Monday, April 17, 2017

Of Oliver Cromwell, Snow
And Electric Power in 2017

             Oliver Cromwell and the trials of the  Donner Party, came to mind recently as I floundered through snow and what seemed to be a cascade of misfortune in restoring electricity to my farmhouse in southern Maine, isolated and in danger of freezing after a gale-blown late February blizzard . 

             Cromwell, bless him, not necessarily overwhelmed with mercy but glad of a chance to finance his revolt, sold the Scots  he had captured in 1650 in the Battle of Dunbar into slavery as bond servants and got rid of them by shipping them off to the colonies. 

            Among them was a Micum McIntire who completed his servitude in Dover ,New Hampshire, and  ultimately settled in York, Maine. By various means over years he and his progeny acquired substantial land holdings in the south western parts of the town. More than 250 years later I find myself the grateful heir of a McIntire farm originally established around two knolls, drumlin-like hills well off the road running out Beech Ridge on the southern side of the York River estuary.

             I enjoy that farm, now largely woodlot except for about ten acres of the higher ground around The Knolls, which named the site from the earliest days.  I keep a garden, fruit trees,  a small young orchard, and occasionally sell or barter wood and lumber.  I have many wild friends including a substantial deer herd, coyotes, woodchucks, a  fisher, at least one owl, turkeys and, to my surprise, bluebirds in late February this year. In winter I visit regularly, keep the long driveway open and the house heated with a ground source heat pump I built myself.  Sixteen solar panels provide all the electricity used on the farm.  I have a substantial farm tractor that keeps the road open when necessary and does virtually any other big job.  A smaller tractor, a Farmall, is an antique but convenient adjunct for trimming the fields and other usually light jobs.

            In February I had a flat front tire on the John Deere tractor.  The heavy front wheel was repaired by professionals and rode in the back of my truck as I drove to the farm to restore electricity before the house froze.  The Town does a good job of keeping its roads open and I was not surprised  to find the end of my long lane blocked by a hard-packed four-foot snow bank which I expected to have to move to find a place to take my small truck off the road while I  opened the lane with a snowblower, a sorry  substitute for the immobilized  John Deere. But the packed snow was frozen and yielded  not at all to  a furious attack with a snow shovel.   Perhaps my snow blower would open a path from the back side when I made my way back down.

           I struggled into an insulated set of high, rubber-bottomed boots, slithered over the berm into the softer snow beyond to make my way, one step at a time,  more than a tenth of a mile uphill  to the barn. It was heavy going through wind-packed  snow that proved the wisdom of knee-high boots that laced more or less snugly.   Each packed step was deliberate, measured, balanced.  The foot went, with resistance,  through the dense surface into the softer snow beneath and found a firm basis for a step ahead without a stumble.  It was slow progress, slowed further by four trees the storm had felled across the lane. I had to remember to carry a chainsaw on my return, not the most convenient encumbrance when managing a snow blower, which appeared to be the only possibility that seemed realistic in moving this depth of snow. I continued,  slowly up the hill, thinking of the Donner party and their decision to stop their struggle, not to try either to push on further or to retreat but to settle in for the winter where they were.  I had a sure refuge in the barn, not warm but certainly free of snow and equipped with a substantial  snow-blower that promised freedom to move around outside and recover my ill-parked  truck. Not so,  the Donner Party who found themselves immobile and without recourse. 

       At last in the barn, the snow blower was a new challenge.  Normally it is started easily with electric power, 110 volts.  But the storm had broken the connection to the power line and my panels were not producing sufficient power to replace the normal supply.   Hand cranking was the only possibility.  Previous experience had not been encouraging, but I thought persistence would ultimately succeed.  It did not, and energy for cranking ebbed early after the struggle up the hill.

       The best solution would be the John Deere tractor with its four-wheeled drive and ample power. But the all-essential wheel  was in the truck below and there was little interest or possibility of  rescuing a two-hundred pound burden short of moving the truck.  The immediate alternative was to test the antique Farmall and its snowplow, regularly used in light snows to scrape the driveway and clear space in front of the barn.  There appeared to be a high probability of finding the light tractor inadequate part way down the lane, stopped by the depth of snow ahead and without traction to back out of the mess.  I was apprehensive, envisioning a week’s work with hand winches and chains in returning with the tractor through the snow to the barn.  I tested the potential for moving snow in front of the barn and, with care and persistence, cleared the yard. Encouraged, and boldly, with the plow raised to clear only the hard-packed surface snow,  I pushed my way  to the downed trees, cut them away and to my surprise pushed on the full length of the lane  to the road. Opening a free space there I was able to batter my way through  the frozen snowbank and reach the dry, town-plowed surface.  Several passes with the plow opened a single lane for the entire length of the driveway.   Finally,  I praised myself mightily for  skill in negotiating that narrow lane with the t                                                                                                                        There remained the core purpose: electricity to restore heat in the house.  The generator is seldom used and sits on a small Gravely trailer in a dark corner of the barn behind a heavy, wheeled, wood splitter that must be moved to release the generator.   The splitter is awkward to move in the best of circumstances.  This time it seemed especially immobile.  A cursory examination with a flashlight revealed a flat tire, impossible to reach in that dark and crowded barn.  “Of course!” I thought as misfortune accumulated.  A garage jack with wheels under it enabled  enough mobility to warp the heavy monster into a pocket and allow the generator to come out onto the barn floor where it could be dusted off and tested.  The battery, of course, was quite dead. A jumper cable to a battery from a Gravely garden tractor in the barn  did not energize the starter.  Surprisingly, however, and against all odds, the second pull on the hand crank, brought life to the generator, a handsome, yellow, “Robin 6100”, that produced 220 volts in the proper places. The day was late and cold. I was encouraged that I could now start the snow blower and there might soon be power in the house….and heat.   But the generator had to be at the house.  Several passes with the snow blower opened a sufficient path to the house to man-handle the generator, trailer and all, to the cellar door. A heavy cable from the generator to a fitting in the 220 circuit put power back in the house.
                                                                                                                        Within an hour the house was warming as the temperature outside dropped again. The generator rewarded all that struggle by running on one tank of gasoline for 12 hours, restoring the new “normal” to The Knolls 367 years after Cromwell triggered all these events by selling an ancestor into slavery.
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            George M. Woodwell
                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            Woods Hole, Massachusetts

                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            April 5, 2017