The Diary

to the Diary of Jared Nash
The diary.

The diary.

The People
and places in the diary.

Sources of information for the annotations

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© 2005 Jack Sanders
Ridgefield, Conn.

Thrashing rye with a flail.

What was everyday life like in Ridgefield, Connecticut, in the 1800s? A mid-1860s diary of a middle-aged Ridgefielder provides many insights into a 19th Century farming family and probably into what life was like even in the 18th Century.

The diary, with entries in pencil for every one of the 730 days of 1865 and 1866, describes – in the sparest of terms – the farming and social activities of Jared Nash and his family. Jared, about 40 years old when the diary opens, lived on Silver Spring Road near St. John’s Road in a house that has been owned for many years by Marjorie McKenna and the late Arthur McKenna.Jared Nash lived with his parents, Charles and Roxy Nash; his wife, Emily; and their daughter, Emmie. During the course of the diary, his second child, Charles S. Nash, who grew up to become one of the town's leading citizens, was born.

Although records in the town hall indicate that Jared was a shoemaker by trade, little of shoemaking is mentioned in the diary, but much mention is made of farming the family's spread at Silver Spring and of the simple but important chores of keeping up the household.

The Nashes were what might be called subsistence farmers; they were primarily interested in growing enough crops and raising enough livestock to survive on, and sold relatively little. They grew corn and rye, raised turkeys, kept some cattle and pigs, had an apple orchard, and grew many kinds of vegetables. To bring in extra income they sold a little of their crops, as well as butter, an occasional pig and cow, chicken or turkey, some wool, and perhaps some firewood. They made railroad ties in winter and sold them in spring. Emily was a seamstress and worked at home on sewing shirts for local manufacturers.

“The true Yankee farmer was a professional Jack-of-all-trades,” wrote W. Storrs Lee in The Yankees of Connecticut. “He had horses, cows, sheep, fruit trees, grain fields, and vegetable plots, 50 acres of pasture, and twice as much woodland… It was a challenge to generations of families, a noble undertaking, successful and then unsuccessful.”Money was handy, but, as Eric Sloane once wrote, “in those days wealth was not measured in cash. Rather was it measured in a person’s ability to make use of what nature provided and the manner in which he stored up against the stark days. Most things around a farm were traded, so there was little need for cash. Bank accounts were rare; one’s entire wealth was usually invested in the farm.Some money was important unless one had a mortgage to pay off. Mortgages were uncommon, and those that existed were often between family members. However, farmers wishing to expand their property or, as could easily happen, survive after a disasterous growing season might have to borrow money.

Perhaps by today’s standards the Nashes’ was a life on the border of poverty. It was a hard life, with many trials and tribulations, failures and successes. Charles Nash, for instance, went bankrupt in 1842 and lost much of his property. Abram S. Nash, his cousin, declared insolvency in the 1870s and lost his home. Elizabeth Nash Grumman, Charles’ daughter, was only 25 years old when both her husband and a year-old son died within two weeks, leaving her a widow with two other children, and she soon had to sell her home and move away. Diarist Jared Nash himself lived only 45 years before dying of tuberculosis.

That the Nashes survived the trials of 19th Century rural New England life is a tribute to their way of life, which combined hard work with close family ties. They did not give up and when problems arose, family helped. Charles’ father Jared rescued him from bankruptcy and his daughter, Elizabeth, loaned him a sizable amount of money late in his life – presumably to survive on. Throughout the diary, we see examples of one family member helping another. When Emily is ill following the birth of Charles S. Nash, sisters and neighbors help out at the house. Jared N. Olmstead, Jared Nash’s cousin, is always helping with plowing, and Silver Spring farmers like Munson Hoyt and Daniel Bennett frequently lend a hand – and the Nashes help them out in turn. Father, though in his early 70s, is always aiding family and friends. 

Such cooperation was tradition among farmers in New England. But it was especially critical during the period of the diary. The Civil War was still underway when the diary begins, and many of the young men who might have worked on farms had gone off to war. Almost all the people who assist the Nashes are too old to be soldiers – as are the Nashes themselves.Cooperation extended beyond family and friends. The Nashes and many of the people who associate with them were active in their community. Virtually every office in town government was held at one time or another by someone or other who appears in the diary. There were selectmen, school committee members, tax collectors, highway surveyors, haywards, constables, members of the Board of Relief, state representatives, and even fence viewers. They believed in community service, and that meant participation in the town’s government.The diary usually limits itself to family-related activities and makes almost no mention of news of the day, such as the Civil War, the assassination of Lincoln, or town politics. Deaths of family friends are noted, visitors are recorded, trips are briefly described; but only very occasionally is there reference to a non-family event, such as the burning of a block of stores in Norwalk. And there is almost no commentary on anything except the weather, which, typical of farm diaries, is recorded every day.

Most of the interest in the 206-page diary, written on four-by-six-inch pages, lies in its cataloguing of the day-to-day tasks that had to be performed to keep farm and family going. The diary is unusual because very few records of this type, written by Ridgefielders, have been found.
During the course of the diary, more than 100 people are mentioned, most of them Ridgefielders, but many from Wilton, Norwalk and South Salem where the Nashes had relatives or friends. Their lives spanned more than a century, some of them having been born in the late 1700s while others lived into the early 1900s.

The diary's descriptions, though brief, of everyday life of a 19th Century farming family collectively give a fairly comprehensive picture of agricultural Ridgefield -- the way life was for most of the town's inhabitants before the modern residential era.

By 1865 when the diary opens, farming was undergoing a revolution, with the invention and production of many laborsaving agricultural machines. However, it is doubtful that the Nashes, with their modest means, had incorporated many of these modern conveniences into their farm work, and many of the farming techniques and tools employed by the Nashes were probably the same as those used by Ridgefield farmers a century earlier.
In fact, it was the coming of mechanization that spelled doom for many New England farmers, whose small fields, often surrounded by rock walls, could not make efficient use of the big new machines. Such equipment was much better suited to the Plains of the Midwest, and consequently many New Englanders gave up their inefficient farms or switched almost exclusively to dairy farming. Or they moved westward to take advantage of those lands.
In fact, in the diary, we are probably witnessing some of the last years of the Nash farm, whose land had been agricultural for nearly a century and a half. Because of Jared’s early death and the lack of any other close family members interested in farming, the spread left the family in the 1870s. By the late 1920s, most of its fields and woodlands had been acquired for the Silver Spring Country Club, built in the early 1930s.Also of interest in the diary is Jared's use of language -- the words, phrases, and colloquialisms of the period. Although Jared’s entries are usually brief, different and sometimes colorful phrasing is employed. It is probably very close to the way Jared and his family spoke in ordinary conversation.Another interesting thing to observe is the health of the main characters. Jared Nash himself is a somewhat sickly person. He suffers from colds, toothaches, and other problems. It is perhaps not surprising to learn that he dies in 1870 at the relatively young age of 45. His father is rarely recorded as sick in the diary, and outlives his son, dying in 1878 at the age of 84. His mother, also rarely reported ill, was 82 when she died in 1876. Emily, his wife, goes through a difficult period at the birth of Charles S. Nash, and remains in bed for weeks. However, she, too, far outlives Jared, dying in 1901.
Ridgefielder Michael Kinslow discovered the diary of Jared Nash in the early 1970s. Mr. Kinslow was then a high school student.
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In the late 1970s, The Press began publishing my annotated version of Jared Nash's diary. However, the series ended before the diary did because of a production problem: A serious paper shortage hit the newspaper industry in 1979, and The Press had to eliminate many non-essential features. When the shortage ended, the shelved project never got restarted. This version of the diary contains many new, updated and extensively expanded annotations.
Because Jared’s entries are usually very short and matter-of-fact, readers must use their imaginations to catch the mood and color of the events described. To help readers understand what is happening, annotations are provided, based on the study of town records, genealogies, old almanacs, contemporary diaries, and many other sources. As for Jared’s text, punctuation has been added or corrected. When incorrect or variant spellings are use consistently, they have been retained; otherwise, misspellings have been corrected.