Little McHenry likes snow, thank you


January 22, 1995|By Mike Klingaman | Mike Klingaman,Sun Staff Writer

McHENRY -- Here in Maryland's coldest town, perched in the Appalachian snow belt, Elmer Selby's plowing business has gone blade-up this winter.

So far, the season has been more balmy than blustery in a Western Maryland community that thrives in freezing weather and prides itself on digesting any blizzard that nature can dish out.

Most years, Mr. Selby, a 53-year-old retired state trooper, can earn $20,000 plowing. "Some days I've worked from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m., stopping just to eat," he said one day last week. "This year? Shoot, I 'dug out' six people from a couple of inches of snow."

Mr. Selby and other residents of the Garrett County town were hoping that this weekend's 5 inches of snow and temperatures in the teens signaled the beginning of a real winter, one that McHenry could brag about.

Three days ago, temperatures in McHenry were in the 50s and rain was falling. But a cold front swept through Friday morning, dumping 5 inches of snow through last night, while sending the mercury down to a low of 19 yesterday, said Jim DeCarufel, a forecaster with the National Weather Service in Sterling, Va.

The current blow-up notwithstanding, compared with last winter, this one's been a breeze. Last year, nearly 13 feet of snow fell in Garrett, almost twice the norm. This season's total of 15 to 20 inches has come in dribs and drabs. As of last week, the heaviest white stuff has been fog, rolling through the mountains and dropping like a stage curtain on this speck of a village, giving it an eerie "Brigadoon" appearance.

A year ago, McHenry was locked in sub-zero temperatures, as low as minus 26. The cold made the oil in people's cars as thick as molasses.

Last weekend, the town sizzled as readings approached 60 degrees. Residents seemed almost apologetic about the winter. "This is not Garrett County; this is summer," said Charles "Skeeter" Bowman, 69.

Forty years ago this month, Mr. Bowman landed a small airplane on frozen Deep Creek Lake "to see if it could be done." Last weekend, "You could have water-skied out there," he said.

There's no disputing McHenry's ranking as Maryland's coldest town. It wins gloves down.

With average winter temperatures of 24 degrees, this icy burg is 2 degrees colder than neighboring Oakland, the county seat, according to the National Weather Service.

By contrast, Baltimore ranks well up the thermometer at 37 degrees.

Oakland holds the dubious honor of having the lowest temperature ever recorded in Maryland, minus 40 in 1912. (McHenry's official readings date only to 1970, however.)

McHenry is at the northernmost tip of Deep Creek Lake, 2,800 feet above sea level in the Appalachian range. Looming over the town like a white-bearded snow god is Marsh Mountain, home of Wisp, the only major resort for downhill skiing in the state.

When he moved to McHenry from New Hampshire, Steven Herman was stunned to find winters averaging just 10 degrees warmer than those in New England.

"People are amazed to find this kind of cold south of the Mason-Dixon Line," said Mr. Herman, president of Garrett Community College.

The hot times have melted some bank accounts. Patronage has plummeted at motels and restaurants. And ice-fishing gear won't sell without ice.

At the pharmacy in McHenry Plaza, the warm spell has crippled sales of such staples as knee braces and hand warmers.

At Wisp, 16 of 23 ski trails were open last week as snow-making machines struggled to supply what nature has not.

"Business is off," said Mark Ruhe, Wisp spokesman, bemoaning the snow strike.

Then he added a personal footnote: "Last January I needed a back brace after hurting myself clearing snow. This year I haven't had to pick up a shovel."

Cross country ski rentals have skidded to near zero this winter, said Dave Griffith, who manages a hardware store that stocks 100 pairs. Who would have thought it, he added: "We're halfway through winter, and hardware sales are keeping us afloat."

Lynn Newman isn't complaining. He owns the local funeral establishment. It's tough digging graves when the ground is frozen 2 feet down and cemetery roads are impassable, as they were in 1974.

"That year we had seven bodies backed up, some for as long as a month, waiting to be buried," said Mr. Newman.

"Relatives kept calling to ask, 'Did you get in [to the cemetery] yet? Did you get in yet?'

"Yes, I've been happy this year."

Typically, winter in McHenry means an assault by nature. No postcard scene, this.

"You don't see much of that Christmas snow that trickles down," said Tripp Martin, who owns a maintenance company. "We get the howling, screaming stuff out here. The wind cuts you in half. And it gets so cold the snow actually squeaks under your tires."

Last winter, a blizzard struck on Halloween, a tad early even by McHenry standards.

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