December 1995

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Diaries of T. N. Smith

Kanona, New York


John Rezelman

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December 1888

Smith's diary for December, 1888, was only 19 days long. The last 12 pages somehow slipped their bindings and are missing. What there is portrays December a typical winter month, like January, February and March, except that T. N. devoted much time to the Nellis estate affairs, from conferring with lawyer and filing papers to selling corn a few bushels at a time. The hired man, Myron, kept the farm work going until he left on December 8. On December 9 came the first sleighing and from then on the condition of sleighing was noted daily as in January.

To get a flavor of what this unrecorded part of December, what we think of as the Christmas season, might have been like for T. N., I turned to his diaries of four other years, supplied by Stanley Fox. In one of those years, when Christmas came on Sunday, he went to a Christmas Tree party at the church on Christmas Eve, recording few details. On another Christmas, "we stay home" and popocorn and molasses cookies were noted as aids to the celebration. In 1896 Christmas came on a Friday along with some very cold weather that dominated the scene, for banking the cellar with manure was the activity noted. And in one year several days around Christmas show only blank pages. This is explained when writing resumed, however, for the first day's entries are about helping several groups of people aboard railroad trains for their return home. Obviously, there had been such a houseful of company as to preclude any diary-keeping for its duration. And plainly, Smith's mode of response to Christmas could be described as "varied." The customs and commercialization of Christmas that we know today were apparently not prevalent in Kanona in 1888.

This missing-pages abbreviation of December's record helps me find the opportunity to do something I'd like to do here—something which, if I were speaking instead of writing, could be called "running off at the mouth."

For one such, some readers have asked how I came to know so many details of what Smith was doing when, obviously, I was not farming in 1888—30 years before my birth. Well, I "was and I wasn't." Actually, there was not a very wide difference between farming in the 1880s and the 1920s and '30s. Many of the machines still in use in the '20s and '30s bore 1880s patent dates in raised letters on their castings. Some of them were even made way back then. Had an 1880 farmer been resurrected and set down on a 1920s machine he would have found nothing to learn. He could have picked up the lines, clucked to the horses and gone right to work. The controls and adjustments would have been in the same places and the whole basic design would have been the same. Oh, the 1920's machine might have had a few refinements like roller bearings instead of bronze bushings, some pressed steel in place of cast iron, and machine-cut steel gears in place of plain iron ones—but these were just that—"refinements"—not real differences. The farm practices of the two periods were just about that similar, too. Not that research in the agricultural colleges wasn't finding improved ways to do things—it was. But most of them required money to implement them and that farmers didn't have. Neither did the outlook and prospects of having it encourage them to borrow much of it, had suitable credit been available. Except for the World War I years and a few years prior, agriculture was in a prolonged state of depression that lasted until World War II. Therefore, in the intervening decades the details of farming went on little changed, at least in the Eastern United States.

The demands of World War II and the years of restoration following it made farming more profitable and changes then came thick and fast. New developments were adopted and became obsolete all in the space of a few years. Thus farming today bears little resemblance to that of the past but T. N. Smith and I and my contemporaries—we knew conditions that were more alike than not. For another, these months of delving through Smith's diaries and interpreting them have made me feel as if I know him, much as one gets to know country neighbors. I can see him twisting a wisp of hay or crumbling a clod of earth to see if they are dry enough, or stopping to scratch a cow's poll as a friendly gesture. One of the features I admire most about him was his ability as a farm manager. He very well understood the importance of timeliness in farming. Too soon or too late can be equally disastrous. There's a time to do everything, but some are more important than others. If a task required extra help to make its completion timely, he hired that help, rather than get "bogged down" in trying to do everything himself. He ended some of the year's busiest months doing things like mowing thistles and picking stones—jobs that could always be slighted without serious harm, but which, when done, made everything go more smoothly in the long run. I see this as the extra, sure-handed flourish of "follow-through" of an accomplished "old pro." He ran his farm— it did not run him.

T. N. left us in his diaries a clear narrative of his farm operation, clear to me, anyway. But one thing about which he recorded almost nothing was how he, himself felt about anything. Except for his occasional praise of a political speech and the give-away handwriting that recorded Nellis's burial, we know nothing about how happenings struck or affected him, what his reactions to events were.

I have personally known men who were only a few decades Smith's junior and many who were younger and I never saw any of them display much emotion. Jesus wept, they knew, as did some military generals, conquered or conquering, now and then, but not your average fellow. The closest he'd come might be some suspect nose-blowing and throat-clearing. Women and girls could weep and sob and that was acceptable, but for men and boys only a "stiff upper lip" would do, and never mind "feelings." So, sure, T. N. was not unusually locked-in and secretive; it was just the way he was raised, along with most other males of his time.

We may wonder, then, for example, about those hired men who stayed on only a few months and then left. Was Smith displeased with them? They with him? We may wonder, but we'll never know—it's not in there. Pride in his French horses? Anger at the railroad? Anger at anybody? These were things many Victorians did not admit to, let alone write about in their personal diaries.

So, while "spilling your guts" on paper and rearranging them there is more emphasized in today's diary-keeping practice, often with helpful results, it was no part of the fashion in 1888. The lack is not a wilful omission; that's just how it was.

I find it striking and serendipitous that just before I finished writing this piece an article appeared in my newspaper about Eddie Ellis, a celebrated diarist of the 20th century. (No, I'd never heard of him before, either.) He left 40,000 pages—that's right, forty thousand, containing twenty million words about his life and times. A contemporary wrote of him: "human beings…will be helped in understanding of our times through the diaries of Edward Robb Ellis."

I submit that Thomas Nolton Smith did a similar thing in much sparser words for a few decades of life in Kanona, New York, and if I have helped make that understanding a clearer one by mauling them over (yes, "mauling," not "mulling.") in 1995, I will be pleased and satisfied with that hoped-for result.

Index to the diaries
© 1995, John Rezelman
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