Lucelia Arvilla Mills Clark, a farm wife in Cranberry Lake, New York kept a journal throughout her adult life recording daily activities, neighborhood news, weather observations, illnesses, deaths, and births. The entries are short and factual, but together they offer a window into the life of a farm family in the Adirondack Mountains during the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, and in particular record the business of keeping everyone fed.
Lucelia was born in Gouverneur in St. Lawrence County in 1852, daughter of blacksmith John R. Mills and his wife Jane Aldous Mills. In 1873, Lucelia married Henry M. Clark. The couple had nine children, eight of whom survived to adulthood. In 1884, the family moved to Maple Grove Farm, built by Lucelia’s father, near Cranberry Lake.
Life on a farm meant hard work. A typical entry in Lucelia’s diary, written on April 20, 1897: “I have churned and moped [sic] cooked and done housework all day. Churned 6 lbs [of butter].” She made dishtowels of “ripped up sugar sacks,” cleaned floors and windows, and made, ironed, mended, and washed clothing. She baked bread, cakes, cookies, and pies. The family raised chickens, sheep, and cows. Lucelia sold eggs, milk, and butter to neighbors and local businesses, and kept a vegetable garden to feed her family. She also kept houseplants and grew flowers.
On March 1, 1897, she wrote of the vagaries of an Adirondack spring: “Cold & stormy, went to the Lake after flour and feed and got caught in a snow storm. Found a live butterfly lived 4 days.” Later that month, her husband Henry “commenced tapping Sugar bush…first mosquito.” On the 23rd, the family “continued tapping, Earthquake in evening.” On April first, Lucelia reported that she had “boiled sap all day, finished bottling syrup, 20 gallons, planted tomatoes and peppers.” Two weeks later, with some humor, she remarked “Sap plenty, Syrup ditto, Work ditto, & the same.”
Lucelia took primary responsibility for looking after the chickens. Keeping the livestock healthy meant that the family ate, and preserved a source of cash income. Lucelia carefully noted problems with predators, illnesses, and unexplained deaths. On July 3, 1909, she wrote that she “put hen and chickens in coop. Found a dead chicken in the barn this PM and we found one in the swill tub (dead of course). I let the chicken yard down on one and killed it, am awful sorry but can’t help it.”
Each fall, Lucelia preserved food for the coming winter. On October 5, 1909, she wrote “I have done up 8 cans of tomatoes.” She made pickles, stored root vegetables in the cellar, canned fruits and vegetables, and made jams and chili sauce. She also contributed to feeding her community. Lucelia and her daughters fed visiting “Syrian pedlars,” farmhands, men looking for a meal in exchange for odd jobs, and sick neighbors. In August 1898, Lucelia made a chicken pie “for the social.” On rare occasions, Henry would chase away an indigent man who came by for a meal after overindulging in alcohol.
The family did rely on some food purchased in the nearby town of Cranberry Lake. In September 1897 Henry brought home “lots of new things, a teakettle and stew kettle and five sacks of flour.” In late fall, 1909, Henry was forced to walk home from Cranberry Lake after his horses broke the wagon’s whippletree. Lucelia noted wryly that Henry “carried a box of groceries on his shoulder, fell down, & said things.”
In 1922, Henry and Lucelia retired from farming and moved into Cranberry Lake. Lucelia wrote poetry and articles about local history that she published in area newspapers. After Henry died in 1943, Lucelia moved to Syracuse to live with one of her daughters. She died in 1945.
You can read excerpts from Lucelia’s diary in “Let’s Eat! Adirondack Food Traditions” on exhibit at the Adirondack Museum through October 18.
Photo: Lucelia and Henry Clark, ca. 1910. Courtesy the Adirondack Museum.