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A cold, snowy blast from the past

The devastation caused by Cyclone Gabrielle reminds us that nature can be unpredictable. Wairarapa Archive’s Mark Pacey digs into the 1939 snowstorm.

On the evening of July 24, Masterton residents were turning in for the night when a clap of thunder exploded overhead. This was followed by a severe hailstorm and strong winds.

Although the wind died down and the hail subsided as the night progressed, it was to turn out the weather’s assault on the region was far from over.

When residents rose the next morning, they found their town covered by a cold, crisp white blanket of snow. And Masterton wasn’t the only Wairarapa town to be affected, with other settlements in the area also experiencing snow, which was still falling in Carterton at 10 a.m.

“The trees and hedges are covered and as far as the eye can see it is white” a farmer from Blairlogie reported.

Sheep and cattle were finding the conditions tricky but fortunately lambing season had yet to start so farmers at least did not have the challenge of keeping new-borns alive in the freezing conditions.

While the weather was unpleasant for animals, Wairarapa’s children were delighted. Many took the opportunity to build a snowman or have a snowball fight, resulting in hordes of soggy children heading off to school.

At 9 a.m. the snow began to disappear when a breeze rose up. The snowmen melted and the children dried out.

But although the snow had gone, it continued to be bitterly cold, and the Korker Korner Shop on Queen Street adjusted its advertisements accordingly: “Gee! It’s so cold! Yes, my fingers are even too cold to roll a cigarette. Well, don’t go without your smoke – oh, no! Smoke a pipe.”

Just two days after the first snowfall, the region experienced another, heavier dump.

“Residents awoke this morning to find the whole countryside as far as the eye could see under a white blanket,” the Times-Age reported.

“At an early hour the effect was most picturesque, but a strong wind sprang up and dislodged snow from trees and shrubs. A feature of the storm was the peculiar, green-coloured lightning seen in the south between six and seven this morning.”

Travelling the streets became quite hazardous – not because of the snow underfoot, but the snow that was travelling horizontally at great speed, due to residents young and old enthusiastically joining the combatants in what evolved into a great Masterton snow fight. Defensive positions were taken up on the streets, while the strategic high ground on the rooftops was seized in order to rain down a barrage on those below.

The wheels of those cars that attempted to traverse the streets caused deep furrows that were then utilised by grateful cyclists who travelled in the convenient grooves. Cars that had parked on the sides of the roads found it difficult to drive up from the gentle slopes of the roadside, with the council doing its best to clear the roads.

Whether due to the difficulty of making the journey or just because it was such a great opportunity for unmissable fun, attendance was very low at Masterton schools that day. Masterton Central School, for example, reported that just half of its students had shown up.

The snowfall was so heavy that the clock on the Post Office had its hands stuck at 2:25 a.m. due to being weighed down by snow.

While there was celebration among the children and playful adults in the towns, farmers were concerned about this second fall of snow and the effect it would have on those animals unable to find easy food due to the grassy paddocks being under snow in what was the worst snowfall since the 1918 storm that had left much of the region buried.

Fortunately, the following day brought no new snow and the clean-up continued. Some of the telephone and electricity lines had been cut but were quickly repaired, and some poles required replacing.

Wairarapa’s residents fared better, with the only issues remarked upon being sore eyes – put down to the sun reflecting on the bright, white snow.

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