Climate change; global warming; superstorms; extended droughts; the hottest year ever; December tornadoes; on and on it goes. Changes are happening everywhere. Even here at home this year, worms and bugs on our sidewalk in mid-December! There have been so many devastating storms and floods and fires. We do benefit from modern forecasters using the most advanced technology to predict the weather, helping us to avoid any big surprises, or to at least prepare.
The same was true of weathermen seventy-five years ago: they did their best to predict what the weather would bring―days, weeks, and even months in advance. But they weren’t alone in doing so. Competing against them were country prognosticators who sometimes did better than the latest technology.
Meet William “Billy” Spinner of Malone, New York, in northern Franklin County. Spinner, who spent most of his life farming, was born in the late 1840s. His age was always in question. At least six birth years are suggested by various records. The least-used of those was 1846, which is literally in stone―on his grave marker―but that doesn’t mean it’s correct. One record says that he was born in October 1849, the specificity of which suggests credibility. Likewise for records citing 1847. But for our purposes here, it’s enough to know that he became very old and remained active to the end.
While farming was his livelihood, Billy became widely known as an able hunter, fisherman, and storyteller, all of which he engaged in through his golden years. In the late 1850s, when he was about ten years old, Billy began hunting with a gun he described as “one of those that would kill at both ends. She had an awful wallop.” If you’ve ever fired a gun with a powerful recoil (I can recall friends who were purple from shoulder to elbow), you have an idea of what he was talking about.
Seven decades after that initial hunting trip, Billy was still at it. Somewhere between his late seventies and late eighties, according to the Tupper Lake Free Press, “he was credited with one of the largest deer ever taken in the Adirondacks―a 380-pound buck.” Whatever the actual weight might have been, he was still hunting and still pretty darned good at it.
He was quite the fisherman as well, and age seemed to have no effect on his skill. In 1931, when he was about 85, Spinner’s local catch included three brook trout over two pounds each and a three-pound brown. He was also credited with a sixteen-pound northern pike and a seven-pound bass, pretty impressive for fishermen of any age.
All that activity helped keep him fit in old age―well, that plus his three part-time jobs. For at least eight customers in the winter, he shoveled their sidewalks and cared for their furnaces. In the summer, he mowed lawns. In fact, in his late eighties, Spinner declared himself the “world champion long-distance mower,” having calculated that he had walked 13,500 miles behind lawn mowers.
At the age of 90, Billy was lauded in regional newspapers as the top trout fisherman in Franklin County, but at this late stage in life, it was another longtime avocation, weather forecasting, that brought him even wider fame. And as the classically cool and wise old timer, he played it to the hilt.
Billy was already well known across the northern Adirondacks for his forecasting abilities. In 1932, this was written about him in the Malone Farmer: “As a prognosticator of weather, Mr. Spinner has wide renown. Last fall, he forecast an open winter during the present season, and his prophesy seems to be materializing. He based his opinions on the fact that the ears of corn stalks in his garden were low and near the ground, indicating a light fall of snow, and that the casing over the onions was thin.”
In 1936, Spinner gave his age as 91, which may well have been correct, and it was then that his reputation spread to new territory. In the fall, he predicted that central New York would have a mild winter, and that most of their snow would come in March. He turned to nature for such predictions, looking at corn, trees, animals, onion, and other things. But Billy’s principal source of information, the one he relied on year after year, was hog milt, a classic of weather folklore.
It’s actually pronounced “hog melt” (the spelling I’ll use here), a method used by many other natural forecasters who learned the system and possessed the talent (whatever that might be). Spinner was known for his long-range predictions, but when he nailed the latest one―the mild winter he predicted came true, and six inches of snow fell in central New York in March 1937―he gained many new admirers.
On the heels of that success, Billy predicted that July would be hot and dry, and no rain would fall until the second Friday of the month. When a light rain fell early Saturday morning, he commented, “I was off just a couple of hours.” The summer played out as predicted, and his star continued to rise.
He routinely received plenty of coverage in the Adirondacks, but Spinner now reached papers (sometimes the front page) in Albany, Amsterdam, Lockport, Marcellus, Rome, Schenectady, and Syracuse. City reporters soon found their way to Malone, anxious to learn his secret. In obliging fashion, Billy walked them through the process of reading hog melt.
“You see this blunt end here? Well, that’s November. … December’ll be the coldest month of the winter, but it will let up on the last end. See here? Christmas lays close to a warm spell. We will have a white Christmas, but there won’t be too much snow.
“January? Tain’t bad excepting for one or two or mebbe three coldish days. February’s going to have a couple cold spells. Feel that lump? You feel that? That lump’s a real storm, a cold spell with rough weather. Here’s another in February. Feel it? That’s another bad spot.
“But look! See how the rest of this melt tapers off nice and even? Here’s March and here’s April. See how even and easy it runs? You’re not a-going to get the snow and cold that you got last March.
“How’d I ever learn it? Why I just caught on to it myself. I’ve known how for years and years, but I never let on until a year or two ago when some of them weather-station scientists got too smart, so’s I just had to shut their wind off a little bit.”
It was great theater. About a month later, at the end of December 1937, the Fort Covington Sun reported, “Billy Spinner, the sage of Malone, has hit the nail, or rather weather, on the head thus far when he foretold that December was going to be real wintry.”
The winter of 1937–38 saw Billy’s most famous success, spawning a friendly feud of sorts in the media with William Tracy, chief meteorologist and manager of the weather bureau in Syracuse. Spinner called for an unusual winter event, an electrical storm―not one, but three of them―and he got it right! It boggles the mind, and it certainly put the heat on the Syracuse weather bureau.
Much to Tracy’s annoyance and bemusement, Spinner’s weather predictions began appearing on the front pages of newspapers. When the media went looking for more, Billy provided a few teasing comments. After noting that his reputation was built on hog melt, he conceded having looked recently at corn for a hint of what was to come.
And then there was this. “But corn ain’t reliable like it used to be. Some of them scientist fellers have been experimentin’ with corn, crossin’ it with Mexico and Florida corn—and what does warm-weather corn know about how to protect itself from our cold winters? Not any more than that feller Tracy down to Syracuse knows when his machine breaks down.”
The reporter noted that “Old Billy grinned as he sharpened another barb at his weather bureau rival, a favorite sport. ‘I don’t know yet whether the machine spoiled Tracy or whether Tracy spoiled the machine,’ ” he chuckled.
“But tell ’em to wait till I can see a hog milt. I’ll bet Tracy’ll have trouble finding three electrical storms in a hog milt like I did last fall. Mebbe the winter won’t be too bad after all. We’ll see.”
The old man was having a wonderful time, enjoying the attention and living life to the fullest. The accurate predictions continued until Spinner, 94, took ill in late 1939. His followers offered their sympathies and bemoaned the lack of a good forecast until such time as Billy could recover.
But it wasn’t to be. On January 3, 1940, Spinner passed away. Chances are, he saw it coming.
Photos, top to bottom: headlines from the Chateaugay Record, the Rome Daily Sentinel, and Albany’s Knickerbocker News.