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Hurricane of ‘38

The storm of a lifetime

Peterborough, Jaffrey residents recall floodwaters, fire and high winds

  • Photo Courtesy of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture collection<br/>The flooded corner of Main Street and Depot Street had local businesses in five feet of water following torrential downpours preceding a massive hurricane on Sept. 21, 1938. Residents who were living in the area at the time still recall the disastrous day.
  • Residents recall Sept. 21, 1938, a day when Peterborough, already beleaguered by flood and fire, was hit by a monstrous hurricane.
  • Residents recall Sept. 21, 1938, a day when Peterborough, already beleaguered by flood and fire, was hit by a monstrous hurricane.
  • Residents recall Sept. 21, 1938, a day when Peterborough, already beleaguered by flood and fire, was hit by a monstrous hurricane.
  • Residents recall Sept. 21, 1938, a day when Peterborough, already beleaguered by flood and fire, was hit by a monstrous hurricane.
  • Residents recall Sept. 21, 1938, a day when Peterborough, already beleaguered by flood and fire, was hit by a monstrous hurricane.
  • Residents recall Sept. 21, 1938, a day when Peterborough, already beleaguered by flood and fire, was hit by a monstrous hurricane.
  • Jean Herron and Dorothy Peterson of Peterborough discuss their memories of the devastating fire, floods and hurricane that rocked the town on Sept. 21, 1938.
  • Photo Courtesy of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture collection<br/>The smoking remains of the Transcript Printing Company in the aftermath of the flood, fires and hurricane damage that wrecked Peterborough in September of 1938.
  • Photo Courtesy of the Monadnock Center for History and Culture collection<br/>A view of Main Street following the flooding of downtown Peterborough in 1938.
  • Photo courtesy Janet Girouard<br/>Downtown Jaffrey was  devastated by flooding and wind damage from torrential downpours that preceded the hurricane of 1938.
  • Residents recall the hurricane of 1938.
  • Residents recall the hurricane of 1938.
  • Janet Girouard, 79, of Jaffrey recalls her father attempting to rescue the light furniture from her porch as she and her family weathered the hurricane of 1938.
  • Residents recall the hurricane of 1938.
  • Muffie Ames of Peterborough recalls the hurricane of 1938 in her Peterborough home.

Sept. 21, 1938, was a day the elements converged on Peterborough. Torrential rains flooded the town for days. Floodwaters prevented firefighters from snuffing out flames that sparked in the Farmer’s Grain company, which was attached to the Transcript Printing Company, and the conflagration spread to four buildings. And then, with two disasters already upon them, a hurricane ripped through town, uprooting trees and telephone poles and leaving a community devastated.

Muffie Ames, 87, of Peterborough was just 12 years old at the time. Her father, Michael Boccelli, owned the cobbler’s shop on School Street, which is now Alice Blue, and her family lived on Grove Street. The water flooded her father’s shop with up to three feet of water. Luckily, the shoes were up high enough not to be affected, Ames recalled in an interview in her Peterborough home Wednesday, though her father was concerned for an Ivy plant he had cultivated to fill his bay window and cover the ceiling of his shop, which he was famous for.

With floodwaters rising, Ames and her family, including her sister, Jenny McDonald, who was only days from giving birth, were allowed to stay in the GAR Hall. The Italian boarders that shared the Ames house lifted the mattresses from their beds, Ames recalled, so the children would have something to sleep on, and they all made their way to the hall. The adults sat in the downstairs, their backs to the door to keep it from blowing open. Ames and the rest of the children were sent upstairs to sleep.

The night wasn’t restful, Ames recalled. The howling winds outside were felling trees, including one that landed on the Peterborough Fire Station, setting off the whistle alarm for more than an hour. Ames remembered the panic she felt, not knowing what the whistle meant. “It was frightening,” she said. “We didn’t know what was going on.”

The fire station wasn’t the only building that suffered from a down tree, said Ames. Before the hurricane concluded, a tree came down at the GAR Hall, too, and through the window where the children were sleeping on the mattresses taken from their home. The electricity was out, and there was no way to clean up the debris, said Ames. So the children trouped downstairs to sit with the adults. Ames doesn’t remember getting any sleep that night.

It wasn’t until a few days after the hurricane passed that the family could fully relax, Ames said. Her brother-in-law, Jim McDonald, was out of town when the hurricane hit. Rather than wait for the roads to clear to get back to his pregnant wife, he decided to walk back, climbing over debris and at times swimming through floodwaters. He did make it back to his family and wife several days later, just in time for his son to be born.

“I can still see him in his raggedy brown hat,” said Ames. “He was a mess.” His son was always called “Hurricane baby Brian,” said Ames with a laugh.

But before the hurricane hit town, fire lit up the downtown. Ames recalled a classmate had originally been the first to spy a flicker in the granary attached to the Transcript publishing building. No one believed her, because the flames weren’t visible from the street. A half-hour later, however, the flames were obvious. It may not have mattered though, noted Peterson, because firefighters couldn’t reach the scene through the flood anyway. They could only stand by the Unitarian Church and wait for the flames to come close enough to combat. Ames remembered firefighters attempting to climb to the roof to reach the flames, to no avail.

Shortly before the fire started, Dorothy Peterson of Peterborough was working with her father, the local Red Cross coordinator, to provide blankets and pillows to residents who had been ousted from their homes by floodwaters and had taken up temporary residence in the Town Hall. It was while she was doing that, she said, that she saw the flames.

Across the Main Street bridge, another resident was watching, too. Jean Herron of Peterborough was sitting in her house, on high ground, watching floodwaters rise, but feeling secure. Then she saw the glow from the fire. “That’s when I became frightened,” she said. “I was afraid the flames might reach across the bridge.”

Others in the state didn’t have those concerns, she remembered. Her house took on boarders at the time, and people from up north began to arrive to watch the fire and flooding as word of the disaster spread. They meant only to stay a few hours, but became overnight guests when 5 p.m. came around, and so did the hurricane.

Around the same time, Peterson and her family were finishing up their work downtown, and had decided to walk home, just as the hurricane was getting started. There was one close call when the winds ripped a tin roof off Moulton’s Drug Store and sent it hurtling straight for her, she said. Peterson made it home, as Herron and her family and their impromptu boarders hunkered down to wait out the winds.

Though Peterborough was one of the hardest hit towns in the state, it wasn’t the only one affected. Will Letourneau, 83 and his sister, Janet Girouard, 79, both of Jaffrey, also remember the night of the hurricane.

“I just remember the trees gently blowing, and then a few limbs popped off. And then, it was still. You just got the creepy feeling that something was coming. Then the trees started falling, and the curtains were blowing inside the house, with the windows closed.”

Letourneau recalled one tree smashing into their porch. The light wicker furniture on the porch went whirling away under the force of the winds, he said. “I’ve never seen anything move up the hill as fast as that wicker chair,” he recalled. “My father was holding onto the railings, and I swear, his body was nearly parallel with the ground.”

His sister, too, recalls her father on the porch, trying to save the furniture. “The wind lifted it right up in the air, and he went chasing after it,” she recalled.

She remembers the aftermath, too, when flooding and downed trees made Main Street impassible. A rope bridge had been set up to allow people to cross from one side to the other, and she remembers going across it with her mother.

Letourneau said school wasn’t an option for several days following the storm while clean up took place. Trees were everywhere, he said, including his favorite pear tree and the tree his parents planted when he was born. The pine trees in the back of their property were devastated, and some of the falling trees had uprooted huge interlocked root systems that he and his friends would later play in.

“It’s one of those things that you remember, wherever you were,” said Letourneau. “It was just an experience you don’t forget.”

The next morning, the weather dawned bright and beautiful, recalled Herron, but the town would feel the effects of the storm for long afterwards. The roads were washed out and pavement gouged away. Water still lingered, and trees and telephone poles were down everywhere. In Peterborough, the fire had done it’s damage and the Transcript Printing Company, the granary and three other businesses were gone.

Ashley Saari can be reached at 924-7172 ext. 244 or asaari@ledgertranscript.com. She’s on Twitter at @AshleySaari.

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