An Old Journal

A couple weeks back our friend Mike Batten, a logger who lives down the road from our office, dropped off a century-old journal he thought we might find interesting. It was kept by Ernest Magoon, a farmer and woodsman who lived in West Topsham, Vermont.

I’ll admit that I’m a sucker for historical non-fiction. Years ago I wrote several history books and during long hours in dark library basements pouring over microfilm I found myself constantly sidetracked from my research. Every page of an old newspaper seemed to hold a story that caught my attention – a local murder mystery, a bank robbery, an account of a major world event reported in real time. So I cracked open Mr. Magoon’s journal, in which he made entries almost daily from 1914 to 1917, eager for a firsthand account of rural life back then.

In that regard, the journal didn’t disappoint. Ernest captured, in great detail (and in impeccable handwriting), his day-to-day activities. How many loads of manure he hauled, how many trees he cut, when he sheared his sheep, how many pounds of milk he brought to the creamery.

April 15, 1914: I bought 60 cents worth of groceries off Grant, paid. Killed a calf. Ed helped me sack my wool 192 1/2 lbs and 18 1/2 lbs of hide.

Aug. 12, 1915: Clarence Moulton got a load of lumber – 1900 feet. Arthur, William, Harry, and I hayed; we got 5 loads.

Feb. 23, 1916: Big snow storm. I drew 1 load of logs out to mill.

Probably 80 percent of the entries include financial information. The whole thing almost reads more like a check register than a journal.

April 11, 1914: Stanley and I cut 44 trees. He went home for good. I paid him $2, I owe him $29.

Oct. 2, 1915: Harry and I went over to East Barre. W.C. Jones paid me $13.70 for 2 sheep and 2 barrels of apples. I paid $1.57 for grain. Rained most all day.

Jan. 17, 1916: I drew 1,700 lbs of hay from the Clark place to Jones, he paid me $15.50 for hay and one sheep. Lepeig had 1 load of round wood, Peo had 1 load of slab wood. Clarence Moulton stayed here.

The theme is pretty clear: he got up every morning, worked hard, and was very careful with his money.

What I couldn’t tell from the journal was anything more about Ernest Magoon. Three years of almost daily entries and I couldn’t tell you if he was married, or had kids, or friends, or had any plans for his future. The only hints of personal details I spotted came in three consecutive entries from late 1916 and early 1917.

Dec. 31: Crissie, kids, and I went up to Marms and had dinner up to the Eli Mills place.

Feb. 2: Ernest, Doris, and I was up to see Mother today. She passed away at 9:15 at night.

Feb. 5: Ernest, Doris, and I went to Mother’s funeral.

There were no days off noted, no “it was a beautiful Sunday afternoon so I went canoeing.” The closest thing to recreation or relaxation seemed to be twice-annual hunting trips. Definitely no vacations or kids’ soccer games.

In a way, the monotony was heart-warming. You hear romanticized stories about how difficult life was in earlier times, and how hard people worked just to survive. Ernest Magoon lived that life. His neighbors did, too. And in today’s age, when so many people want to immediately share every thought and feeling they have on social media, it was refreshing to find someone who didn’t feel the need to do that, even in a personal journal. There was also, as far as I could find, not a single complaint or problem recorded. Certainly during those three years, Ernest must have been injured, been disappointed by a harvest, been worried about something. But, ever the tough old Yankee, none of those things were deemed worthy of sharing, even with himself. It’s tough not to marvel at that.

But after reading the hundreds of daily reports of all the work he did, I mostly came away just hoping that Ernest also occasionally took a walk in the woods on a nice day, or had fun at a child’s birthday party, or felt some satisfaction at the end of the day – even if he didn’t record it. It also struck me that, while times are undeniably easier from a survival standpoint, our lives today can get pretty busy with work. I’m pretty sure that if I kept a journal there are weeks when it could look pretty much like Ernest Magoon’s – a checklist of jobs completed and an accounting of the bills that need to be paid. It was a reminder that, no matter how much work there is to do, it’s important to take some time to enjoy life.

  1. mikael batten → in east orange, vermont
    Oct 18, 2015

    At the time this journal was written, Mr. Magoon was living on the farm were I grew up and my parents still live. His mother lived on the farm I presently own.

    What interested me was how much lumber and firewood he cut off these farms and surrounding woodlots and I have cut a lot of wood of the same properties over the past 45 years and they have more wood than ever. A testament to the sustainability and productivity of these forests.

  2. Cal Carver
    Oct 19, 2015

    Just read your interesting article on the Journal of Earnest Magoon.

    Going to I found a fair amount about him,  He was born on March 11, 1886 to Asa Magoon and Nellie A. Magoon.  He was one of 7 brothers and sisters as of 1910 Census and at that time was 23, single and lived at home helping his father on the family farm.  He married Christine Hurd Magoon and they had two children, Doris Nellie Magoon Hutchins and Edna Irene Magoon Wilson.  He died on October 8, 1959 and is buried in the West Topsham Cemetery.

    There was a lot of other data also readily available.

    I am a long time subscriber, having a vacation home in Pomfret and a daughter living in Bradford.  I find your articles and magazine among the most interesting items I read.

    Cal Carver

  3. Alex Dohan → in Lexington, Massachussetts
    Nov 20, 2015

    Loved reading this! In the late 1980s I interned at the Washburn-Norlands Living History Center in Livermore, Maine. My main project, and what became my undergraduate history thesis was to transcribe a diary from the 1870s. Looks like life didn’t change much over the next 30-40 years, at least for northern New England farmers. Thanks for sharing!

  4. Corinne Stridsberg → in Berlin, Vermont
    Aug 20, 2018

    How interesting to find this. In 1932 Christine Magoon bought a house out in Worcester with my husband’s great grandfather, Carl Stridsberg. They worked together at the Hotel Barre, not sure if that is where they met. They sold the house and Carl bought property in Berlin. I believe they were still together until at least the mid 60’s but not really sure. He died in 1971. I would be interested in her obituary which I haven’t been able to find, a photo of her from during the time they were together, and any other information as I’m working on the family history and clearly she was an important part of his life.

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