Friday, March 4, 2022

Before the memory fades: More stories of the Blizzard of 1952

'He was my best friend and I never saw him again.' Roger Timmons, Windham

By Walter Lunt

Revisiting notable events can lead to engaging and stimulating conversations. Our recent story about Windham during the Great Blizzard of 1952 apparently rekindled a few memories from Windham long-timers. Following our publication of the story (Feb. 18, 2022), we heard from several readers who offered to recount their own stories. As a result, here is part two.

A 30-hour nor'easter paralyzed Maine
with two feet of snow and gale force
winds on Feb. 17 and Feb. 18, 1952.
Top, a resident digs out from the
storm. Bottom, a road is plowed
by a Walter snowplow truck.
At the time, the storm was determined to be the third worst snow event in greater Portland history. The savage nor’easter delivered over two feet of snow amidst blinding snowfall and winds gusting to 65 mph. As described in local news reports, whole communities became ghost towns.

Life-long Windham resident Roger Timmons called to say he was 12-years old when the turbulent storm hit Maine in February 1952. “It’s one of those life-enhancing events one never forgets. It was the toughest storm I can remember.” It lasted two days, “but we were all shut down for a week. People were skiing down 302 to get to work.”

Timmons’s father, Ernest, was a public works employee and remembers the stories he told when finally returning home after several harrowing days trying to open the town’s roads. While plowing in the south end of town, “His truck broke down. (There were) no radios or telephones in the trucks in those days, so (a stranded truck driver) would knock on doors to use the telephone. He told my mother he wouldn’t make it home that night.”

The elder Timmons and another driver struggled through deepening snow and howling wind, returning to the town garage (then located on Town Farm Road at Windham Center). There they started a stove fire and went to sleep on the garage’s cement floor. The next day they would engage in truck repairs 
and more plowing. Timmons finally returned home the following night, struggling over giant drifts to get to the front door and looking like a frosty snowman.

According to Roger Timmons, “Those trucks were always breaking rear axles. It got so they carried spares in the cab. They’d fix them right there in the road – it didn’t take that long.”

At that time, said Timmons, “…the town had maybe four plow trucks and two bulldozers. M.L. Rogers and C. R. Tandberg contracted with the town and helped plow roads, but the plows didn’t (drop blades) until there was six inches of snow on the ground.” At one point during the storm all town-owned trucks were down, either disabled or stuck. “Trucks were broken down everywhere. The only thing that saved us were the bulldozers pushing the Walters.”

The Walter (1939 – 1980), as explained in the Feb. 18 article, was a highly acclaimed plow truck specially built for clearing high snowdrifts. Its official name was, in fact, the Walter snow-fighter. For stubborn, high, tightly packed drifts, a bulldozer could be attached to the rear of the truck for added push.

For Roger, the most disheartening incident resulting from the great storm was the disappearance of his best friend. As explained in the Feb. 18 article, fire destroyed the home of the Kneeland family on Highland Cliff Road during the aftermath of the storm. Many roads were still blocked, and the efforts of a plow and fire apparatus were stymied because they couldn’t reach the blaze in time to save the house, garage, and barn. The family got out safely but lost all their possessions. Ron Kneeland was Roger’s best friend – both were 12-years old. “We knew each other since sub-primary (kindergarten) – we saw each other every day at school; we talked every day. I can’t say enough good about (his family); they were nice, exceptional people. “

Communication wasn’t like it is today. The storm occurred at the beginning of February school break. And even though Roger had heard about the fire, he didn’t know the outcome.

On the following Monday morning, “I was on (Arthur) Tyler’s school bus and we drove past Ron’s house. I was sick inside looking at (the blackened rubble). And he didn’t show up in school. I heard later that they’d moved to Westbrook. He was my best friend, and I never saw him again. I missed him so much.”

Not everyone was out in the cold or homebound throwing wood or coal on the fire. Following part one of our story, Patty Lyons Buck of Windham wrote to say she was in Mercy Hospital in Portland having surgery when the blizzard blew into the state. “Mom stayed with me (and) couldn’t get home for three days. Dad was home with my three brothers and (was) unable to go anywhere.”

On Chute Road, the Kelley family needed milk for their 12-day old baby girl. Fred Kelley, a well-known carpenter and later industrial arts teacher at Windham High School, donned snowshoes and shuffled from Chute Road, across Pope Road, through woods, across Windham Center Road and through more woods to Route 302 to what then was Ledgewood Market where he bought milk, then returned home during the storm. One family member remarked later, “We talked about it for weeks.”

Asked what lessons were learned for public works from the Great Blizzard of ’52, Roger Timmons said one of the biggest problems was the narrow roadway on secondary streets. “The plow banks were so high that the snow slid back onto the road. As a result, road construction was improved. In the early 1950s, many roads were still dirt. As more were tarred, the roads and adjoining shoulders were widened; banks were moved back and sloped downward and away from the edge of the roadway. Ditching was improved to move rainwater away from the road surface. The improvements made life easier for the plow drivers.

Today, the snowplows are efficient and are out the moment a storm begins; roads are built to accommodate the task. And communications between the public, the town garage and the trucks are immediate.

Also immediate would be the response to a house fire, even during a storm. And it’s a certainty the occupants, including a best friend, would not disappear without notice. <

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