While researching and writing my latest book, Leaves Torn Asunder: A Novel of the Adirondacks and the American Civil War, I knew I wanted it as historically accurate regarding Adirondack farm life in the mid-1800s as it was about the movement and moods of the soldiers during the war.
Getting good information on the soldiers was relatively easy; there are a multitude of letters, diaries, and many books on the subject. Researching Adirondack farm life of the time proved to be more of a challenge.
John Deere had patented the first steel plow in 1837 and I assumed farming families in the Adirondacks would have used them, but what about harvesting methods? With some great help from the folks at the Farmers’ Museum in Cooperstown, I learned that the first practical mowing machines were developed in the 1850s. By the time of the Civil War, these were made by companies such as Ames Plow, Cayuga Chief Manufacturing, Johnson Harvester, McCormick Harvesting Machine, and the Walter Wood Company. Apparently however, they were not widely used in Warren, Essex or Washington counties. The evolution of farming methods came more slowly to this area and it was not until after the Civil War that the first hay mower pulled by two horses was introduced. At the time of the Civil War harvesting of hay and grain crops would have been done by hand using long handled scythes.
Although New York State is an important dairy state today, growing of wheat dominated early upstate agriculture. Some historians even assert that Sir John Johnson’s primary reason for raiding and burning the farmhouses and barns around Johnstown in 1780 was so he could destroy the wheat crop destined for George Washington’s starving army at Valley Forge. Wheat was certainly grown in the Adirondacks in the mid 1800s, but I found, that at least in the southeast Adirondacks, buckwheat was the major crop. Buckwheat is not related to wheat, contains no gluten and is not a grass. It is more closely related to sorrel, knotweed and rhubarb. It is said that buckwheat grew up to four feet high on Adirondack farms.
There were some cattle, of course. Farmers generally had as many as 25 head of cattle, but in an area settled by folks from Ireland, Scotland, and England, sheep raising dominated. Merino sheep, originally brought in from Addison County, Vermont were particular prized. Sheep wander and scatter, so it’s important to keep track of who owned which sheep. In the archives of the Johnsburg Historical Society I found a list of registered sheep marks. Knitting was important back then; the 1855 NYS Census lists hundreds of “manufacturers” of wool mittens in Warren County which could sell for up to 51 cents a pair. Ladies kept busy with mittens as well with socks. Woolen socks were often shipped to men in the service; poorly constructed boots, manufactured by the lowest bidder, could go through a pair of socks in a matter of weeks.
An important turning point in my novel is when a father and son talk in their sugarbush while collecting sap and boiling it to make syrup, or more accurately maple sugar. As one who has “sugared” for thirty years it was important to me to get these details right. Back in the mid 1800s they didn’t use galvanized sap buckets for collecting from the trees but rather hand-made buckets of maple and birch with a staghorn sumac spile. You can see one on display at the Farmers’ Museum. They boiled the sap in a large cauldron over an open fire; sugarhouses (and certainly plastic collecting tubes) were not used back then.
Music was as important back then as today; perhaps even more important as it was the primary form of entertainment. After farmers returned to their homes at dusk to eat their supper (“dinner” was the noon day meal), live music in the evening might be provided with the playing of a fiddle or hammer dulcimer. Cedar Stanistreet, a renowned fiddle player himself who grew up in the area, gave me some leads as to which tunes might have been popular.
Researching the customs and mores of the times was particularly fun. Woman regularly got together to help process the crops and the young unmarried ladies, after peeling an apple, were prone to toss the curled peel over their shoulder and then try to discern whose initials it spelled out on the floor; those initials being those of the man they were fated to marry, a fun detail I included in my story.
In a novel it’s important that each character have a distinctive voice. This was perhaps the most challenging part of writing the book, since I was unfamiliar with the slang and idiomatic expressions of the day. I was able to do some research on period voice patterns, but I knew I’d have to be careful not use any that might detract from the story. I’ve since come across a soldier’s letter to his mother asking that she send him a “housewife”. What could that possibly have meant?! Research concluded it was slang for a sewing kit.
There is a scene in the novel of some soldiers sitting around a campfire just prior to battle at the Wilderness in May of 1864. They have stolen some liquor from a deserted farmhouse nearby and are clandestinely drinking to assuage their fears over the next day’s battle. One of the characters unsteadily rises to his feet and recites a passage from Shakespeare, much to the delight of his comrades. It turns out that when settlers traveled west, despite space in their wagons being at a premium, many brought with them two books: a bible and some Shakespeare. Folks in the mid-1800s knew their Shakespeare much better than we do today.
As an amateur historian it was important to me to get these details right, but as a writer I also think they enhanced the novel. If you get a chance to read it I hope you will agree.
Editors Note: Glenn will be at the Chronicle Book Fair on Sunday, November 6th with his books. The Book Fair will be held at the Queensbury Hotel, is free and open to the public, and runs from 11 am to 3 pm.
Photo: An early 19th century scene at Wisconsin’s Living Museum (photo by Glenn L. Pearsall).