes, volcanic eruptions can be rated. The volcanic explosivity index is a scale of 1 to 8, with each step noting an explosion 10 times more powerful than the step before it. The 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was a 5 on the scale.


Tambora was a 7, dubbed “super-colossal.” It was one of the largest eruptions in history.

Although Tambora killed tens of thousands of people, either in the initial explosion or its aftermath, the rest of the world heard little about it.

“It just didn’t get reported,” said Nicholas Klingaman, a research meteorologist who co-authored the 2013 book “The Year Without Summer” with his father, a political historian. “Europe didn’t seem to care about it, or America.”

But nobody could ignore the weather a year later.

Tambora’s ash cloud was spewed into the stratosphere, picked up by strong winds and spread across the world. Temperatures dropped, affecting the jet stream.

“It got it stuck in this pattern of bringing a lot of very cold, arctic air down into the U.S., bringing one low-pressure system after another,” Klingaman said.


In Europe, the weather turned cold and wet. In America, it was cold and dry.

In Maine that spring, the weather warmed one day, cooled the next. By June, people were concerned.

Thomas Hodgkin, a farmer in his late 30s, rarely wrote about the weather in his diary. But that month, he focused on it twice in two days, according to Doug Hodgkin, a local historian and family member who has read the diary.

“The weather is so coald that it frose the ground nights & Snowd Several times today. The wind is very heavy,” Thomas Hodgkin wrote on June 8, 1816, using his own spelling and punctuation.

Some historians say New England was blanketed with 18 inches of snow that June, while others say it was closer to 12 inches.

And then there was the frost.


“In some of the records that I found … of newspapers and stuff, one lady’s well froze eight feet down,” said Mayra Donnell of Bucksport, a teacher who self-published a children’s book, “1816: The Year That Summer Never Came,” and leads presentations at area schools.

At a time when most people’s livelihoods — and survival — depended on what they could grow, the frost was alarming. The loss of even a single crop, such as apples, had widespread consequences.

“Of course, when you think of the apple blossoms you have to think of vinegar … from the apples,” Donnell said. “Drying apples. They used to ship apples out of New England, which they weren’t going to be doing that year. Jams. Jellies. Pies. They used to use apples for feeding the orchard pigs. It’s amazing, the connectivity.”

It didn’t get any better in July.

“What really made it significant was there was a frost every month,” Donnell said. “So you got your crops going in June and, wham, you get a frost. You replant again, you’re down to your second batch of seeds or whatever, you plant again and, bang, July you get another frost.”

Temperatures fluctuated, swinging from summer highs to winter lows. Farmers, seduced into planting during 70-degree days, woke to find their seedlings frozen. Crop after crop — apples, beans, cucumbers, squash — failed.


In August, the weather warmed, only to chill again. By then, hay was at risk; only a fraction of it could be harvested. As cold ravaged what remained of the corn season, farmers’ last hope for that crop died, too.

Prices for hay, wheat, vegetables and other staples skyrocketed across New England. In Maine, the price of potatoes doubled and oats tripled.

Farm animals were a problem, too. Over the summer, lambs and other young livestock died from the cold. Families and farmers struggled to feed the animals they had left, desperate to save their cows, which were needed for milk, and horses, which were needed for work and were one of the few sources of transportation at the time.

Most New Englanders didn’t face complete famine, but it was close. Mainers increasingly relied on hunting and fishing to survive. In other states, there were reports of people foraging for nettles and eating raccoons and pigeons.

In Ashland, N.H., according to the New England Historical Society, a farmer named Reuben Whitten was able to harvest wheat from his south-facing field — a near miracle at the time — and he shared the bounty with his neighbors. More than 30 years later, still grateful, those neighbors paid for his gravestone. They later erected a monument to forever honor his generosity.

“A pioneer of this town,” the monument reads. “Cold season of 1816 raised 40 bushils of wheat on this land whitch kept his family and neighbours from starveation.”


But not everyone could get by hunting, fishing and sharing with neighbors. Poverty and hunger increased that winter, as did requests for help.

“I am pressed down under Severe Want and have bin for some time,” wrote Lewiston resident Loved Lincoln in a January 1817 petition for help from the town’s overseers of the poor, according to Doug Hodgkin. “(T)here is No other way Irksom as it to my feelings But to apply to you as a Town or applying to the Act of this Commonwealth for a Little assistance thro this Cold and Dreary Winter.”

With no money and little food — he listed a few potatoes, some milk, four quarts of meal and a bit of meat. His family was desperate.

“I have a Good Cow I would sell but She is like a Secondary Mother to my little children,” he wrote. “(T)here is No way I Can get any thing like Bread for my Labour(.) Money I have none(.) I have Not more than Hay enough to Give my Cow a little this week then all is at an end(.) Gentlemen lend a sympathizing ear to my Little children.”

The overseers of the poor apparently provided that help. Thomas Hodgkin — whose hilltop farm was able to salvage more crops than valley farms — sold the town beef, mutton and wheat for Lincoln’s family.

100 people a day


The weather changed more than just farm life.

Some historians believe a German baron invented the precursor to the bicycle, a machine without pedals that riders could use instead of horses, because of the lack of horses.

In Switzerland, Mary Shelley, Percy Shelly and Lord Byron gathered for a summer vacation. The weather was so cold and wet that they stayed inside, entertaining each other with ghost stories. Mary Shelley’s “Frankenstein” was the result.

In the U.S., not every public servant was as helpful to the poor as Lewiston’s overseers, and voters weren’t pleased. While families foraged for food in the forest and farmers fretted over feeding their animals for another week, Congress voted to double its own salary, according to the New England Historical Society. Nearly 70 percent of U.S. representatives were soon voted out of office.

In Maine, the population changed.

Mainers got through 1816 only to find 1817 was cold, too. There was no June snow, but the weather wasn’t exactly good.


Mainers started to flee.

“I was reading an account that was talking about this one person seeing 100 people pass by his house every day on their way out of the state,” said Joe Hall, a Bates College associate professor who specializes in early American history. “These wagons were full of families leaving the state because they realized this is just too hard.”

The new land of Ohio promised opportunity, cheap property, better soil and warmer weather. Historians say thousands to tens of thousands of Mainers likely made the trek west — a significant portion of the few hundred thousand people who lived in Maine at the time. The trip wasn’t easy, but many people figured Ohio had to be better than what they’d endured in Maine.

“Like, ‘You thought the winters were bad, how about the summers?'” Hill said. “(In Maine) you’re only going to survive because you can fish and maybe hunt, and you’re getting all this promotional literature saying the soils in Ohio are incredibly rich and, by the way, it’s mild, it’s really warm.”

But while the soil was rich, the weather wasn’t warm. Ohio was caught in the same weather pattern as New England.

A number of people returned, though it’s unclear how many.


“I don’t think it ever equalled the people who left,” said Richard Judd, history professor at the University of Maine in Orono.

One was William Brooks, a 39-year-old Lewiston man who sold his Pine Woods Road Farm in May 1817 and walked to Ohio with two other men. By September, Brooks had returned.

According to Doug Hodgkin, an 1865 article in the Lewiston Daily Evening Journal said Brooks’ companions settled in Ohio, but he returned “concluding it was no place for a poor man.”

200 years later: Facebook

Maine’s weather would remain unseasonably cold until 1819, when it finally returned to normal. Personal scars would remain a lot longer.

“I do think there are other consequences that go beyond just a matter of how many people left the state,” Hall said. “I mean, it’s not just a tough summer. It’s a malnutrition event that’s going to affect you for the rest of your life, especially if you’re a child.”


For decades, no one knew what had caused the cold spell. Some blamed it on God; others, on witches. Theories abounded involving sunspots, iceberg-chilled winds, lightning rods or the clear-cutting of land.

“Anything and everything except a volcano, really,” Klingaman said.

It wasn’t until the mid-20th century, nearly 150 years later, that scientists would point to Tambora as the cause.

Today, the summer of 1816 is best known to meteorologists and historians. Mainers tend to know of it mostly in vague terms: the family story of a distant relative who ate almost nothing but mackerel one winter, the schoolyard tale of the June it snowed.

Local historian David Young is trying to change that. With Facebook.

Although few documents have survived the 200 years — a time before Maine was even a state — he has found two diaries from Auburn residents Andrew Giddinge and William Plummer through the Androscoggin Historical Society. He’s given each man his own Facebook page and is posting diary entries from Giddinge and Plummer day by day.


He hasn’t peeked far ahead to see how the men, both Revolutionary War soldiers, experienced the time.

“It’s amazing what might be going through their minds,” Young said.

Plummer’s diary goes through 1816. Giddinge’s diary ends in 1815, though Young would like to find an 1816 version.

“I’m hoping they will mention the snowstorm,” he said.

The world hasn’t experienced another volcano like Tambora in the past 200 years, and Maine hasn’t seen a summer like that since.

It likely won’t this year, either.


The National Weather Service is predicting a warmer-than-usual summer.

[email protected]

Want to know more about the summer of 1816? Check out:

* New England Historical Society: http://www.newenglandhistoricalsociety.com/1816-year-without-summer/

* Androscoggin Historical Society: https://www.facebook.com/pages/Androscoggin-Historical-Society/108962565819250

* Andrew Giddinge’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/andrewrobinsongiddinge

* William Plummer’s Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/pages/William-Plummer/399811973527113?fref=nf

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