Writing Project

d1

This old diary came from a local antiques auction.  It was in a box of odds and ends I purchased, looked like items from some old attic.  I bought the box for an antique ceramic bath powder box that was shaped like a little house.  The diary was a pleasant surprise, as were several other bits in the box.

This is the diary of Belle Gordon from the year 1884.  Belle was a girl of fourteen at the time. She lived in a small town in Maine called Thorndike.  The town’s population may have been higher in 1884 than it is today.  The area is agricultural and off major thoroughfares now that the railway is so underused. During Belle’s time a bustling community provided support for its members and was a daily stop for the passenger train.

The diary is written with pencil in a girlish hand, she was fourteen turning to fifteen on June 19th. The days are all faithfully recorded with only a few done after the fact, if she was too sick to write in her diary.  One of my current projects is transcribing this diary.  The handwriting style takes some getting used to, I have come to recognize the unique ways she forms most of her characters.  Still, some words elude me, especially the names of people she knew.

I have read the diary through.  She speaks of many occurrences in her town.  A real flavor for her life develops through the pages.  Cooking was done on a large wood stove, with Belle assisting her mother. She did much of the baking.  She helps hand sew her own clothes.  Wash day is dutifully recorded and involved boiling large quantities of water, huge tubs, hand scrubbing and hanging to dry.  Ladies wore full dresses, and men had costumes that included coats, shirts, vests, neck ties and trousers. Washing all this could be a daunting task.

Belle’s family consisted of her parents, an older brother and herself.  She does not speak at length of her father’s occupation, but he did do woodwork, including make the coffins for the town, and he taught some at a local school.  The lifestyle of that time involved much visiting between neighbors, many of whom were family.  Food and wood were traded back and forth.  A highlight of the day was taking the horse-drawn wagon down to the train stop to collect whatever parcels and shipments may have arrived for the family that day.  There must have been a store near the train stop because Belle often speaks of items her father would purchase while he was going “to the station.”

I hope to one day have this diary completely transcribed and to use it to write a book for children of Belle’s age.  The insights she provides of life for teens at that time could be a real eye opener for our youngsters.  There was no tweeting or Facebooking.  Belle and her friends kept very occupied with such activities as swinging, sledding, making scrapbooks with pretty pictures they cut from cards, making quilts, and going strawberrying–picking wild strawberries to make preserves.  The children walked to their small schoolhouse, and getting a ride in someone’s wagon was an event worth noting in the diary.

Belle also recorded local news events: deaths, fires, floods, dances, visitors, including peddlars and even hobos, and when the men worked to smooth the dirt roads in the spring after the mud dried. The year she wrote was a presidential election year and she notes the victory of Grover Cleaveland. With the lack of central heating or air conditioning, weather was of supreme interest then and Belle begins each day’s entry with a weather report.  Here is the entry for Jan 22, 1884.d2

She says:  Windy day Will (her brother) did not go to school (Belle was frugal with punctuation and erratic with capitalization) I went into Bryant’s (a shop, I believe) got Glasses for Will.  Got two cts (not sure what cts means, could be cents or cartons or who knows?) Sewed on dress (she’s making herself a dress)  Procession went by. (This may have been a funeral procession.) Rod (a neighbor) came in here after herbs (healing herbs, no doubt) Mother has got the pink eye (pink eye, I presume conjunctivitis, was a common ailment for Belle to write about) Stomach feels bad. (Belle had a sick stomach for several days in Jan.)

As is demonstrated by this short entry, translating the script can be challenging.  I’ve worked on this diary as time allows for about two years and have gotten through the end of June.  I hope to finish soon and start the process of coalescing the information into a book.  Perhaps it will be about a year in Belle’s life, complete with illustrations to bring the Victorian times alive for modern kids.

I have been able to find a small amount of biographical information about Belle Gordon.  There is a photo on the Town of Thorndike website in the history section that shows a group of children standing in front of a school.  It dates to the same time period.  I suspect Belle is one of the older girls pictured.  I have tried to glean information about this photo from town historians, but the people who had the picture are all passed on now.

There is a record in the Unity, Maine ( a nearby town) Annual Report from 1888 of School District #6, that the fall term was taught by Miss Bell C. Gordon, with good success.  Length of term 8 weeks.  I believe this is Belle.  From the addresses Belle includes in the back of her diary, I have surmised that her mother was named Allie (Alvina) and her father was Daniel Gordon, Jr.  There is a record from a family bible of Allie Gordon, available online as a document of a Moulton family from Maine, that records Clara Bell Gordon being born 6/19/1869, the date Belle gives for her birthday in the diary. The bible also says Belle married Percy Walter Crosby on Dec 18, 1895.  They had one child, a boy named Harlan Crosby.  Through reading and interpreting the diary entries, I have become very fond of Belle.  If this girl recorded in the bible is Belle, as I believe it is, then it is nice to know she lived to adulthood and had a family of her own.

I hope in the future to do much more work digging for family information, perhaps making a trip to Belfast, Maine, the Waldo county seat, to look through their archives.  I have also promised to donate the diary to the Thorndike Historical Society when I’ve finished with my research.  It is a valuable record that should be preserved.

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5 thoughts on “Writing Project

  1. I am so excited about this, so excited!! I was actually just thinking about it yesterday morning and wondering if you’d made any more progress. Such a neat piece of history from right here in Maine.

  2. Wow! The script certainly is difficult to read. You love to work hard, don’t you? Bell was very consistent with keeping the diary up to date. Yes, it would seem likely she would become a teacher. Also glad to hear she survived to marry and have her own child.

    • I love a challenge and it’s worth it to have this bit of history made available. I’ve found that her father was employed pretty regularly as a teacher. There is a record of Thorndike paying him $75 to teach the 1897-98 year. Plus the references Belle makes to his teaching. Her father must have encouraged her to be a good student and maybe even gave her the diary to get her to write.

      • It reminds me a lot of the Little House books and I’m sure any kid who likes those will want to read about Belle, too. Laura was a teacher as well and got paid anywhere from $25-$100 per semester/year for her classes.

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