Life 140 Years Ago

row of journalsAround this time last year, my extended family gathered at my grandmother’s house for a belated Christmas celebration. As tradition has it, my grandma’s cozy basement was filled with tables and chairs, homemade sugar cookies (Grandma makes the best!), and a boisterous noise that erupted every few minutes as members of my family traded stories and laughs.

My wonderful ninety-year-old grandma, who has always been a diligent saver and preserver of stuff, left the table for a moment and came back carrying an old fruit basket. Inside were seven tattered, pocket-size books, each labeled with a year.

My grandma passed the basket around the table, instructing us to each take one. The book I chose was well-worn with pages that were brittle and aged. The cover, once brown, was faded and at the top was the year, 1874.basket of diaries

The table buzzed with questions as we realized what we were holding in our hands – words from our Great-Great-Grandpa Moehler, words that were written over 140 years ago.

The first diary was written when my great-great-grandfather was just fifteen years old in 1874, and he kept the tradition of writing every day for seven years (at least of what we know). In one of the books, he mentioned he received another diary for Christmas – it must have been a tradition. I am thankful it was.

journal entry from 1874
My great-great-grandpa’s diary entries from March of 1874 – “Warm.  I boiled sap, cut wood and helped to plant some grape vines.”

My family and I took turns reading excerpts out loud from the different diaries. My grandpa was a farmer by necessity. (Back then, you grew your food – there was no 24/7 grocery store.) 

I was fascinated by his daily routines. Like myself, he grew up in Ohio, actually pretty close to where I live today. But while my life is filled with automation and computer screens, Great-Great-Grandpa Moehler’s life was centered around the land. Most of the tasks he described are self-sufficient skills that Lehman’s teaches and still provides the tools needed, from chopping wood and raising bees to harvesting corn and boiling sap for maple syrup. To be honest, if I didn’t work at Lehman’s, I wouldn’t had fully appreciated my great-great-grandfather’s words.

journal entry about beehives
Entry from March 8 (from a later diary of my great-great-grandpa’s): “Very rainy. I helped to gather sap and worked in the shop at my beehive. There is a perfect flood this evening, the ground seems to be covered with water.”

One of the highlights was when my cousin found entries from when our great-great-grandfather met our great-great-grandmother. That diary was filled with my great-great-grandmother, including when they first met and when they got married. 

Most of his daily entries were short, often describing the weather or what he did that day. It probably seemed ordinary to him at the time, but now, over hundred some years later, it’s extraordinary to my family and me. We got a glimpse of what life was like almost a century and a half ago. It also introduced us to a man that we never got to meet, a piece of our family.  

diary entry about cultivating corn
Entry from June 18, 1874: “Pleasant. I cultivated corn and helped to load some new hay for market.”

A year has past since my family’s holiday reading of the diaries, and in just a few days we’ll be back at my grandma’s basement celebrating again. I now write in my own journal, thanks to my great-great-grandpa. And while I’m not as diligent about it as was Great-Great-Grandpa Moehler, he has taught me the value of savoring the simple moments in life and the gift of passing that down to future generations.

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