Mobile has four seasons, wags say – early summer, middle summer, late summer and January. By this calculus, February shouldn’t be considered a winter month at all, and often the weather confirms it. I well recall past February warm-ups that invited T-shirts and sandals for days on end. A Dutch friend of mine once expressed astonishment at the incongruity of a mid-February crowd milling about the street with ice cream cones and milkshakes. “It won’t get this warm in Amsterdam until late June, ” he marveled.
Rarely do these benign periods last long, however. Soon high-altitude cirrus clouds appear, windswept into beautiful rooster tails against a powder-blue sky, auguring unpleasant changes. Gusty storms follow, and the thermometer plunges as many as 30 degrees overnight, leaving recently sunny streets damp and forbidding beneath leaden skies. Shivering homeowners grumble, flip their HVAC units from “cool” to “heat” and rummage in their closets for heavy coats.
Mobile is rarely associated with truly cold weather, of course, but one doesn’t have to do much research to discover a few severe Februarys in local history. Back in 1807, for example, when Aaron Burr was skulking about in southern Alabama trying to salvage his dreams of empire, barreling north winds had everyone else huddling close to blazing fires. Heavy snows were the rule that winter, and the Tombigbee River froze completely over at Calvert. The postmaster at Fort Stoddert, Edmund P. Gaines, declared that it was “nearly as cold at this place, as I ever recollect to have found it in Virginia.” Burr, snugly bundled in a belted heavy coat, had the misfortune of being identified when he stopped to ask for directions, and firelight through an opened door illumined his face. But for that, who knows what course events might have taken?
The winter of 1872 was also a cold one along the Gulf Coast. When heavy snow fell on January 25 in Mobile, dockside idlers and urchins engaged in running snowball fights up and down Water Street. Cold drizzle, rain and sleet continued into the second week of February, and columns of smoke issued from every chimney in town. Elderly Choctaw women hawking lighter wood Downtown suffered miserably in their threadbare shawls, but their purses sounded a merry jingle on the way home.
Madame Levert’s Guest
Occasionally, visitors from more frigid climes who have encountered these cold snaps have been taken aback. Was this the sunny South they had heard so much about? But if business or pleasure kept them in town long enough, they were soon well rewarded; for these changes go both ways. Swedish novelist Fredrika Bremer, who was a guest of Madame Octavia LeVert in the winter of 1853, watched the weather shift from “horrible to enchanting” within days, and winter seemed not even to exist anymore. In a letter to her younger sister she enthused: “Summer, summer, perfect midsummer weather, my little Agatha! Oh! that I could, by some magical power, transport you to this air, or this air to you, for it would make you strong and happy, as happy as it has made me for the last few days.”
Balmy winter days such as those enjoyed by Bremer so long ago are the ones that truly stand out in the record. Snows, icy winds and bone-chilling temperatures are duly registered and commented upon, but after they pass, and they always do, remarkably quickly in most cases, it is the warm sun and soft air that enchant and call forth the most enthusiastic response. You might now be reading these words warmly snuggled indoors in front of a heater, but I can almost guarantee that within a short period you’ll be outside in shirtsleeves, smiling as you go about your business.
John S. Sledge is the author of “Southern Bound: A Gulf Coast Journalist on Books, Writers, and Literary Pilgrimages of the Heart.”
text by John S. Sledge