When I was growing up, I was fascinated by a small, red, glass ball mounted on a metal stand on the wall of our living room. I was told it was to protect us from lightning. We also had a long metal cable extending from a wire in the ground to the top of our barn. My parents told me it was a lightning rod, meant to protect us from lightning. Also atop our barn was a weather vane with a cow on it and an arrow. I was told it was to show the direction of the wind.
I knew that farmers and other out-of-doors laborers watched the weather. Their work depended on the weather. If the hay didn’t dry, farmers could not harvest it. The adage telling farmers to “make hay when the sun shines” came about as a result. Weather maxims exist, among them these two: “Clear moon, frost soon.” “Ring around the moon, rain real soon.”
A number of years ago I found a rooster weather vane at a garage sale. I bought it. It reminded me of our cow weather vane on the farm. It is mounted on a split rail fence on our property line by Kraemer Lake.
I often wondered, however, how exactly these things were going to protect us from lightning and why it was important to know where the wind came from. How were these weather gadgets used to predict weather?
Red glass balls
I did a bit of research. It seems instruments are used to predict the weather by “reading” such natural phenomena as wind, sky, clouds and even animal sounds. Weather and climate lore and myths were, and in some instances, are still used by farmers, sailors, hunters and anyone who works, lives or plays outdoors. “Red sky at night, sailors delight. Red sky in morning, sailors take warning.”
It seems the red glass ball in my childhood home was a water-based barometer. It consisted of a sealed glass ball half-filled with red water. The body of the ball connected below the water level to a narrow spout, which rose above the water level open to the air. The water level of the spout rose when the atmospheric pressure was low and dropped when that pressure was high. While not particularly precise, this was a simple type of water barometer that would predict certain aspects of the weather.
The glass ball, being a nonconductor, is seldom struck by lightning, so the theory was that there must be something about glass that repels lightning. The main purpose of the glass ball, therefore, was to provide evidence of a lightning strike by shattering or falling off its stand. If a shattered or broken ball was discovered after a storm, it was evidence that the building had been hit by lightning. The property owner would then check the building for fire or other damage. I guess lightning never struck our house because I don’t remember the ball ever falling or breaking.
The water barometer has another use, as told to me in a recent interview by St. Cloud resident LuBell Kendall. She said she and her husband, Bob, had one in their home. “Our liquid barometer is not an antique but it predicts the weather. … About 24 hours before a storm came, the liquid would seep upward into the neck of the barometer and (Bob) would say, ‘Ah, there’s a storm coming,’ because the arthritis in his body would begin to hurt. And that liquid would go up the neck of the barometer.”
It was difficult and tedious to fill the ball with colored water, but it was interesting to watch, she said.
Eventually, the glass balls were placed on weather vanes. They became a decorative motif and are today prized by collectors. (Balls of solid glass occasionally were used in the masts of wooden ships as a method of preventing lightning strikes to ships and other objects.)
LuBell Kendall added that there are also regular barometers. “People used them, referred to them often to see if they agreed with the weather prediction on TV.”
So, what is a regular barometer? It is a scientific instrument used in meteorology to measure atmospheric pressure to forecast short-term changes in the weather. When a barometer has a high reading (high pressure) good weather will happen and we are in the midst of a high-pressure system. A barometer that is falling indicates that a low-pressure system is moving in and we can expect bad weather. How bad that weather becomes is the result of how great the difference is between the high-pressure and low-pressure system.
What about lightning rods? Simply, a lightning rod is a lightning conductor, a metal rod or cable usually of copper or aluminum, mounted on top of a building and connected to the ground through a wire to protect the building in the event of a lightning strike. The lightning will probably strike the rod and run harmlessly to the ground through the wire. Lightning usually follows a path to the ground, sometimes jumping through the air via a side flash to reach a better-grounded conductor. The building is then safe from fire.
The lightning rod was believed to have been invented by Benjamin Franklin in 1749. It was originally called a Franklin Rod. Basically, Franklin’s famous kite experiment with the lightning rod was based on the scientific principle that electric charges try to find the shortest and easiest way to the ground.
He reportedly said, “The electrical fire would, I think, be drawn out of a cloud silently, before it could come near enough to strike …”
Lightning protection systems were, and still are, installed on barns, on a cupola if available, on trees, monuments, bridges or water vessels.
The history of weather vanes is an interesting one that spans many centuries and travels over many countries. The earliest recorded weather vane honored the Greek god Triton and adorned the Tower of the Winds in Athens.
What about the chicken, horse, cow, sheep or other adornments on the weather vane?
Originally, people tied strings or cloth to the tops of buildings so that they could see which way the wind was blowing. Later, banners became a popular ornament, and that is where the word “vane” in weather vane originated; vane is an Old English word that meant “banner” or “flag.”
No matter where a person lives or where you’ve traveled, a weather vane adorned with an animal remains a common site on barns, cupolas, steeples and simple rooftops. In fact, the Farmers’ Almanac headquarters in Lewiston, Maine, proudly displays a rooster weather vane atop its building’s rotunda.
(Once I looked hard enough, I found there still are many in the Central Minnesota countryside. They are on old barns, new barns, houses, out-buildings and even business buildings.)
The pope’s involvement
In the ninth century the pope reportedly decreed that every church in Europe should show a cock on its dome or steeple, as a reminder of Jesus’ prophecy that the cock would not crow the morning after the Last Supper until the disciple Peter had denounced him three times. Because of this story, “weather cocks” topped church steeples for centuries in Europe and in America. Westminster Abbey had one on its spire.
As centuries passed, the rule about placing weather cocks atop churches went by the wayside, but the rooster and other images stayed on weather vanes.
American weather vanes
America’s first documented weather vane maker was Deacon Shem Drowne. He created the famous grasshopper vane atop Boston’s Faneuil Hall (1742), as well as the banner for Boston’s Old North Church. Thomas Jefferson attached a weather vane on top of Monticello, his home southeast of Charlottesville, Virginia, to a pointer in the ceiling of the room directly below, so he could read the direction of the wind from inside his home. George Washington commemorated the end of the Revolutionary War by commissioning a “Dove of Peace” weather vane in 1787, for his estate at Mount Vernon, Virginia.
The horse became popular in the mid-19th century when horse racing was a common activity. The middle class picked up on the idea of a horse on the barn and inspired the makers of weather vanes. If placed on public buildings and barns in rural areas, the weather vane provided vital information that helped farmers plan when to plant or harvest crops. The mold was modeled after a Currier and Ives print of a famed trotting horse named “Black Hawk.” It became an architectural ornament mounted on the highest point of a building.
By the 19th century, weather vanes were being mass-produced by manufacturers in dozens of designs. Most common in Central Minnesota’s farm country were the horse or cow vanes. John Roscoe, local barn expert and photographer, said that in his travels around the state studying round barns, he found many.
How do you read a weather vane?
The components of a weather vane are the vane, the mast, and the directionals which display the letters indicating the four compass points — north, south, east and west. The animal is usually mounted on one side with an arrow on the other. The arrow rotates freely and points into the direction the wind is coming from while the directionals remain stationary. So, if the animal and arrow are pointing north, that means the winds are coming from the north.
By the 19th century, lightning rods on top of barns and other out-buildings became a decorative motif. They were embellished with the ornamental glass balls collectors today treasure.
Are adages still adhered to? Ralph Klassen, 79, of Richmond told me recently that he is a good weather predictor and has found that the “old myths are reliable — often true.” Farmers, especially, continue to rely on them.
He said his knowledge of the weather is based on “learning the myths, experiencing the weather firsthand, and keeping a yearly weather diary.” He makes predictions in spring and at the end of the year he analyzes his predictions. He listed some of the sayings that have allowed him to predict weather correctly 80 percent of the time.
1. Thirteen full moons in one year promise a good corn year.
2. Rain on Palm Sunday foretells that farmers will have difficulty harvesting fall crops.
3. The direction of the wind Easter Sunday at sunrise will be the predominate wind direction for the next 40 days.
4. The first hard frost will happen exactly six weeks after the first fall-mating cricket calls are heard.
5. Weather on the first Friday of the month is the weather for the month.
Klassen told the following story: For many years, the late Cliff Mitchell, interviewed “the onion lady” each year on Jan. 1 on KASM-AM radio in Albany. She would slice an onion into 12 equal slices, drop one slice in each of 12 jars labeled from January to December, sealed the jars, and set them on a window sill. The amount of water that oozed out of the onion slices by the 12th day of the new year somehow determined the amount of rainfall for each month.
“There are a lot more myths and I look for them all the time and rely on them. They may be old wives’ tales or myths, but they usually come true,” Klassen said. “I have my diaries to prove it.”