1885 Diary of a Maine Farmer, Ferrier and Carpenter Sick With a Respiratory Illness, Working Through the Pain, and Travelling West for Relief That Would Not Come

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On offer is an outstanding chronicle of a year in the difficult life of a hardworking husband and father, coping with a debilitating lung illness while trying to keep things going for his family. 

The author of the diary is Newell Moulton Varney (1831-1888). Varney was born in Tamworth, New Hampshire and later moved to Sumner, Maine. He was the son of Rueben H. Varney and Sophia F (Moulton) Varney In 1856, he was married to Lydia Cushman Bonney (1831-1922) and they raised a family of nine children, though only eight survived infancy. 

Varney was a farmer, a farrier and a carpenter. He worked his farm, shod many many oxen and worked at constructing buildings and repairing equipment. Through it all, his health was failing. He suffered from lung disease terribly and that is likely what caused his early demise in 1888. Varney was active in his community and often attended town meetings and was a member of the Grange – a national farmers organization and secret society structured along the lines of the Masonic Order.

Varney kept his diary every day from February 6, 1885 to December 31, 1885. Tipped into the diary is a letter dated May 1883 and some newspaper cut outs. Varney has noted his financial transactions from Feb to Dec of 1885 in detail at the back of the diary. There is also a funeral home receipt for one of Varney’s children, Lydia Jennie Heald, who died in 1965, indicating that this diary likely came from her estate. 

Varney’s diary depicts his lived experience in well-written detail:

“Clarra Bonney died this morning. Lydia is over there staid all day the travelling is bad. I worked in the shop a little today” [Feb 12].

“I have felt nearly sick all day my lungs are feeling very bad hard work to breath the weather cleared off some time in the night and blew a gale froze up hard blew all day. I have tried to boil sap today but it is a slow job on account of the wind. I have got all of the sap into the pails tonight at ten o’clock. Cora and Jennie have been gone all day and have not got home yet the clock gone struck ten P.M. while I am writing W [ ] Robinson was here and took dinner today stoped two or three hours” [Apr 9].

“I sold my oxen today for one hundred and forty seven dollars to some men by the name of B{ ] went up to Bassetts and done 3/4 of a days work it is quite warm today two men [ ] here last night and their horse also the same men that bought the oxen I set one shoe on the oxen for them. I saw Asia Riokes up to Bassetts today” [Sept 4].

"Mat and wife were here today. I am nearly used up today. Been spitting blood all day. My lungs are very sore." [Nov 11].

“I carried the children to school and then went over to Ed Boukers and got 60 bricks that belonged to [ ] Ford built up the back of the sitting room chimney shod Charles Bonney’s horse and mended his wagon spring, Dr. Reid took dinner with us today” [Nov 25].

By December, his health had failed to the extent that he decided to travel south to see if the warmer climate would help him. His entries during the trip are detailed and paint a very vivid picture of his journey. He was not happy with what he found in the South. Some excerpts: 

“I am waiting for Mat to come and take me to the depot to take the 9 o'clock train to bear me away from home and friends and all that I hold dear on this earth, for the purpose of gaining my health in Florida, if it is God's will. My heart is sad & can't help the tears from streaming down my cheeks. Got started and got to Portland at eight. Went over to boat and got state room. Went to bed, but did not sleep. We started for Boston at night. Got soup and coffee and went up on Fulton St. and I was sick on the boat. Bisbee [who went with him] vomited some” [Dec 23]. 

“I am not well today. My lungs are feeling bad. Cough nearly as bad as when at home. My boarding place is a dirty place for a northern man. It will do for the southern element. The food is poor and half cooked at that. The tea and coffee muddy & the milk so thin that you could see through it is it was clean. I have travelled the city. Went all over to find a decent place within my means. Have found a room but have got to go out for my meals. I took my supper in a negro restaurant. It appears to be neat but the food is so different from home that it is hard work to eat it” [Dec 30].

He returned home. Three years later, Varney passed away of what was possibly tuberculosis.

For a historian, especially one researching rural life in America in the late 19th century, this diary is an excellent window into that world. It is detailed and well-written. For a genealogist, it offers many references to local people in this small, closely-knit community

Measuring 6x3.5 inches, this diary contains 365 pages. It is about 87% complete. The cover shows some wear but is in otherwise good condition as is the binding and spine. The pages are in good condition as well and the handwriting is quite legible. Overall G. 

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