May 1991

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Book Review

A Rural Carpenter's World

The Craft in a Nineteenth Century New York Township

by Wayne Franklin, University of Iowa Press, 1990, Illustrated, 302 pp.

reviewed by

Bill Treichler

James C. Holmes was a carpenter and a farmer, and he must have been a practical man. He filled in a pocket diary for the year 1869 with the hours he and his helpers worked, the jobs they were working on, and materials that he purchased.

He also recorded in his diary his personal, everyday experiences: the route he took, and the fares he paid for the trip home from Albany to Westford, New York, in Otsego County; the nights he stayed up with his dying father during March of that year; the church meetings his family attended; and the friends who came to visit his family.

He may have kept a diary for other years, but only this one for the year 1869 has been discovered.

From this diary, Wayne Franklin, professor of English and American Studies at the University of Iowa, has extrapolated not only James Holmes' world but that of the other carpenters of Westford, Schenevus, and nearby communities in Otsego county.

The diary reveals the day-to-day activities of James Holmes and his helpers and clients. Author Franklin has filled out their lives by using census reports, cemetery records, and other local sources, so that we can follow the work of these men who practiced the craft of carpentry in Otsego county from 1830 until 1900.

In 1869 Holmes finished a house for a carpenter who worked with him, built a house for himself, one for a stone mason, and one for another man. They traded some work; Holmes noted the hours in his diary. The houses they built were simple and serviceable.

In Upstate New York in those years some localities were declining, and others were momentarily prospering—when a railroad came to a town. Westford was a rural town. Some of its carpenters, when work failed, either moved to more prosperous places like Schenevus, or on to the West, or they alternated carpentry with farming. James Holmes stayed put and bought more land to farm. Some years in the census he was listed as a carpenter, some years as a farmer.

In this book Professor Franklin has included biographical sketches of the carpenters who worked in the area of Westford in the years from 1830 to 1900. The book is an example of thorough historical research written with sympathetic feeling for these men. In addition to the Biographical Gallery to the 61 carpenters of Westford, there is a Biographical Guide of every person mentioned in the diary. Two pages of Holmes's diary are shown in a photograph; the complete diary is printed. The book further contains, in addition to pictures and maps, 24 pages of notes, three pages of general notes on sources, and an index of eleven pages. A Rural Carpenter's World: The Craft in a Nineteenth-Century New York Township is one of "The American Land & Life Series" that is also edited by Wayne Franklin.

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