Locals recall rough winters from long ago
While growing up in Philadelphia, Bernice Golson, 71, remembers hearing of the large snows in western Pennsylvania, while little snow fell in Philadelphia.
“We didn’t get much snow back then,” Golson said, while sitting with Florence (Davinson) Hammel at the Blair Senior Services Center in Altoona. “The western part of the state got much more snow than the eastern part. I’ve lived here for eight years and we really haven’t had a bad winter.”
Hammel, 64, remembers those snowy winters growing up in Portage.
“I remember the neighbors had to shovel us out of our house,” she said, estimating that snowfall occurred in 1963.
It’s the only time she remembers her school closing.
“That one time when I was in about third grade, the snow was so high it was up past the door. Our neighbors had to shovel us out. We lived along an alley and the snow drifted. It kept us at home all morning and we didn’t get to school until afternoon.”
She and her sister received a punishment upon their arrival.
“We weren’t allowed to participate in anything and we had to stay in the cloak room. When we got home, we were in tears. We told my dad and he walked up to school and met with the principal. My dad told him that if the teacher ever did that again, he’d make sure the teacher and him (the principal) both lost their jobs. He was so mad at they way she treated us.”
Her father, Wilbert Davinson, didn’t drive because of a snow-related accident he suffered as a 9-year-old boy.
“My dad nearly lost his arm when he was using a coal shovel as a sled. He got going too fast and lost control. The shovel came up and almost severed his arm,” Hammel said. “So growing up, he wouldn’t allow us to sled ride. So we would wait until he went to work.”
“We’d go down Pine Street and onto Delancy,” Hammel said. “I remember I was going really fast and even though I turned the sled I couldn’t get stopped and all I saw this giant coal truck coming toward me.”
Fortunately, the coal truck driver stopped in time and then got out to check to see if she was hurt.
“I was crying and was so scared. He made me promise not to ever sled down the street again. And I asked him not to tell my dad until I had a chance to tell him. Back in those days, everyone knew everyone.”
‘The roads were so bad’
Pat Hollern, 81, of Altoona grew up in Munster and attended a three-room schoolhouse heated by a large potbelly stove.
“We used to get a lot more snow,” she said. “And the roads were so, so bad. I think we got more snow and the road crews didn’t have the equipment to handle it. It’s not like that today.”
Another senior, Rose McCale, 71, of Altoona remembered the one and only time she and the other students at Sacred Heart School received an early dismissal.
“I think I was about 10 years old,” she said. “We got out early because the power lines were so covered in ice they were hanging down into the street and nearly to the ground. It was the only time we ever got out early. We had to walk to school — even when the snow was up to our knees.”
At 94, Altoonan Sabby Pierannunzio, said she believes the winters now are windier than she remembers.
“I don’t like the wind blowing,” she said, pulling her sweater tight. “We get a lot more rain now and the wind goes right through you.”
Golson, who grew up to be a teacher, lamented that school is canceled more often today.
“It had to be really, really bad,” Golson said. “We didn’t get snow days like they do now.”
As one of seven children, Hilda (Vorndran) Gordon, remembers the excitement generated by the first snowfall of the season.
“We’d pray for snow to come on Thanksgiving Day,” Gordon said. “After eating, we would have to sit quietly and draw or color. We’d look outside and if it would be snowing, we’d run outside so fast.”
Archives record devastation
The Altoona Mirror archives recorded much devastation caused by a storm that started the evening of Nov. 24, 1950, and continued for two days.
The precipitation began as sleet and then changed to a heavy rain about midnight and continued for 11 hours until about 11 a.m. on Nov. 25 “when a sudden drop in temperature turned it to snow.”
The lower temperatures caused the rain to freeze into ice and downed electrical wires, trees, telephone poles and fences throughout Blair County.
“Damage from the storm was in two categories — a power failure and destruction of trees and property,” according to the Mirror in “Storm Scenes,” a booklet showing photos of the havoc.
Bell Telephone and Penelec crews called in linemen from other areas in an effort to make repairs more quickly. The weight of the ice snapped poles and “buckled steel transmission towers southwest of the Collinsville substation. … “
Gordon, 89, is a resident of Garvey Manor Nursing Home. For her, one of the scariest snowstorms occurred while pregnant with her daughter, Joyce.
When she went into labor during an ice storm, her husband, the late Glenn Gordon, made her walk a few blocks to Mercy Hospital.
“It was so icy he was afraid to get the car out,” Hilda recalled. “Back then, they kept you in the hospital for a week. There were several of us in the Maternity Ward being taken care of by a few nurses. But only one husband made it in to visit. When he saw how many of us were alone he made it a point to visit each and every one of us.”
Her late husband served as a firefighter with the Pennsylvania Railroad fire department.
During an ice storm in the early 1950s, Hilda said he didn’t make it home for two weeks.
Another Garvey resident, Betty Rouzer, 92, remembers an ice storm she said occurred in the 1940s.
“We lived in a duplex on 13th Avenue and had no electric or heat because of the storm,” she said. “I felt so afraid, so my husband took me to my parents’ house where they had a coal furnace. I felt better once I was with Mom and Dad.”
Staff writer Patt Keith is at 949-7030.