Climate change; global warming; superstorms; extended droughts; the hottest year ever; December tornadoes; on and on it goes. Changes are happening everywhere. Below-zero temps four times before Christmas 2013. Now, a chill factor of 35 below—and 48 hours later, temps in the mid-30s and rain is expected. With all the usual craziness, 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 the snow there 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? 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).
Next week, the conclusion: Billy becomes a media phenomenon.