80 Years Ago: The Hurricane of 1938 Struck Connecticut

Historical Article Series May 17, 2020 > 80 Years Ago: The Hurricane of 1938 Struck Connecticut

From the Mansfield Historical Society Newsletter, Vol. 54, No. 3, September 2018

The terrible storm arrived without warning on the afternoon of September 21st. The U.S. Weather Service had tracked a hurricane off the Atlantic Coast, but believed the storm died at sea on September 19. When the storm roared into southern New England two days later, no one was prepared.

For three hours, wind and rain ravaged the countryside. The wind averaged 110 mph, peaking at 180 mph. Four previous days of heavy rain had already saturated the ground and caused rivers to flood their banks. When the winds came, trees fell like dominoes. By evening, most of Connecticut was a disaster zone.

Today the storm would be classified as a Category 3 hurricane. The Town of Mansfield and the Connecticut Agricultural College suffered tremendous property damage and loss of trees, but thankfully no one was killed.

In 2008, the Mansfield Historical Society presented the exhibit, “Voices from the Storm: Memories of the 1938 Hurricane in Mansfield,” curated by Cathy Etner Wright. It featured accounts of the storm as experienced by several local people. Ethel Rosebrooks Larkin was among those who shared their memories.

Hurricane 1938
This was the scene all across Mansfield following the hurricane that passed through New England on September 21, 1938. Behind the rubble of fallen trees in this photograph stands the Town’s Office building and Town Hall, now our museum.

Some farmers’ children didn’t have the luxury of ducking indoors. Their parents needed all hands to save livestock and secure buildings. The experience of 13-year-old Ethel Rosebrooks on a dairy farm across the Willimantic River probably mirrored that of her Mansfield counterparts. She, her father, and grandfather “had to get our cows into the barn, out of the awful wind and rain.” But the cows were too frightened to cooperate. “They did not want to turn and face into the heavy rain and wind. They wanted to stay in the orchard area,” despite trees plunging all around. The Rosebrooks fought the elements to herd the panicked cows to the barn. Once there, her grandfather noticed that the eastern haymow window was wide open, letting the storm in. Ethel had to wrap her arms around her grandfather to keep him from blowing over while he pulled the window closed. Then the three family members waited in the barn for the storm to end.

In the Rosebrooks family, only adults ever drank coffee. But when Ethel and her father straggled back to the house after the hurricane died down, the first thing he said to her mother was, “Give this kid a cup of coffee.” Clearly, he thought Ethel’s heroism signified that she had accomplished a rite of passage.

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