One spring day in 2009, a man approached the docent’s desk in the Windsor Historical Society’s lobby offering a small, scuffed, and worn brown object in the palm of his outstretched hand. Would the Society like to have it? The docent started to explain the donation procedure, but her voice faded off as the man began to tell the story of the little diary.
He was riding his bike to middle school back in 1982 or 1983 when he noticed the dark object in the grass. Picking it up, he saw that it was a little book – a little pencil-inscribed diary for the year 1860. He and his parents enlisted family friends, the Windsor police, and even an article in the Journal Inquirer in order to find its rightful owner, all to no avail. So the diary had resided, nearly forgotten, in his parents’ safe deposit box for the past 25 years. The WHS staff examined the diary and found numerous entries that persuaded them of its probable Windsor provenance, and so it was accepted.
Library volunteer Sandy McGraw eagerly volunteered to transcribe the diary, thinking that the short entries might yield interesting tidbits about the author’s life in Windsor and, with a lot of luck, might offer clues to his identity. Week by week Sandy struggled to decipher the tiny penciled notes which offered a phrase or sentence or two per day. The writer appeared to be a young man who was attending school in East Windsor part of the year and working many hours a week doing the typical farm chores of the season. He also found some time for fun and spent Sundays at church.
Friday January 27 My birthday. Came home with Wolcott after school.
Sunday January 29 Attended meeting all day. Went to meeting in the eve.
Tuesday February 21 Went to Hartford on the [train] cars. Attended exhibition of the Windsor Arts Union in the art house. Crowded. Passed off exceedingly well.
Friday March 2 Very Pleasant day. Bluebirds here & making music. Could not [be?] on the river. Ice cleared out in the night. River rising.
Monday April 23 Worked heaping manure & carting it on to tobacco land. Fred Drake worked for me. I grafted some pear scions.
Monday May 7 Cherry trees in full bloom. Plowed turf in the meadow. Had Uncle Leavitt’s cattle.
Wednesday June 6 Finished stripping tobacco. Attended Mrs. L. G. Hayden’s funeral in afternoon.
Thursday June 28 Commenced mowing in the meadow. Cut ¾ of corn with machine. Raked & cached it up at night.
Wednesday July 18 A total eclipse of the sun. Plowed out tobacco in morning. Dr. Pierson’s funeral in the afternoon.
Friday July 27 I went up to Hartford & up to the locks [Windsor Locks] at night. Great time in Hartford among the Wide-Awakes.
Thursday August 9 Cousins Sarah, Mary & Nellie & myself went to Hartford to see the Japanese burlesque.
Wednesday September 19 Picking up apples & digging potatoes. I raked weeds for Uncle Leavitt & for myself.
Thursday November 1 Made cider. Finished picking corn.
Tuesday November 6 Presidential Election day. Republicans carried this town by 2 majority. Lincoln 204 votes, Douglas 45, Breckinridge 202, Bell 5. went to Hartford in evening. Had a great time.
Monday December 17 South Carolina declared herself out of the Union. Terrible times
Sandy also kept a running list of any names which were mentioned and local events which might be confirmed through other sources. It was enticing to find so many familiar Windsor surnames – Hayden, Ellsworth, Loomis, Phelps – and occasionally a relationship “Had Uncle Leavitt’s cattle,” “… went up to the Locks to Aunt Julia’s & brought Emily home,” “I went over to Uncle Erastus’ in the evening,” and the names of friends and fellow students. Searching the 1860 census to find a last name for Uncle Erastus and Uncle Leavitt led us to the Ellsworth family. Then we turned to the genealogies in Henry Stiles’ The History of Ancient Windsor — could we find a nephew whose birthday was January 27th? Indeed there was: David Josiah Ellsworth, born January 27, 1840.
This was very exciting because in our research library there is additional information about David Ellsworth. He was a prosperous and innovative Windsor farmer with property on upper Palisado Avenue. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Windsor Creamery, a charter member of the Windsor Historical Society, keenly interested in politics, wrote letters to the Hartford Courant, and was an authority on local history. Our library files contain some of the papers that he read before members of the Society, including one about the Blizzard of 1888.
One of the lines in his 1932 obituary stated, “He kept a diary for many years which has proved of much value in determining dates of events 60 or 70 years ago.” This sent the WHS staff searching, with precarious hopes, through the uncataloged collections for other unidentified diaries. There were loud shouts of excitement when five more worn and nondescript pocket diaries were found for the years 1857, 1858, 1859, 1863 and 1876; and yet again when each of these were opened and revealed that tell-tale entry on January 27th – “My birthday.”
Pleasure and satisfaction are often derived from the fleeting events of life – the joy on a child’s face or a fragrant lilac bush. But they also occur more frequently than you might imagine here at WHS, sparked by the enormous power of everyday objects from the past to touch the heart of visitors, volunteers, and staff.
Visit the WHS library to see these little diaries and to read the transcript of the 1860 entries.
By Barbara Goodwin, librarian, 2010