A Sense of Nelson/Munsonville with George Washington Holt

Don Bennett
(Compiled in 2016)

Background

George Washington Holt

This tale is woven with facts from one year’s daily entries (1881) from the diary of George Washington Holt and other sources including the Nelson history by Parke Struthers; the Sullivan, NH History; the Historical Society of Cheshire County, Alan Rumrill, Executive Director.

George Washington Holt was born in Sullivan, NH in 1850 and during his lifetime he lived in Sullivan, Nelson and probably Stoddard. During the period of this story he lived in Nelson (Munsonville) in, at least two locations. These were the Holt homesteads –  located on Holt Farm Road off the Murdough Hill Road and “the Buxton Place” just over the border in Stoddard near the cove of Granite Lake. There is also Holt Hill in Nelson but it is not known whether George or family lived near the hill.

Like many small farmers of the time, George also worked part time off the farm at a variety of jobs but primarily at the Colony Chair Factory in Munsonville.

Daily life for early Nelson residents was mostly hard work but they did make some time for family, fun and (limited) travel.

George Washington Holt in the middle holding child Valda Holt

Families were large but mortality was high since loss of spouses and children from disease, childbirth or accident was common in those early days. Family members were an integral and necessary part of providing a living. Most families did some farming which then was extremely labor intensive, and all household chores were done by hand – many hands over long hours. Labor and goods were often shared via a bartering system or at times paid for with cash. Paying jobs were available for full and part time workers – men, women and children. Travel was on foot, horseback or horse drawn vehicle – personal wagon or commercial stagecoach.

George Washington Holt wrote a journal which provides detailed, but brief, accounts of his daily activities during the period from about 1870 to 1920. This story is based on one year’s entries in 1881. His life probably typified the lives of many who grew most of their own food raised in small gardens, kept a few animals, bartered time for time or for goods and worked for several individuals or one of several manufacturing operations of the time for wages.

Providing Life Needs

Gardening was a constant challenge. By this time the soil in town was largely depleted from generations of large scale farming. The layer of tillable soil in town was typically quite thin and contained a renewable source of rocks. Several entries in George’s journal report “picked rocks” as an activity of the day. Growing seasons were short and shorter with late spring and early frost always concerns.

May 11: “rigged up the wagon and got out manure”
May 26: “Planted my corn. Mr. Barrett helped me”
May 28: “Drawed out manure and finished harrowing up my potato ground and planted some”
May 30: “Planted potatoes”
May 31: “Sowed some barley and picked stone”

Harvesting hay during summer months was often a shared activity and an opportunity for bartering. Hay was used for feed for cattle and bedding for sheep and cattle. George’s diary contains many entries such as:

Jul. 17: “H. Wilson helped me get in some hay”
Jul. 24: “helped Wilson hay and got some turnip plants”
Jan. 15: “had J. Wilson’s oxen to draw a load of hay with”
Aug. 26: “mowed and got in two jags of litter” (two full loads of bedding)

Bartering and sharing were common. Some typical entries from the journal:

Apr. 6: “Albert moved some hay and I helped him thresh some barley in the PM”
May 26: “planted my corn, Mr. Barrett helped me”
May 27: “Mr. Barrett helped me saw wood”
Jun. 6: “Albert moved some hay and I helped him thresh some barley in the PM”
Jun. 30: “Commenced hoeing, George Center helped me”
Jul. 17: “H. Wilson helped me get in some hay”
Jul. 27: “Worked for H. Wilson”
Sept. 21: “Albert Wilson helped me dig potatoes”

This bartering was common and done in good faith but I suspect the journal entries served to keep a balance in exchanged effort as well as some financial agreements:

Mar. 23: “Had Tarbox oxen and Albert helped me draw up some slabs from D. Beaverstock’s mill”
Apr. 6: “Albert moved some hay and I helped him thresh”
Jun. 19: “let Mr. Barrett have some pork 11 lbs. = $1.32 he paid me $2.00 = 68cts his due”
Jun. 30: “commenced hoeing George Center helped me”
Jun. 20: “pealed bark half a day got a bag of meal”
Jul. 15: “H. Wilson worked haying A. W. come and raked after”
Jul. 17: “H. Wilson helped me get in some hay”
Jul 18-22: “worked for H. Wilson”
Jul. 24: “helped H. Wilson hay and got some turnip plants”
Aug. 11: “George Center and H Wilson, paid George Center $11.28, Henry Wilson worked 4 days more than I did”
Oct. 27-28: “worked for W. K. Waldron”
Nov. 9: “…finished Mrs. Tarbox wood and got my pay for it $6.15”
Nov. 26: “worked for S. A. Green and F. Taylor”
Dec. 14: “worked 3 1/2 hours for W.W. Barrett”
Dec. 14: “E. S. Messenger paid me $6.40”
Dec. 17: “…Worked 5 1/2 hours for W. W. Barrett”
Dec. 24: “chopped a little wood for Mark Tarbox”

There were several other jobs that George worked at outside of home besides his work at the chair shop:

Mar. 6: “went down to the burying grounds and helped shovel snow”
Jun. 14: “worked on the road seven or eight hours”
Jun. 15-17: “worked on the road”
Oct. 20: “worked for S. A. Green (Sidney Green ran the village store and was Postmaster in Munsonville)”

Then there was always work to be done at the home place:

Apr. 10: “gathered and boiled sap”
Apr. 22: “took sap and washed the sap buckets”
Apr. 25: “worked up wood at the door and finished sugaring”
Apr. 30: “mended fence and turned out some of the sheep”

There were many entries for haying, work at home and for others:

Aug. 16: “stayed at home made soap”
Aug. 31: “got in my barley”
Jun. 1: “cut a little sugar wood”
Sept. 19: “finished threshing my barley and dug the potatoes in the garden”
Oct. 8-9: “went and hunted sheep”
Oct. 14: “picked apples”
Oct. 18: “rainy husked corn”
Nov 8: “worked around home”
Dec. 6: “worked up wood at home”
Jun. 2: “washed the sheep and mended fence”

Medical exigencies were dealt with when they occurred. An April 7 entry read:

Apr. 7: “went up in town and had some teeth pulled”

Beasts of Burden

Animals were raised as beasts of burden, for food and apparently to be shared – some entries in the journal read:

May 18: “took ten hens and a rooster of W. A. Wilson to be returned in a year”
May 24: “Went down to W. A. Pages with the mare, Willie took her to Bradford.”
May 25: “Willie came back with the horse”
Mar 23: “had Tarbox oxen and Albert helped me draw up some slabs from D. Beverstocks mill”
Jul. 2: “…took A. Wilson’s cow off”
Sept. 11: “Albert took his cow away”
Jan. 15: “had J. Wilson’s oxen to draw a load of hay with”

Getting Around

In 1881 there were no cars, trucks or tractors needing oil and tire changes, engine tuning and repair but service and repair were required on the transportation source of the day:

Jun. 1: “went to the village and got the shoes set on the horse and got the shafts fixed on the lumber wagon”
Apr. 23: “went to the village and got the horse shod 62 cents”
Jul. 8: “got the horse shod partly…”
Aug. 8: “went to East Sullivan and got the forward shoes set on the horse 35 cents”
Aug. 15: “went to the village and carried the wagon wheel”
Apr. 18: “drawed wood and got a shoe set on the horse”

Wood – Abundant and Useful

Heating and cooking, I expect, were all done with firewood harvested from local forests. With no chainsaws or hydraulic wood splitters available the wood was processed with axe, crosscut saw wedges, and splitting mall with considerable muscle power over many hours. Entries in George Holt’s diary hint at the enormous amount of time spent acquiring and preparing wood for home and for maple sap arches. Some of the many entries are:

Mar. 21: “went to the village and got the rest of my dry wood”
Mar. 24: “chopped and drawed some wood”
Mar. 26: “drawed wood in the AM, sawed a log in the woods in the PM”
Mar. 28: “chopped and drawed wood”
Apr. 5: “chopped and drawed some wood”
Apr. 25: “worked up wood at the door” (probably firewood for the house)
May 4-5: “worked up some wood”
May 18: “rainy, chopped a little wood in the PM”
May 19: “chopped a little wood rainy”
Jun. 13: “cut a little sugar wood”
Aug. 18 “worked up a little wood in the woods”
Sept. 7-9: “cut a little sugar wood”
Nov. 29: “cut a little wood in the woods”
Dec. 15: “drawed up some wood”

Six of the last twelve days of January he prepared wood for various uses, mostly for home firewood.

The Traverse Sled

Other natural resources were exploited, both for practical applications and as sources of pleasant times to be shared.

On Monday, January 12, 1881 George Holt’s diary notes:
“Colony was up. Gay was in the place.”
On Tuesday, January 13, 1881 the diary reports:
“PW Colony got JJ Colony’s traverse sled”

For the uninformed or the younger set, this device was built on two sleds with a heavy wood plank between, and the front sled pivoted for steering. Runners were usually “shod” with round or flat iron “tires” to increase both speed and wear life. Having had the experience of riding a traverse sled, or double runner, as a boy, I can attest to the, “gay was in the place” diary entry. With four to, possibly six, people on the sled it was common to attain a significant amount of speed depending on the pitch of the terrain being traversed. Spills and thrills were frequent and cause for much hilarity. So if they did take time to go outside and run the “traverse sled”, there would have indeed been “gay in the place” that January day!

Pleasant Diversions

On Saturday, July 30, the diary read:
“Raked some hay and went fishing in the evening”

Undoubtedly this fishing trip provided food for the family table. Having spent numerous hours fishing with my dad and others over many years, I can attest that the activity is also relaxing and joyful:

On Sunday, August 14, 1881 the entry was:
“Almon and I went blueberrying, got our pails full”

This activity provided delightful variety to a, probably, repetitive diet. It would also be relaxing and less strenuous than the typical daily chores.

Monday, August 22:
“went blueberrying and fishing”

George doesn’t say what they fished for but it would probably be perch or bass if fishing in a pond or brook trout if fishing in a local brook.

Sunday, November 6:
“Pleasant went beechnuting”

Often when deer hunting I have seen the ground and leaves under a beechnut tree pawed up by hungry deer to find the fall crop of delicate little nuts fallen from the tree. It never occurred to me that the spiney, odd shaped little husks might contain something tasty to humans. But in late fall after the nuts have been on the ground for a while, the spiney husk opens and reveals two small, inner morsels. They are very small but apparently quite tasty in a salad or by themselves and so prized by the local folks as well as the deer population.

Water Power in Nineteenth Century New England

The preponderance of flowing water in New England created numerous opportunities to power machinery and produce products. Settlers moving to the area needed two things immediately – food and shelter. Consequently, the earliest manufacturing in Nelson was grist mills and saw mills in the 1730s.

Grain was a staple of early diets for people and livestock, but for many applications it needed to be ground into meal or flour to be useful. Once ground it was susceptible to spoiling or attack by vermin so needed to be ground in small lots frequently. There was no local source of flour, travel was slow at best and water power was readily available so grist mills were found in many early settlements.

Wood was in ample supply but building with logs had definite limitations. Logs sawed into boards were much more versatile and a more efficient use of material. So the ample supply of flowing water also provided power to drive sawmills. During those early years there were several of both sawmills and grist mills within the town of Nelson to produce the needed commodities.

The hilly terrain and multiple sources of water in Nelson provided the two essential requirements for waterpower. Water needs to be flowing to provide energy to turn a water wheel and drive machinery for milling or sawing. The change in elevation produces the necessary flow to drive a water wheel. For example, the change in elevation from the surface of Granite Lake to the flat by the Munsonville (Nelson) School is approximately sixty feet. That combination of water volume from the lake and “drop” provided power to drive the Cotton Mill/Chair Shop, Taylor’s Chair Shop, a sawmill, a paint shop and a gristmill.

Local Tanneries

Several diary entries referred to another industry that was local because transportation was slow and infrequent to other sources. Hides from animals provided leather for myriad applications during those days and since early history. Tanning, or preparing the animal hide for any application, involved many steps and several different chemicals.

The first large commercial tannery was built in the eastern U.S. in New York State in 1636 and the industry drove the economy of many east coast towns for years. In the nineteenth century rural New England was still too far removed from any commercial tannery to be practical given the limits of transportation to ship either the hides or tanning materials.

One major chemical required for the tanning process was tannic acid produced from the chemical tannin found in various plants. One abundant plant in rural New England was (and is) the hemlock tree which contains a high percentage of tannin in its bark, from which tannic acid is made. Eventually synthetic tanning chemicals precluded the use and demand for hemlock bark. So some of the forests decimated for this use have recovered.

But in 1881 George Holt’s diary indicates that hemlock bark was indeed still a cash crop. There were tanneries in Sullivan and Stoddard at the time and Quincy Nash, referred to several times in the diary, lived in Stoddard. Numerous entries referring to this enterprise include:

“commenced peeling bark for the Goodnow”
“peeled bark”
“peeled bark half a day got a bag of meal”
“Jun. 21-24 – peeled bark”
“peeled bark half a day with Quincy Nash”
“Jun. 27-29 peeled bark with Quincy Nash – finished on 29th
“Jul. 4 went and piled up the bark with Q. Nash…”

The bark of the hemlock tree apparently was looser on the tree in springtime and peeled easier than at other times of the year. So pealing and stacking to dry often occurred in that season. Often the trees were felled, peeled and the wood left to rot on the ground.

Some hemlock, however, was used in building construction as floor joists. It was strong and over time became extremely hard. We experienced this in one renovation project when trying to drive a nail into an ancient, well-seasoned hemlock log – it was virtually impossible!

It seems strange that the stripped logs were not, at least, good for home fires but it may be that the labor required to prepare it compared with the low heat content made the soft, fresh hemlock less desirable than the ample hard woods like maple, beech and oak for heating applications.

Work for Wages

George Holt worked for the Colony Chair shop doing various jobs but apparently only part time and only during winter months. Between January 3 and March 15 there were 18 entries in the diary referring to working in the Chair Shop.

The first entry is an accounting of the previous December. It reads:
“worked 19 days in December Accounting total $25.65”

Many of the subsequent day’s activities were described just as “worked in the shop”. Other entries included:
“rolled logs all day”
“rigged up a new saw”
“The new moulder come”
“filed up a saw that was just ground out”
“had to shut down for repairs”
“worked six hours in the shop”

The last entry for the year was March 14-15:
“worked in the shop”

Food and Firewood

Days of spring, summer and fall were occupied with providing food and firewood for the family. Many entries referred to products harvested from garden and nature such as: corn, potatoes, barley, turnip, hay, apples and cider, maple syrup, corn, beechnuts, fish and berries. Haying demanded great numbers of man-hours for mowing, raking, loading, hauling and stowing in a barn or shelter. Diary entries for haying began on July 5 and ended on August 2.

Animals raised for meat included sheep, pigs, chickens and calves. Meats were consumed at home, sold and apparently bartered. Entries included:

November 17: “killed the pigs F. B. Hardy helped”
November 18: “rained carried half a pig to Wilson weighed 77 lbs. S. Messenger weight 78 pounds”
November 21: “J.H. Wilson paid me $11.16 for a calf and a half pig carried Uncle Sam 6 3/4 lbs. salt pork
“carried 2 pullets to Mrs. Tarbox and carried some dressed chickens to Uncle Sam weight 8 1/2 lbs. 15cts per pound, $1.27”
December 13: “went to mill in the AM. Frank brought back his borrowed meat”

Other activities necessary to grow food were: plowing, harrowing, hauling and spreading manure, planting, weeding, harvesting and preserving. Numerous journal entries referred to these activities.

The earliest product was provided by nature when the maple sap began surging up the trees in early spring.
March 22: “washed out the sap things out to the sugarhouse”

He did not commence tapping trees until April 1 which is late by current standards.
April 8: “tapped and boiled some” and six additional entries.

The final entry being on April 25:
“worked up wood at the door and finished sugaring”

Maple syrup and other forms such as maple cream and maple sugar must have been prized for their flavor and added a pleasant sweetness to the diet.

Apples matured and were harvested in fall. A great variety of species were grown in New England. They matured at different times during the fall season and possessed a wide variety of flavors and textures. Some were best suited for eating immediately, some could be stored in a cool space for later consumption. Others were best in an apple pie, sauce or pressed into cider for drinking. And with proper storage and time some cider would build a significant alcohol content and be used as a “social” beverage.

A log entry on April 4 read:
“…carried 18 gallons of cider to E. Messenger”

Since that cider would have been five or six months old, it was probably quite a social drink – and 18 gallons! Apparently apple cider was a very popular beverage in early days and consumed widely. Unfortunately, cider tends to ferment early and eventually turn to vinegar which is useful in cooking but not to drink. So methods were devised to preserve the cider in its “hard” state.

Another interesting “beverage” entry was:
“puttered around home Sassafrass bark – 4oz & 2oz, Blood root pulverized and Bourbon Whisky”

Sounds potent and quite social.

Transportation

When we travel to a different part of our town or even to an adjacent town in 2016 it is usually a matter of a few minutes total time. However, in 1880 this could comprise the major event of the day. All the entries in George Holts diary are brief and terse but in reality some day’s activity could be summed up in one phrase about travel:

“went to the village”
“went to the village and carried a pail of sugar to Mr. Barrett $1.75”
“Albert went to Walpole”
“went to the village carried E. S. Messenger a chicken”
“went to the village”
“went to Sullivan and to Stoddard”
“went to Keene in the snow and mud”

Roadways were not paved so during winter and “mud” seasons travel was mostly restricted to short local trips.

One entry on January 26 read:
“…Jose and the children went to Sullivan”
They returned on Jan. 29.

On September 12 George entered:
“carried Jose and the children to the Box to take the stage for Boston…”

Stoddard Box is believed to have been located near the now intersection of Routes 9 and 123 South in Stoddard and there are several colorful stories as to how the area got it’s name. There was also a stage stop in Munsonville at the village store which apparently ran between Concord and Keene. The stagecoach ride to Boston must have been an eight to nine hour ride and with stops for various reasons would make it an all day affair.

September 29:
“helped Albert 3 hours & went and got my family at the Box”

So Josie and the kids made the trip worthwhile by staying seventeen days. We assume they visited relatives in the city and doubt they stayed in hotels while there. So these must have been “wealthy” city folk to put up, probably three people for that long.

Civic Duty, Family and Leisure

Probably at the Holt Farm on Holt Farm Road off Murdough Hill Road

Some time was allotted for recreation and relaxing, social events or at least, staying at home and for attending to civic duties. There was rarely an entry that indicated any labor in or out of the home on Sunday. Typical entries were:

“stayed at home all day”
“did not do much” (perhaps a comment on the weather)
“stormy, stayed at home”

Or a few rare occasions during sugaring or haying season when those activities demanded attention:
“gathered and boiled sap”
“Stayed at home got in some hay”

Civic duties included:
February 9: “went to the school meeting”
March 8: “went to town meeting”
November 28: “paid my taxes”

Absent was any mention of “Church” or “Meeting” activity on Sundays but the day was reserved faithfully for fun or family activity. Other occasions for fun, diversionary activities were taken in however:

“went to the auction”
“went to the picnic at Nelson Center”
“went to the picnic over to Ellis’s Grove”
“went to J. E. Chase’s auction”
“went to Marlow Fair”
“Josie and Cretia went to Keene”

Sundays were often spent with family members, nearly thirty percent of George’s Sundays involved activities with family. Some typical entries were:

“Pleasant Marm and Almon was up here to supper”
“went down to Franks to supper”
“stayed at home all day. Cousin Eddie Proctor was over here”
“Uncle Sam Marm and Almon was up here to supper”
“Pleasant, Abr and Nars Joy was here”
“Almon and Bertie were up here”
“the folks was up here and took supper”
“Uncle Luther and Aunt Rachel were over here
“the folks were up here to supper Julia and Byron”

A few recorded Sunday activities around home such as:

“stayed at home got in some hay”
“went and hunted sheep”
“got some sheep from Barkers”
“took Franks stove home and my wagon down”
“went over and see Dexters sheep”

Sundays were also times for pleasant and productive pursuits like fishing, nutting and berrying. Nearly half of the Sunday entries were a terse “stayed at home” or a brief evaluation of the weather that day:

“…had a big snow and a blow in the night”
“cool and raw”
“stormy stayed at home”
“pleasant and a little warmer”
“stormed all day”
“pleasant”
“rainy, stayed at home”
“rainy”

Strangely, there are only rare entries referring to George’s wife or children, only when they traveled were they mentioned at all. The diary was entirely about George and his activity and that was terribly devoid of detail.

Another journal written by Abner Sanger between 1774 and 1794 is very similar to George Holt’s. Even though Mr. Sanger’s journal is written in much greater detail, very little is written about his family.

During the nineteenth century in rural New England, life consisted greatly of providing shelter and sustenance for the family so it is probably understandable that a man’s diary would be about his activity. It would be interesting and revealing to have a diary written by a wife and mother about her daily activities. Demands on the women of the house were as great as on the men in providing home for a family.

Expressions and Comments from Antiquity

Several expressions were used by George in his diary for which I was unable to find a definition to explain their meaning:

“…commenced having a fourth hour morning”
“…the new muoulder come”
“…a bag of shorts”
“framed off stone”

An expression learned from a guide at a windmill grinding grain on Cape Cod fit with this journal as well. It was essential to maintain the speed of the water-powered grind stones to prevent over speeding the stones and the possibility of scorching the grain being processed. The miller or his apprentice would “sniff” the grind as it flowed from between the stones to detect any sign of scorching the finely ground grain from overheating. Thus the expression, “keep your nose to the grindstone.”