A Farmer's Letter from 1857

I was lucky enough, some years ago, to do research in the hill-towns of western Massachusetts. One in particular stood out. Ashfield is a town of about seventeen hundred people, located at an elevation of about 1250 feet in the Berkshire foothills. It was the home of Dr. Charles Knowlton, the first American to publish a birth control manual (in 1833. He was promptly jailed for it), who I wrote about in An Infidel Body-Snatcher and the Fruits of His Philosophy. Ashfield was also home to the Ranney family, at least until they spread out across upstate New York and southwestern Michigan.

The Ranneys are great, because like many nineteenth-century families, they kept in close touch with each other -- and luckily, the
Ashfield Historical Society has held onto their letters! So I had the opportunity to photograph, transcribe, and read correspondence that spans four decades. I promised my friends at the Historical Society that one day I'd put all the letters together and publish them. Time to get back to work on that project.

allenmi
Lucius Ranney has two 80-acre parcels in the section to the right of Duck Lake

So here's a representative letter, from Lucius Ranney of Michigan to his older brother Henry, who was the sole family member to remain in Ashfield. The Ranneys had moved first to Phelps, New York in the late 1830s. Then several of the brothers picked up and went to Michigan. By the mid-1850s, Lucius was well-settled on a 160-acre parcel in Allen Township. The parcel is no longer in the family, but you can still see the grid-lines from space.

allen2011
The parcels previously owned by Lucius
Lucius writes to Henry in the summer of 1857, after what he describes as a long silence. The gap in their communication was probably not as long as the gap in the archive, because Henry went to Michigan in late 1856, and their mother Achsah had returned home to Allen (she actually split her time between Massachusetts, New York, and Michigan). Lucius writes about the farm and the family.  He says Achsah did not go to Coldwater to visit their cousin, Lucretia Ranney Hathaway in the fall, as she had apparently planned to do. Coldwater is about twelve miles from Allen. Their younger brother Harrison, who was married in early 1856, had a son in April, and (another brother) Anson’s son who is just over a year old “walks all over the house.”

Lucius mentions that he has traded his team of oxen for horses, and that Harrison and (yet another brother) Lemuel also have a team of horses. Horses were slightly more of a luxury than oxen, because they're faster and can pull a wagon quickly to town. But horses were more expensive, since they needed oats whereas oxen can survive on grass. So the brothers were doing well. Lucius also says Anson doesn’t have a team at all, so he has been doing his brother’s “team work.”

Lucius invites Henry to visit again in September, when their brother Alonzo Franklin will be coming out from Phelps. He also invites his niece and nephew, Henry's children, suggesting to Ralph that he take up a peddler’s basket and come out on west. This is a joke, because Ralph is only twelve — but Ralph does go out on the road as a Yankee Peddler several years later.

1857-7-19luciustohsr

My Transcription:

Allen July 19th 1857
Dear Brother

It has been a long time since I have written you a letter, & the reason is not because I have forgotten you for I presume that there is not a day passes but what I think of you & also think of what a fine visit we had together last fall.  But it is my negligence.  We are all well as usual & also the other Boys & their Families for aught I know.  I see them quite often.  Mother’s health is about the same as it was when she came home last fall.

We had a very long & severe winter & the spring & summer are very backward, & very wet.  We had a very hard thunderstorm last night.  Provisions are rather dear here this summer, although there seems to be a plenty in the country.  We have a plenty of old wheat on hand yet, old potatoes & old pork &c.  Potatoes have been worth during the summer, one dollar a bushel. 

Wheat, the average price about $1.50 a bushel &c.  One year ago today I had my wheat harvested & in the barn & the most of my hay, and now I have just begun to hay & my wheat will not be fit to cut under about a week.  

Crops look very promising at present.  I think I shall have two hundred bushels of wheat.  I call it 12 acres.  You recollect where it was sowed.  I should estimate it higher, but the Weavle are injuring it some.  Don’t know how much.  The little piece across the road is injured by being too large straw, it is lodged flat to the ground the most of it. Grass is very good.  I shall cut double the hay that I did last year.  I have a piece of oats that looks well.  Potatoes look first rate.  Corn is backward but is a growing finely now days.  

Anson’s crops look very well.  He will have nearly two hundred bushels of wheat.  Harrison & Lemuel’s wheat is rather small, their other crops are good.  Lewis says that it has been too wet to hoe his corn much, but it will all be right with him in the fall.  

I suppose that you have heard that Harrison has a boy about three months old.  Anson’s boy walks all over the house.  Anson has not got any team this summer, consequently I do the most of his team work. I have no oxen this summer, I work horses.  I traded my oxen for horses last winter.  I have about such a team as the Boys had when you were here.  They have the same now. 

We have three cows this summer.  I sheared the same flock of sheep that I had last fall when you were here.  There was 66 of them.  We saved 2 fleeces, the other sixty-four sheared 291 lbs of which I sold for 44 cts a lb.  Beat that with a common flock of that size in your county if you can.

Mother says I must write more about my horses.  I keep that black colt that you saw.  She is raising a fine colt this summer.  I have the boy 2 year old colt, & I also have a yearling colt that I bought last winter.  Which makes in all six horse kind.  I have since shearing sold all of my wethers, both old & young.  23 in number for $2.25 per head.  Beef cattle are very high here at present.  There is a great many buyers about these days.  

I moved the house from across the road over near where you & I staked out & I find it much better or handier rather.  It also looks better.  We are a having a great deal of fruit this season.  We shall have a number of bushels of peaches from the old, apparently dead trees.  Our orchard is a bearing full.  We shall have a great many greenings & we are a having lots of currants.  In fact there is a going to be a great many beechnuts, butternuts &c.  

We have not heard from Priscilla in a long time.  She was well the last we heard from her.  We are expecting Franklin out here in Sept & we would like to have you come out with him if you thought you could make it pay.  We are a fitting up some roasters.  I think it will be doubtful about my going East this fall as A.F. is a coming out here.  Mother did not go out to Coldwater to see Mrs. Hathaway last fall.  It did not seem to be convenient for her to go until we was afraid that Mrs. Hathaway was gone.  Andrew is not a living with us now.  His mother got married last winter & wanted him to go live with her, so he went.  I have got a lad to work for me this summer, about seventeen years old.  

I might perhaps write many more things which would be interesting to you, but it is chore time & I must draw to a close.  I must try to write often & hope that you will do the same.  We want that you should all write.  We were all very much pleased with the large mail that we got from you at one time last winter.  Ralph, can’t you take a basket of essence & take a trip out into Mich and make a dime or two & see your kin?  They would like to see you very much.  Ella how can you manage to come out, try and study out some way can’t you?  If you cannot don’t forget to write.  Carroline goes to school to Mr. Howes this summer.  Down in Anson’s dist. 

Yours in Haste H. S. Ranney
From Lucius Ranney

P.S. Please do not delay writing but a short time after you receive this.  Mother says that Ralph is a great hand to write.  Can you make any of your townsmen believe many moderate Mich truths?  We all send our love to you all.
L.R.