In this first of three proposed volumes, Gail Lembo presents, with care and exactness, George M Wadsworth's hand written records of life in Wadsworth Village. The enclosed maps and photos show the now extinct village, its railroad station, post office, general store, blacksmith shop, water tank, and loading platform, along with the Wadsworth family homestead, clustered against the former New York & New England Railroad siding at Spring Street in South Franklin, Mass.
If one hopes to find a profusion of romance; crime, and adventure in this book, one would be better advised to close its pages, visit some local book store, and poke about the shelves of designated "Action" literature. Daily living in the Franklin of the 1850s & 60s was more hard work than hard news.
Yet, these diaries do tell of a case of insanity, a murder, two suicides, and a bizarre train wreck, aberrations that must have shocked the souls of the rock-ribbed South Franklinites.
For the most part, however, the diaries portray the grayness of rural Franklin, a small town devoid of excess or convenience. George's world was one of sweat, fatigued muscles, and dentistry without Novocaine. The technological marvel of the time was Samuel S.B. Morse's new Morse Code, together with the now abandoned telegraph poles and wires that delivered it. For transportation, the Wadsworths and their contemporaries housed and harnessed horses that hauled them about the town in heavy wagons.
George M. Wadsworth, age 20 when he began the diaries in 1857, was the younger son of Seth %adsworth. Seth, born in 179S in Milton, Mass., had married Olive Metcalf of Franklin, and at the start of the 1820s, the couple settled on the property he had bought on Spring Street. Seth was a blacksmith, and he planned to work at his trade while he began farming his land.
George's older brother Joseph served as the Wadsworth Village postmaster and the railroad station master. Joseph, the husband of Abbie Metcalf, also ran the general store. Through the coininon ancestor John Wadsworth, George and Joseph were third cousins to the American poet Heiiry Wadsworth Longfellow.
Although the Wadsworths owned the village buildings and businesses and the abutting fields and forests, they were at most upper middle in class, perhaps a few acres and a few dollars ealthier than the "poore farmers" who had founded Franklin in 1778.
The family assets had come from the treadmill of back-breaking labor and not from the leisure of a gilded pedigree. By himself or alongside the hired help, George raked cranberries, planted and harvested fields of oats, hay, corn, and potatoes, churned butter, and logged carloads of oak and pine and chestnut trees. He also turned manure, cleaned the horse barn, fed the cows and hogs, fixed, sharpened, plowed, loaded, spread, winnowed, harrowed, pitched, and sawed.
Because his brother Joseph was 11 years older, in all likelihood George had assumed the role of a "helper" early in his childhood. Here, as a young adult, he "Helped fix the cider.... Helped Alvah plane wood..., Helped Mr. 0, Chilson some about killing the cows.... Helped draw some dirt to stop the water at the pond.... Helped fix the forge and bellows up," and dozens of similar deeds,
Hard work notwithstanding, the younger Wadsworth also found time for the genteel tasks of a landowner-farmer. When Joseph left the village on business, George "staid" in the store and the post office. On occasion he went to the Dedham Cattle Fair to buy livestock. He attended town meetings during working hours, a sign of his growing stature in Franklin, He also "carried" friends. neighbors, and customers over the unpaved roads leading to their homes, or to Franklin, Wrentham, Woonsocket, or Milford, in one of the five Wadsworth horse drawn carriages.
But if the Wadsworth wagons and carriages were essential for local travel, it was the railroad track built through the center of Seth's fields and meadows in the mid 1850s on a right of way he had sold to the railroad company earlier that decade that enhanced the family's prominence and put the village on the map. After all, who could resist a ten or fifteen minute carriage ride to the Wadsworth Station as opposed to a half hour or an hour ride to the downtown Franklin Station at Depot Street?
The local travelers rode, or, lacking four wheels and a horse, walked to the Wadsworth Station at Spring Street. There, Joseph would sell them a ticket and perhaps a refreshment. Many boarded the train, bound for Boston. And Dedham, the home of the Norfolk County Registry of Deeds, Probate, and the Superior Court, was also a frequent destination. Late in the afternoons when the travelers returned to South Franklin‚Äûsome probably bought the Wadsworth-grown produce or the Wadsworth-fed beef or pork from the Wadsworth general store.
Like many diary writers, George sometimes concealed names. Initially he used the stealth of blank spaces as in: "Went to _______" In 1860 and 1861, he progressed to a code, a simple number-for-a-letter substitution. Every four or five days, an entry mentioned a name (almost always a "girl,") such as "1LV301." Early in 1861, about one month before he carried out that quintessential male task we call a proposal of marriage, the coded entries of carriage drives and visits with the local young ladies ceased.
On 26 May 1861, at the South Franklin Union Meeting House, George M. Wadsworth, 25, married 20-year-old Emeline Metcalf. Emeline had lived in Appleton, Maine, a village sixty miles northeast of Portland. The diaries indicate the newlyweds had known one another for several years: As early as the summer of 1857 while in Maine for a two week visit, George had noted, "Went to Paul Metcaif's with John and Emeline."
That George married a woman named Metcalf, like Seth and Joseph before him, should come as no surprise. The Metcalf name appears many times in Mortimer Blake's, A History of The Town of Franklin, Massachusetts. According to Blake, the forty-eight men who signed the petition to found an independent Franklin during the mid 1700s included four Metcalfs, From 1778 to 1878, sixteen Metcalf men served Franklin: One as a state representative, the others as town officials. And yet another, the prestigious attorney and Franklin native Theron Metcalf, sat as a justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court.
Each day without fail, George observed and made note of the weather. Sometimes he logged the exact temperatures: "42 above zero at sunrise." Often he wrote in more general terms: "Very pleasant part the day.... Clouded up in P.M. 8c began to rain some about 3 o' clock." His comments ranged from the mundane, "Warm.... humid,... fairly nice," to the dramatic. "Worse snowstorm I can remember of," and, "Hail storms broke windows, ruined gardens in Franklin City," Once, in late July, he wrote of an early morning frost in the fields, for Franklin perhaps an unprecedented touch of nature's hand.
Three or four times a year, a blizzard, a sub-zero day, or a heavy rain storm forced the South Franklinites to cancel their Sunday church meeting. In those cases, the family spent the day at home, and George was clear in his notes that Sunday was not a day for the Wadsworths to split wood or clean the barns.
Of a Sunday typical, he wrote, "Went to meeting all day. Elexus (Alexis) Ide preached. Edwin Pond played the organ. Joseph Abbie k Sarah went in the eve to (prayer) meeting at Mr. Alexanders."
At the time George started his diaries, the congregation had been holding its church meetings each week in the school house at the corner of Washington and Prospect Streets. Meanwhile, a half-mile to the northeast and also on Washington Street, tradesmen were completing the construction of a permanent church, the South Franklin Union Meeting House. And on 2 July 1857, the church was dedicated.
According to the Franklin Historical Commission chairman Barbara Smith, George and his neighbors were Congregationalists, and in those days it was the only sect in town except for a small group of Roman Catholics. It is unlikely George went to a Catholic church service. But when he traveled, at times he did attend a Baptist‚ Orthodox, or a Universalist Sunday service.
George wrote of attending writing and spelling school, but he "masured" lumber and read his "male." He noticed a "broak window" and a "pare of twins," and one rainy day he "didn't do a gradeel." Another day he first watched and later wrote, "Mrs Ollive Sayles was baptised by immertion"
Gail Lembo has kept George's spelling of the words in the transcriptions. On many entries, however, where a sentence should end, she has inserted a period followed by a capital letter. And at the beginning of each year she has included a list of national events. This allows the reader to juxtapose the rhythm of a small town with the pulsebeat of a nation.
For his part, through his daily diaries, George has left us thousands of snapshots filled with the hues and textures and sounds of 150 years ago. That overview gives us a clear and detailed portrait of the South Franklinites, their morals, their habits, their victories, and their hardships.
All that remains is for us to read.
Paul M. De Baggis
30 March 1998