Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow

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I ran across this article in the Wellsboro, Pennsylvania Agitator from 1917. It seems some things haven’t changed when it comes to comparing things of today against the things of the past. Susanna Burgess was the wife of my third cousin seven times removed, Dr. Benjamin Burgess of Massachusetts.


The Wellsboro Agitator, February 7, 1917


In Grandmother’s Day


Sometimes we hear a few ultraconservative people bemoaning the loss of the home; the New England home with a big H, the home “as I remember it with the woman in it such as “my mother was.” It was true that the home might in certain cases not very long ago have been an improvement on the home that no longer (since the advent of the “movies” and social centers and clubs) exists, yet the woman who lived a century ago could not boast that the live she lived was as easy, bright and attractive as these old-fashioned people would have us think, whatever the home and the woman might have been. A little delving into the annals of the last century, a little searching in the records of probate files of old church societies and family letters, reveals something that would seem to us hard, meager and comfortless.


I am thinking of Susanna. In the days of old, when Simon Athern (1642-1714) of Tisbury on the island of Martha’s Vineyard was warring vigorously with gov. Mayhew, fighting to prevent his making a monopoly of the Island and filling all the offices with his sons and sons-in-law and family retainers; when he was trying to wrest from the said governor certain lands that he considered his by right, being fined and imprisoned and all that; amusing himself meanwhile with baiting the schoolmaster; while Simon was doing all this his son Jethro (1693-1784) was quietly courting the great-great-granddaughter of his father’s arch enemy, Thomas Mayhew. He married her later, and their daughter Zerviah (b. 1723) became the wife of John Manter (Benjamin?, b. 1711), the son of another old settle, and they were the parents of our Susanna (b. 1757), who inherited perhaps some of the old fighting stock which manifested itself later in a struggle with conditions. Susanna went to dame school. She learned her letters from an old hornbook. She learned a few simple sums and how to spin and weave and stitch her sampler. That was the extent of the higher education of women in those days.


A young doctor Benjamin Burgess (1737-1806), by name, led Susanna to school sometimes. He married her when she was 15 and he was 30, and they left the Vineyard and fearlessly made a long, long journey by sea to Boston and thence overland to Goshen in the hills of Western Massachusetts (one could easily make the trip in a day now) with the intention of making their home in that fertile (?) town. Susanna carried $1,000 quilted into the lining of her silk petticoat (so they say) to keep it from the Britishers who saw their ship and fruitlessly chased them on their way to Boston. It was during the Revolution, and journeys were undertaken at some risk. With this fortune, which had some to them from the doctor’s father, they bought (another legend) most of the town of Chesterfield and some of Goshen. Facts which, alas, cannot be proved by any delving in the old land records. And with them from Martha’s Vineyard they brought a chair or two, a table and a queer old mirror with something between an eagle and a unicorn perching between the scrolls that ornamented the top. The gilding of the wings of this strange beast is worn and tarnished now. The looking glass itself is dim with age, but it once bore the vision of Susanna. Dr. Burgess became an eminent physician in that part of the country and he rode over the hills many miles with lancet and calomel in his saddlebags. Perhaps he may have been called in consultation with Dr. Peter Bryant, father of William Cullen, who lived on the opposite range of hills (if the patient did not die of the lancet or calomel before the brother-surgeon could be had).


And Susanna stayed at home and minded the babies. She had six of them, five daughters and a son. She gave them their frugal meals of corn bread and milk. She spun and wove the wool and flax that made their clothing and all the water she had she brought from a well, and all the light she had came from a tallow dip. And when the children were men and women grown, she became an invalid and remained so to the end of her life. And then in the year 1806, her husband died and left this, his last will and testament, bequeathing, as you will see, the property which he had earned and she had helped him earn, by hard work and frugality, to “his beloved son-in-law, John Colson Lyman,” taking care meanwhile to thoroughly provide for his widow, “as long as she remains my widow.”


“In the name of god, Amen, I, Benjamin Burgess of Goshen, In the county of Hampshire, and the state of Massachusetts, Physician, Calling to mind that all men must die, and being of sound and disposing mind, do make this my last will and testament, and first of all I recommend my soul into the hands of God who gave it, and my body to the care of my executor, for decent interment, and touching any estate which I shall have, I give and bequeath as follows:


Inprimis, I give and devise unto my beloved Son in Law, John Colson Lyman, all and every part of the estate both real and personal that I shall die sured of, except which I shall hereafter mention in this my last will and testament, he having purchased the same of my son Silas Burgess, on condition that he shall fulfill the obligations hereafter mentioned.


“Item. I give and bequeath unto my beloved wife, Susanna Burgess, as long as she remains my widow, the improvement of all the rooms in the lower part of my dwelling house, with all the privileges hereafter mentioned to others and likewise., the two West chambers, except same privilege hereafter named and likewise a privilege in the garret and cellar, and the privilege of keeping fowls and to have provided for her, a sufficiency of firewood fit for the fire, brought to the door, and my will it, that she shall have for each year, twenty pounds of good sheep’s wool thirty pounds of good flax, twelve bushels of good Indian corn, twelve bushels of good rye, four bushels of good wheat and hundred and fifty pounds of good pork, one hundred pounds of good beef, five pounds of good bohea Tea, one pound of good green tea, thirty pounds of good sugar of the west India kind two gallons of molasses, one fourth of a pound of good pepper, two pounds of Coffee, one half pound of ginger and a half of good salt a sufficient of same to eat with meat of that which is good and a sufficiency of tallow to keep for her, two good cows winter and summer to be kept will and in good order for profit and to keep a good horse suitable for women to drive for her use and likewise seven dollars per year in money and likewise the use of one third of the orchard all the above said articles are to be allowed her during her remaining my widow and my will is that she shall have all the household furniture of what name it may be for her own proper estate to dispose of as she shall see fit. All these above said articles are given her On condition that she shall give up her right of dower and my will is that is she shall marry she shall give up all the above mentioned articles except the household articles and have fifty dollars paid her and my will is that if she should move away and give up the privileges of house-room and firewood to have ten dollars per year paid her by John C Lyman aforesaid.


“And further my will is that if my wife is sick while she remains my widow that she shall be provided for in everything necessary, to her comfort and my will is that she shall have one half of the pew given to her as her own proper Estate to dispose of as she shall see fit.’


And this is the way that Dr. Benjamin burgess provided for Susanna and one must acknowledge that for those days one could not really find fault with his will. Susanna must have had everything she wanted, even to her good “bohea tea.” and her pound of good “peper: per year. And John C. Lyman, aforesaid, must see to it, that she had her good cows to “keep for profit” and her horse, ‘suitable for women to drive,:” and “seven dollars per year” in spending money. And one cannot but pause and consider what on earth she could do with $7 per year in spending money.


There were no afternoon teas, no movies, no wonderful and costly productions in the line of fancy work, no afternoon clubs, no whist parties, but few frills and furbelows. She doubtless wrote to the people at Martha’s Vineyard but seldom, twice a year may be, so there could be no stamps, and stamps did not appear until later anyway. There were no cars or street cars and no place to go if one had them, but few books, and only a weekly newspaper which the county rider brought round once or twice a month maybe. What could Susanna do with “seven dollars per year” in spending money? It is not much wonder that big horn combs and cameo pins and strange little trinkets filter down through the centuries that were bought by our grandmothers who had great wealth with their $7 per year, less or more in spending money.


The wool and the flax made her clothes. Her daughters could spin and cleave the wool and flax and color the yarns blue in the old blue dye tub which stood in the corner. A  hundred and fifty pounds seems quite a quantity of pork for one frail woman to eat in a year, but probably most of that was “put down” salted with the bushel and a half of salt, and only a little tenderloin or a spare rib or two frozen and hung out of the attic window to eat as needed through the winter. Part of the beef, too, was pickled. And the corn-meal and the rye made them bread. Some of the apples were made into cider and boiled, and the sweet apples were dried and combined with the cider and made into sauce. The tallow gave them light. Nothing else was needed except vegetables and not a word did the doctor say about vegetables. Did not they eat cabbages in those days? Where onions not discovered till later? The daughters, who by the way were bequeathed the use and improvement of the “two west chambers,” without that part of the house given their mother, for their disposal to live in, with firewood provided sufficient for use, and a privilege in the kitchen or cellars and at the well or wells for water,” the daughters could pick greens in the spring of the year, cowslips, dandelions, milkweed and dock, and could pick, the wild blueberries and blackberries, but still one would think they would get rather tired of salt pork with no vegetables before the summer was over. There were no meat wagons those days.


But Grandmother Susanna burgess lived happily and contentedly, the widow of Dr. Benjamin Burgess, for many years later. But did John Colson Lyman aforesaid, scrupulously weigh out and set aside,” these pounds and quarters of a pound of beef and sugar, of tea and spice, during all the 20-odd years that Susanna survived her husband? One cannot but wonder!


Four Susanna’s daughters married, settled on neighboring hills and became the mothers of men and women many of whom were famous in varying walks of life: statesman, scholars, physicians, authors; men of whom their townsmen were proud men who formed the truest background of our New England life. But none of them enjoyed the deluxe life of to-day: All Susanna’s daughters were hard-working New England women who had ideals, and who bore privations. Mercy, one of these daughters, lived not far away. Listen to her daughter telling the story of those days to another generation: “In one of the drawers of the old cherry chest, the one that my father made with his own hands, cherry clear through, no veneer, my mother kept a piece of copper-plate calico. That was a kind they do not have now, a heavier and glossier kind. She bought it before she was married for a field bedstead and she had to keep it years and years before she had money enough for a field bedstead and at last it began to crack in the folds and then she had it made up. And with it she kept that for years and years before she had money enough to buy the cotton lining. It was quite and event when at last it was made up. But the copper plate, I was telling you about that, when she had it made up she had nothing to trim the scallops with. But Becky Richardson had got to taking opium and the doctor supplied her with it and she was heavily in his debt. And so he told her that if there was any work my mother wanted done she could do it, and so she had her make some fringe for that copper-plate bed-quilt. Becky could make very nice fringe, though she could do not much else. My mother got some yarn and colored it green. First she made it yellow with smartweed and tehn she dipped it in the blue dye tube to make it green. And out of that yarn Becky made the fringe and when it was sewed on it looked very nicely.


And then grandmother went on to tell how hard life was in her younger days and how she stood and warmed the old doctor’s bed with the warming pan while he repeated Burn’s poems and made her learn them, too. She told how she and her sisters used to go to the cold attic chamber in the freezing winter days to get meal for bread and pudding from the meal chest and how cold it was to her hands till her father made some wooden paddles shaped like an artist’s palette with holes for the thumb and fingers with which to scoop the grain. And she remembered well when the first barrel of white flour was brought into town and emptied on a sheet in her father’s kitchen and there and then divided between two families. Winters were severe then. Blizzards were frequent: snow drifts were drifts were deep. In the schoolhouses the children stood shivering before the fireplace, one side roasting and the other burning and did intricate sums in hard arithmetic and recited and read from Pope and Cowper and Grey and other classics.


No mush was necessary for the mental consumption of boys and girls in those days. They lived up to their studies and not down and if they complained they were told that boys and girls should be seen and not heard. They had no educational frills and ruffles. They had no school sewing and no school science. They did not learn folk dances nor basket weaving or woodwork in school time, though they very probably did so out of school hours. They learned “the three R’s” and they could read and spell, both lost accomplishments in these days. Grandmother herself stood at the head of her class for 60 days and nights and had 60 notches cut in the beam above the door to her credit. Going to school in those days was no joke. It was work for the pupils instead of the teacher and children became scholars and not puppets and jacks of all educational trades.


They walked to school and carried their uninviting lunches in cloth bags, shivering along several miles of country roads and ate their frozen dinners with comrades who were all on the same shelf with themselves. There were no distinctions of caste on the hills. And when grandmother was 16 she went away from home and taught school herself for five shillings a month! Five shillings! A little more than $1 a month! And she thought it was wealth!


A little piece of paper, yellow with age, lies before me now. On it in hard slanting characters is an announcement from grandfather. He would “see her wind and weather permitting Sunday evening week,” and this small slip, the only thing that betrays the fact that this was a love letter, was folded inside two square sheets written fine and closely and bearing an urgent request that grandmother would declare herself a sinner and embrace the Christian life; this a love letter to one who was the mildest and most saintly of women.


Many hardships were grandmother’s lot in her married days. Her daughters after her in the mid 19th century bore them and shared them too. Her daughters were trained in a severe school and from sundown Saturday night to sundown Sunday night they did extreme penance under the guise of keeping the Sabbath. And one day they wondered to see the church that stood opposite their house opened on a week-day and to see their parents and all their grownup neighbors enter herein while they themselves where made to remain at home and flatten their noses on the window pane wondering what it was all about. Here is a sheet of paper covered with stiff characters in faded blue ink that tells what it was about:


“Welcome Bacon’s charges of complaint against Mrs. Warner Boland. Dec. 20, 1844.

“Dear Brethren. In conformity with the rule which Christ has given us and by leave of the church, I appear before you to state my grievances in the humble hope and belief that they will be cordially and prayerfully considered. Duty to the church, faithfulness to my covenant vows require me unpleasant as it may be to bring some charges derogatory to the Christian character of Mrs. Warner Boland. I would hereby represent.

“First that she has bee guilty of unchristian conduct in her conversation with and treatment of me.

“Second. That she has been guilty of evil speaking in that she has been guilty of evil speaking in that she has affirmed repeatedly that I would lie.

“Third. That she has wholly refused to hear me and the brethren of the church with regard to her offense.



Mrs. Warner Boland must have listened to the Christian (?) members of the church, for another ragged and yellow slip of paper bears her confession. She admits that she has lied about Welcome Bacon; that she humbly begs him to forgive her and beseeches pardon of her Christian brethren of the church and desires to be reinstated in the good graces thereof.


This tempest in a tea pot must have been a welcome diversion for the town. Parties were few then; clubs unknown; funerals (always an enjoyable event to everybody but the mourners) were scarce and weddings even fewer. Singing and spelling school, husking or paring bee, were all the dissipation that the young people of the ‘50’s (1850’s) had on those hills. So the solemn trial of Mrs. Warner Boland (a new chapter in witchcraft) haled before the church because she said the Welcome Bacon lied must have been as good as a “movie” to our grandparents.


Consider well these things, women of today, and say if you would live in those days when women lived the protected (?) lives of the old New England home. Think of it well ye exponents of the higher education for women, who are yet inimical to equal rights for women, and thank the shade of Susan B. Anthony and Lucy Stone and their sister pioneers that you have won the privileges and rights you now enjoy.


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