February 1995

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Diaries of T. N. Smith

Kanona, New York


John Rezelman

Click here for an index to the diaries


Farmers in past centuries, particularly the nineteenth, often kept personal diaries. I am not aware that this is anywhere nearly as common today and I think I know at least one reason why. By the time today's farmers have kept the records required for income tax, hiring help, health care and breeding records on their large herds, etc., etc., etc. they have no relish or enthusiasm left for recording the sort of information their ancestors put in their diaries. The medium frequently favored by diarists of the past was neat little blank books about 3" x 6" in size, bound in leather with gold leaf fastened by flaps and clasps. The commonly used writing instrument was the "lead" pencil.

The diaries in this series were kept by T. N. Smith; who lived on what is now Route 53 about a mile north of Kanona. He was the grandfather of Stanley Fox now living at Avoca and it is to Stanley that we are indebted for their loan. (Thank you, Stanley.)

These diary blank books were often divided into two or three days per page. I have seen a collection of a farmer's diaries covering 30 years with the entries so terse as to be more mysterious than informative. There would be a line, always, about the weather, perhaps another about farming activities and maybe one more about church, civic and socially-related matters. They left nearly everything to the reader's imagination.

T. N. Smith did not keep his diary that way. He favored books allowing one full page per day and he sometimes wrote a whole page, rarely less than a third of a page. To get a truly clear picture of the general farm life of the times, however, one would have to draw on the diaries of a number of people—because each individual tended to record what was of particular interest to him and to ignore the rest. T. N. Smith, for example, greatly limited what he wrote about details of daily farming activities. He assumed, I suspect, that these were standardized, generally known, and therefore not noteworthy.

Both in the pages of diaries and the outdoor atmosphere, January, February and March bear much similarity in this latitude—they are all mostly wintry months. They were evidently so in Kanona in 1888. February and March being thus similar in weather and human activity, I can put them together in one treatment to appear in March. Thus, by the time furrows dry out and crumble in April, signifying planting time approaching, this series will be back on schedule, no longer behind.

Without further prelude, then, let us look back on T. N. Smith in

January, 1888

The following are skeletonized excerpts from each day's entries, selected because they all touch on one common subject—"sleighing."


1. "Rains. Sleighing nearly spoiled by evening."

2. "Not thaw."

3. "Does not thaw—fair sleighing."

4. "Does not thaw."

5. "Cooler than yesterday."

6. "Rains and hail…nice sleighing…don't thaw much."

7. "Thaws rapidly all day…less snow and thin sleighing on cross road…we fear bare ground."

8. "Sleighing better than yesterday."

9. "Does not thaw; fair sleighing, but thin…mostly ice."

10. "Fair sleighing."

11. "Fair sleighing."

12. "Does not thaw much."

13. "Good sleighing."

14. "Thaws considerable so that wagons run in afternoon."

15. "Go to Sunday School with wagons."

16. "Mercury 2 below."

17. "Snow…all day…10º above…fair sleighing." This follows a heading "R. R. Collision Avoca," a discussion of the train wreck, then following the inevitable sleighing remarks.

18. Church and financial notes fill the page. No mention of sleighing.

19. "Good sleighing."

20. "Good sleighing."

21. "Mercury 8º below…snow some." (implying good sleighing?)

22. "Does not thaw much."

23. "Cold…snow some."

24. "Does not thaw much."

25. "Snows some."

26. "Windy…blustering…snow squalls."

27. "Western blizzard came today…travel on roads nearly suspended."

28. "No travel on the road. Stage does not run."

29. "Road so drifted that we drive in the fields."

30. "Call out the men and shovel out the roads."

31. "Thaws some."

The inferences and conclusions are clear. Snow and cold are good. They make good sleighing. Thaw and bare ground are bad. They spoil it.

Why so much emphasis on the state of sleighing, that it merits mention every single day in the month but one?

There is no vehicular motion that is so smooth and pleasant as the gliding of sleigh runners on snow, be they on the lightest one-horse "cutter" or the heaviest timber-hauling bobsleds. In the old photos one sees of two-horse teams with loads of logs towering high above their heads, these loads are never on wheels—always on sleds. Good sleighing, then, meant fast and pleasant carrying of people on their errands plus easier transport of large loads of whatever needed hauling—such as bulky hay and wood to market, heavy grain and potatoes, whatever. Horses could readily pull huge loads on a sled, once in motion, the main limitations being the overcoming of inertia and friction to start them moving.

The opposite—the reason Mr. Smith wrote "We fear bare ground" was spring-time mud—that time when frost left the soil but it had not yet dried out. Then on the dirt roads horses sank as mud sucked at their legs, wagon spokes filled nearly solid with mud and wheels sank nearly to the axles. Only lighter loads could be attempted, and it was difficult to keep them dry. The great ability of horses to generate extra power for short periods could often get a load through the bad places if they could not be avoided—but if that failed, there was no recourse but to bring in extra teams, put them on the best footing available and with long ropes and chains wrestle the mess clear. Our diary writer knew very well the alternative to "good sleighing." The conditions on January 14 and 15, when "wagons run" likely didn't bother much—a short thaw would just produce a sloppy mess over a still-hard footing of frost. It was the risk of a prolonged thaw that caused him to write so often, with obvious relief, "didn't thaw much."

Steuben County, New York, is a low-snowfall area. The lake-effect snows that come from Lake Erie to our west and Lake Ontario to our north are pretty well dissipated by the time they reach here, as are those that come from the northeast. The storms that come from the coastal regions to our southeast usually bring our heavy snowfalls, but they are rare.

When New Jersey and Maryland have much snow, we have much snow. In nearby high-snowfall regions they managed the sleighing by rolling the snow on the roads with large-diameter horse-drawn wooden rollers. This smoothed and packed the surface on which two tracks formed, each track having two horse paths on each side of a sleigh track in their center. One-horse sleighs for road use had the thills offset to one side. If two sleighs met on a road not wide enough for two tracks, that must have been a test of something or of several things—horsemanship surely and probably more. Our snow shortage made sleighing all the more precious.

Snow could produce some problems, too, but they had answers for those. After the January 27 blizzard they "drove in the fields." That was common practice when too-deep snow filled the roads. A common type of fence along roadsides was the zig-zag rail variety. When it became necessary they simply took down a section of this fence, to be replaced when the snow was gone, and drove in the fields. This wasn't considered trespassing; it was done responsibly and was the customary solution everybody used. Under certain snow conditions, close to 32º F., in wet places, half-round balls of ice would form on the bottom of horses' feet. They couldn't pull on them when they reached some size, so the teamster stopped then, picked up each foot in turn and gave it a whack that dislodged the encumbrances. There was even a special little iron hammer for this purpose that could be hung on sled or harness. (Eric Sloane, in A Museum of Early American Tools calls them "Yankee Snow-Knockers") A nuisance this, but a slow-down, not a great obstacle.

There were many other activities and concerns touched upon in Smith's last month's diary entries—but no mistake about it, sleighing received the steadiest attention of all in January 1888—so much so that I will refrain from mentioning any of the others until they reappear on subsequent pages, as they surely will.

Index to the diaries
© 1995, John Rezelman
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