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  • by Karen Cummings

Diaries recorded life as it was more than 100 years ago

The 19th Century Revisited--One hundred and thirty years ago, Grover Cleveland was in his first term as president, there were 38 states in the nation, and it cost two cents to mail a letter.

Also, 130 years ago in the small town of Chatham, N.H., located where it is now, over the mountain from North Conway and Jackson along the Maine-New Hampshire border, Chester C. Eastman, just 23 years old, recorded in his diary on July 28, “It has been pleasant. We have been haying today.”

Normally, it is considered in bad taste to read someone else’s diary. But Eastman, who kept a record of his activities from 1880 (although slightly sporadically at first) until his death in 1953, wouldn’t mind having his numerous diaries read, according to his son. “Father kept his diaries just to have a record for himself,” said Harry Eastman of Fryeburg, when he was 84. “He liked to be able to look back and see when he started haying the year before, or to check what the weather was. I don’t think it ever entered his mind that anyone would be interested in reading them, but, he never wrote anything that he wouldn’t want anyone else to read, either.” No, he didn’t. Most of the entries deal only with the weather and the chore of the day. Some might question Eastman’s judgment about the weather after reading entry after entry that stated the following (or something much the same, give or take a few degrees): “It is 17 below this morning. It is pleasant.” To Chester Eastman, if the sun was shining, it was pleasant. It made no difference if he was cutting ice and it was 20 below, or if he was hauling manure and the temperature was “95 in the shade.” If the sun was shining, it was pleasant. In addition to this record, which we can only assume is accurate, of the weather conditions for more than 70 years, Eastman also left in his diaries an invaluable record of the day-to-day life of a 19th century farmer in northern New England. While reading 20 years’ worth of daily entries in the small, black, leather-bound “Standard” diaries, the yearly routine of farm chores, and the other jobs rural men did to support their families, comes strikingly through. Births, deaths, war and peace sometimes made their way into the entries, but they always appeared to be an afterthought. The world was obviously going on around him, but it was his everyday existence and that of his family on their nearly 600-acre farm in Chatham (and Stow, Maine), and the activities of his neighbors that most concerned Chester Eastman. Chester Eastman was his parents’ only son, and so he stayed on at the small brick farmhouse in North Chatham to help his father, Jacob. Although a farmer the first half of his life, until he moved to the big city – Fryeburg – in 1917, Eastman was still an educated man. On Nov. 11, 1881, at age 16, he writes that he, “…finished going to school at the Academy today.” Although Harry Eastman couldn’t confirm whether his father did this, the usual practice for the high-school-aged children of families living great distances from Fryeburg (and in those days, Fryeburg, 15 miles from North Chatham, was at least a four-hour carriage ride) was to board with relatives or families in town during the school term. Surprisingly, for a son of a definitely non-moneyed farming family, Eastman was sent to a brief term at Eastman Business College, which no longer exists, in Poughkeepsie, N.Y. He traveled this sizable distance by train via Portland, Maine, and New York City, but leaves absolutely no record of his impression of either the trip or the cities, except that it was “fearful cold.” On Dec. 30, 1885, he writes, “I commenced in the school today. It is pleasant.” Eastman’s college stint was decidedly short, lasting less than three months, and he was home by March 24, 1886. While there, he “finished in Theory and commenced in Practical.” As an extra-curricular activity, Eastman attended a series of lectures whose subjects he listed as “Play,” “Work,” “Purpose,” and “The Young Man of the 19th Century,” but made no comments about them. In between his studies and reading and writing innumerable letters, his only form of communication with home, Eastman did appear to get a little bit of education outside the college. He recorded that he and some friends “went out to Vassar College tonight;” that they “went to hear Haverly’s Minstrels;” and that they “went to the rink and saw the famed horse and donkey on skates.” Of course, since Eastman rarely gave any of his reactions, the modern-day reader can only guess what the 21-year-old thought of any of these wonders of civilization. True to his new business education, Eastman did, however, record all of the expenses related to his attending college. These included his fare coming and going, $22.24; his expenses “outside regular expenses,” $11.66; his board for 11 ½ weeks, $51.50; his tuition, $45; his washing, 60 cents; and stationery (evidence of how many letters he wrote), $13.68. The total came to $110.78, a fair amount in the 1880s. Once his education was complete, Eastman began to think of settling down. Despite the rural setting and seeming isolation of his home, which he shared with his parents (and a sister, Fannie, for a time), Eastman managed to maintain a relatively heavy social life. In addition to participating in a local band, which required practices at least once a week, if not more, in all kinds of weather, Eastman also acted in local drama presentations, which got him out of the house on a regular basis. There is mention of “Oyster Suppers,” “Candy Pulls,” “Corn Huskings,” and a “Box Party.” Names of different girls pop up regularly in the diaries until 1888, when a certain Sadie Towle from Fryeburg Harbor obviously takes center stage. Feb. 17: “Went out and got Sadie today. Box party tonight.” Feb. 24: “Rehearsal tonight. Sadie went up with me tonight.” March 15: “Went out and got Sadie and went to the Oyster Supper tonight.” April 29: “Carried [took by carriage] Sadie to Mud City today.” Sept. 19: “I have been enjoying myself immensely today with Sadie and Frank and Cora.” It becomes increasingly obvious that things are becoming serious but the June 18, 1889, entry clinches it—“I joined the Grange tonight. Had my life insured this P.M.” The diary entries then drop off (he must have had other things on his mind) until early 1890, but Sarah Towle—a school teacher called Sadie by most people, and Sade by her husband—and Chester Eastman were married late in 1889.

Seasons rule After reading many years of the diary, it becomes almost possible to guess the time of the year just by the farm chore described in the entry. For farmers, the 19th century was a slow-motion time ruled by the seasons. Born in 1904, Harry Eastman says there was no electricity and he doesn’t remember any motorized tractors prior to when the family moved to Fryeburg. “The first car in Chatham was a 1912 Overland owned by Charles Chandler,” said Harry, “and my father got a Buick in 1913.”

Winters were mainly spent logging, either for wood to heat the family home, or for logs to send down the Cold River to the Saco in the spring. Wood was cut with the two-man saw, or an axe. Eastman, a man of many skills, made extra money by sharpening neighbors’ saws. For all of you who buy winter wood, this should give you an example of the value of a dollar in the late 1800s. An April 5, 1895, entry reads: “I put in the schoolhouse wood today, 5 1/3 cords at $1.50 per cord.” Not only did the dollar have great value, but even the penny was worth quite a bit. On March 31, 1896, Eastman wrote, “Balance due me on pig at Z.A. Wentworth’s, $5.03.” An April 24 entry that same year stated, “I went to Stow tonight and paid Mr. Day $35.38 on the tax. Balance due is 28 cts.” For the very strenuous work of rolling the roads (in the winter, each person along rural roads was responsible for keeping his section of the road passable, which involved “rolling” down the snow so sleighs could pass), Eastman received 25 cents an hour. He kept careful records of his hours—“I worked two and half hours rolling, balance due, 62 ½ cents.”—as these amounts were then deducted from his town taxes. Other winter chores included slaughtering the hogs and the chickens. This was usually done shortly before Christmas, a holiday that, surprisingly, only warranted one mention, a tree lighting ceremony on Christmas Eve, during the 1880 to 1900 period. All of the diary entries made it apparent that the help of neighbors or friends was essential for survival in rural New England. A close friend of Eastman’s, Hazen Chandler, invariably helped him slaughter his hogs, and then Eastman would return the favor. This extended to the unenviable chore of cutting and packing winter ice to have for cold storage the rest of the year. Everybody seemed to help out when it was time for that yearly chore, usually in early January. Chandler was a good friend of Eastman’s since his boyhood. Early entries in the diary even mention cutting each other’s hair. Barbering must have been thought of as a manly skill, as the practice of cutting one another’s hair continued for years past the time when both of these men had married. As soon as Eastman started hauling manure, it was evident that the winter was ending. Before he was married, mention of sugaring was the signal that winter was over, but whether he bought his maple syrup from then on, or if he wife took over that chore, there is no mention of the New England tradition of maple sugaring past 1889. Hauling out sometimes as many as 30 loads of manure would keep Eastman busy for at least two weeks. Concurrently, he would spend time in his fields putting up fence, until it was time to shear the sheep. Shearing was another talent of his friend Hazen. Springtime always meant it was time to clean the house, too, and Eastman would often be called in to take up the carpet and clean it, or to paint floors, or to help with wallpapering the sitting room. Next it was time to “commence to cultivate.” According to Harry Eastman, his father cultivated approximately 25 acres on which he grew oats, beans, and potatoes, in addition to a family garden, which was near the house. The spring routine started with cultivating and plowing, moved to sowing the oats, cutting and planting potatoes, and planting the beans, the sort of stagnated on hoeing until it was time to hay. “Dad used to bring in 100 tons of hay,” said Harry. “Of course, it was all loose hay, no bales then.” Bringing in that much hay by horsepower alone understandably took quite a bit of time and required more manpower. “We would usually have a hired man come and live with us during the summer to help with the hay,” noted Harry. The horses would pull a cutting bar through the fields to initially cut the hay. Next, to help dry it out, Chester Eastman had a newfangled “tedder,” which his son described as a “one-horse affair with four pitchforks on the back end, which would kick the hay up in the air and turn it over.” The last step was the most backbreaking—pitching the loose hay up on a hay rack by hand. “It was practically all hand work in those days,” added Harry. After haying, which often took all of July and half of August, it was then time to start harvesting. First came the oats, then the “pulling of the beans”—they pulled the bean plants up and stacked them, and then separated the dried beans from the plants at their “leisure” in the winter—then picking the sweet corn, and last, digging the potatoes. In 1892, Eastman purchased a time-saving machine, a potato digger. “We had this machine that was hauled by two horses,” explained Harry. “It had a plow like an ordinary land plow that would turn the potatoes out on two wings and then shake them out on the dirt, and then we could go along and pick them up by hand. It was the only one of its kind around,” he said, adding that in those days, people used to exchange their machines to help each other out. Eastman also spent his time shoeing his horses and oxen, oiling harnesses, keeping track of the breeding of cows and the births of calves, and pasturing his own and others sheep and cattle in his extensive fields. Having a growing family to feed and clothe, he sold cream and butter to make extra money and also served as an agent distributing seed and fertilizer.

Although she is only mentioned as going out to visit of for “going to the Harbor to pick up her dress,” Sadie Eastman was equally as busy as her husband, according to Harry. “Mother didn’t do any of the outside work,” he noted, “but she had six kids in all and we always had a big table to feed.”

The six children included Fannie, born in 1890, Hester in 1893, Ruth in 1894, Philip in 1902, Harry in 1904, and Mary in 1906. In what seems like a classic Yankee understatement, each baby’s birth is noted in his diary only by the day and time at which they arrived. Their sex and/or names were obviously not deemed important. All survived to adulthood despite some bouts with childhood illnesses and many visits from the doctor. Along with Eastman’s daily entries, the diaries themselves provided an insight into the times. “Things to be remembered” in the front of each diary included spaces to fill in: “The make of my bicycle is….” and “The number on the case of my watch is…” The diarist could also list for his convenience the sizes of his hat, hosiery, cuffs, shirt, gloves, collar, shoes, and drawers, but Eastman never did. By reading through the years, the diaries teach that in those days, people had their teeth extracted rather than filled; doctors still made house calls, even at all hours of the night (and must have been well-fed, as they were paid often in goods rather than money); a trip to Fryeburg was an all-day affair and a trip to Portland for a circus or show was a once-every-few-years treat; entertainment involved fishing, going blueberrying on Baldface, cranberrying in the bog, visiting friends for dinner, helping with a barn raising, or going to a husking bee. Historic happenings, both nationally and locally, were duly noted by Chester Eastman. May 21, 1883: Mr. Harriman’s folks started for the west today.” April 8, 1893: “Had a thunder shower at 5:00 P.M. Lightning struck and burned Fryeburg Depot.” Aug. 30, 1895: “Isaac went to Conway for a coaching parade.” Aug. 12, 1898: “Peace declared today between United States and Spain.” By the turn of the century, William McKinley was in the White House, there were 45 states in the Union, and letters still cost two cents to mail. On July 28, 1900, Chester Eastman wrote, “It has been pleasant. We got in the last of my hay this A.M.”

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