June 5, 1859: The 'Big Frost' Kills Crops, Leads to Buckwheat Farming

Winter in Dolly Sods Wilderness

On June 5, the Big Frost of 1859—as it’s remembered—hit what would soon become the new state of West Virginia. The unseasonable cold snap killed wheat crops and fruit trees, leading farmers in higher elevations to begin planting hardier crops, like potatoes. The late-season frost even inspired Preston County farmers to start sowing a resilient crop that would become their staple: buckwheat.

That sudden June cold spell was significant because it was so widespread. But late-spring or even summer frosts are no strangers to our state’s more mountainous areas. In Canaan Valley, for instance, the average last freeze occurs around June 1. And the average first freeze comes only 89 days later: on August 30. And it’s not uncommon in Canaan for temperatures to drop into the 20s at night in July or August.

West Virginia’s coldest temperature on record occurred in Lewisburg in December of 1917, when the thermometer plunged to 37 below. Two towns share the record for West Virginia’s hottest temperature. In August of 1930, temperatures in Martinsburg hit 112, a mark matched by Moorefield in July of 1936.