Diary Captures Life of 1800’s

By Regina Villiers. Originally published September 24, 1997 in The Suburban Life, added February 18, 2014.

John and Susan Watson

John and Susan Watson

Most of us, when we keep diaries or journals, think of them as very personal writings, written only for ourselves. But a diary can be an important history book, if kept for future generations.

Roger Ward has a diary, dating back to the Civil War and for several years after. The diary was written by John Watson, who married the great-great-aunt of Russell Ward, Roger’s father.

Roger let me borrow this diary recently, to pore over and read through. John Watson obviously treasured this book and put a lot of time and thought into writing it.

The book itself is a hardback, with dark red covers and ruled inside pages, much like the blank books available today. It’s the size of an ordinary book and looks like an ordinary book, on the shelf. It’s in good condition and has obviously had good care.

When I first started to read the book, I found it almost impossible to decipher. The handwriting, in pen and ink, is quite small and of another style, unlike handwriting today. His spelling and language style are also difficult to interpret.

But as I struggled through it, I became more used to the style, and it became easier. Every entry is dated, complete to the day and year, which makes it interesting and more helpful.

He started out the book as a record book of his work and his earnings. He would list his employers, his time, and the amount he was paid. For instance, he wrote: “Chopped wood for R.A. Armstrong Dec. 9, 1868, to Feb. 27 at 80 cents a cord. Made $50.

Another time, he wrote: “Worked 6 days for Samuel Druce husking corn at one dollar a day, making six dollars paid.”

He also worked for the railroad and he wrote about that. “Working on the railroad is a dog’s life,” he wrote. “ A hurry-scurry kind of work and very dangerous.” He did not like working on the railroad.

He was obviously a hard worker and worried about making a living. He noted days he was sick and couldn’t work and he worried about that.

He worked for many well-known names around Madeira- names we recognize today- such as E.G. Muchmore and Daniel L. Hosbrook. The earliest date that I noticed in the book is March 13, 1865, though he skipped around a bit.

Several pages into the book, he turned it into a journal and started writing about the people and events of daily life in Madeira and elsewhere, and of his impressions of them.

At this point, the book really gets interesting and shows a picture of life at that time. In many ways, life in Madeira was the same then as now.

He wrote about the school and school board fights and elections, mentioning well-known names.

He wrote extensively about church and his feelings about what happened there. He wrote about whether or not Christmas trees belonged in church.

He reasoned with himself about it. “It may not be a sin, but can it do any good? Some say it would bring the young people to Christ.”

He wrote about a preacher he seemed not to like. “He lacks a good bit of knowledge in many things,” he wrote. “And he’s too young.”

He wrote about daily life and spoke often of his wife, Susan. Feb 3, 1881, he wrote: “Susan is making a new dress. It is black, and she is putting a right smart of gib and tuckers and furbelows on it. She got it last fall and has just found time to make it. It shows good management for her to do the sewing now, so when spring comes on, she will have that out of the way.”

He wrote about a little girl he and Susan kept for a while. Obviously, a sort of voluntary welfare system and foster parenting took place back then. Feb. 5, 1881, he wrote: “This little girl we have has been very bad today. She is the hard headiest young one I have ever seen in my life. She won’t mind no way.”

Later he wrote that Susan had taken the girl back to her mother in Lockland, because “Susan got tuckered, couldn’t eat or sleep. She couldn’t do anything else unless she got rid of that girl.”

He wrote about having company. “I can’t say I love company. I prefer quietness, but everybody can’t have what he wants. We have to take things as we find them.”

He wrote about people he met and saw every day, and he described them, down to the color of their hair and complexions.

“E.G. Muchmore looked haggard today,” he wrote, “and Sam Druce looks like he would if he could, but can’t.”

He dropped all big names in Madeira and gave his opinion of them. “E.G. Muchmore has to have his own way,” he wrote. “Madeira is a cranky place. When they all come in contact with one another, it’s what I call the devil to pay.”

He wrote about a burglar who had been in several houses. “But you can’t get at the truth of it,” he wrote. “The truth in Madeira is very scarce.”

Still, at one point, he decided that “Madeira is a great place and will continue to be so, as long as such men as E.G. Muchmore, Sam Druce, James DeMar, and the Hosbrook tribe lives in Madeira.”

Mostly, he wrote of Madeira, but in 1881, he wrote about President James A. Garfield being shot while waiting for the train at the Washington Depot.

The last entry in the book is dated Aug.16, 1898, about the death of Harry Muchmore. “He went to town on the 13th and coming home from Madisonville in the dark, walked off the railroad bridge and killed himself. He was buried on the 16th at Spring Grove.”

John Watson probably didn’t realize it when he was writing it, but he wrote an important history book of his time and of his town.

More of us should keep journals.