The diary of an Ohio farm wife

Winesburg, Ohio as remembered by its last surviving inhabitant

Hubert and Anna

Hubert and Anna (right)

Thursday Nov 13-1924
Cleaned upstairs, also attic. It looks nice now. Worked on woodpile. Did nothing else today but cry. Hubert made to me the startling announcement that he has been using my money to play the stock market and lost. Everything is wrong. I feel bad for Hubert. He is worrying very much. All stocks are going up except what we have...

In the early 1980s a Chagrin Falls, Ohio yard sale presented me with a diary written by an Ohio farm wife from 1923 through 1927. It is in the form of a handwritten ledger and in fair shape. The family was the Borlings (Hubert and Anna) and the times were hard for their Lake County orchard business.

Fast forward to 2008 and the first iteration of this piece for the blog A Rain of Frogs. When Bonnie and I were married, we were an elementary school secretary and a retired engineer. Genealogy was not our forte, but we are curious people and became caught up with what it was like to live in America in the 1920s. What drew us to this writing project was the dearth of information about this era between the Great War and the Great Depression, particularly in the American Midwest. Researching the diary grew into a larger project than we could handle; we realized that if our involvement were to continue it would mean moving to Ohio for a year at least. We began a sporadic research of the times of the diary. One hell of a honeymoon, you say. Well... we didn’t write all the time.

I had been packing the diary around since 1981, hoping to eventually “do something” with it. We began researching the people and places mentioned in the diary with the hope of coming up with a publishable manuscript. A sporadic series of inquiries about Lake Co. and the nursery business occupied our spare time over a few years. We even checked the past ownership of the house that had held the yard sale. No soap.

We transcribed the diary during one of those long, cold winters Maine is famous for, and passed along an electronic version to the historical society in the Ohio county where the diary’s writer lived and wrote.

I paid a copyright attorney for consultation. Could I use the diary as the basis for a fictional treatment? Yes — if I performed a diligent search and no claimants popped up. The diary entered the public domain as of 2003. I would write a book; I scribbled and sweated, but nothing I could come up with hit with the force of the matter-of-fact prose of the diary, an interstitial marvel.

Time passes...

in 2012 Dale Godbey got in touch from Ohio:

“I was going through some photos and found several that corresponded with your diary entry’ s (like May 2nd 1926 * took photo of girls in wagon) and several others (Feb. Snowstorm * went outside and took pictures) I was excited to find them! Also I found a Ledger from 1926-27 that shows money spent and earned that match up with the diary (rec. payment by check 11-5-26 from Ryan for $6.30) etc:

“I don’ t know what we can do with all of this info but it is kinda cool to see the pieces coming together!

“I also have many photos (wedding — Hubert and Anna, and child photos of Catherine) I am working on scanning some of them, and I will send you some if you are interested?) I am still looking for my diary that I had in my possession, I had taken it out and was looking it over a while ago and not sure where I put it. It may be from 1928, 29?”

Yes, I would...

Dale Godbey continues:

“When I met Hubert, I was in my early 20s and I certainly believe it was fate that brought us together because of the circumstances. It was a magical time for me visiting him at his home, talking about all types of things well into the night. He had an effect on me that (along with others) ultimately led me to be a convert to Catholicism. I got involved and have been a liturgical musician for over 30 years and have been blessed in many ways. I planned and sang for the Liturgy at Hubert’s Funeral service, and as you know I ended up in possession of all his worldly goods which is really just 4 wooden file boxes with notes, letters, documents, and pictures.”

photographs from the collection of Hubert Borling courtesy Dale Godbey

from a fictionalized backstory

Anna has decided to remodel the house:

“I think we shall begin today.” Winter smelled like wet wool, oatmeal and coal oil, and lungs gurgled with persistent coughs. When it snowed, the mud of the dooryard was dotted with great, plashy wet flakes, piling into drifts in a day; the brown mud seeped up as the coal smoke seeped down. Wind-blown snow exposed striations of white, black, and brown eddying in the gritty film that covered all outdoors. Soot clotted on the snow, the walls, the curtains, and in the lungs. Two kitchens and four stoves — the soot and ash filtered into every room of the house.

When I came to this house as a bride, things were different, thought Anna. As a bride, she had been neither resigned nor hopeful: her marriage had just happened at an appropriate time. She had wedded Hubert in the same house, before the same familiar faces, amid the same furniture with identical rows of the orchards marching parallel ranks to the Lake Erie shores ten miles away. Marrying Hubert Borling had been quite the same as marrying one’s own brother. The fifteen years between them had been an insuperable gulf — he sixteen, she a toddler. They had grown up together barely speaking. She had not crossed the family threshold, she had only stayed and waited. Theirs was not a love match; it was, like their wedding, reasonable and inevitable. And a full two years later, they had a child: a daughter, Katherine, their only child. For most of those fourteen years she had swept up the charred twists of newspaper Grandfather Borling stamped out on the floor after lighting his pipe, boiled her wash in the two-handled copper boiler Grandmother Borling had favored, and ironed on Wednesdays.

“I’m trying to make the place look a little neater and more home-like,” Anna wrote in her diary. “When I get through, this will be a different house.”

The little kitchen was no bigger, no smaller, than the summer kitchen or “big” kitchen. The big kitchen was a room of passage from the orchards and the barn, a depot for muddy boots, a shed for sorting cherries, plucking poultry, wash-boiling and canning on its combination kerosene- and wood-fired range. The summer kitchen was attached to the house, inconveniently away from the little kitchen. During the summer months, most meals were eaten there. After the harvest the number of mouths to be fed declined and the remaining hired hand who stayed over winter ate with the family in the little kitchen. Winter water came from the hand pump at a massive zinc sink. The big kitchen boasted a huge black cook stove with upper warming ovens, a Grand Rapids rectangular oak table with chairs for eight and additional leaves for expansion as needed. There was a horsehair couch in the summer kitchen: a relic, slick and nacreous, a Victorian fainting couch indented by the writhing hams of two generations of hired men as they removed muddy boots. The big kitchen had many windows.

There was a stamping of boots. Hubert had entered the big kitchen, in from the barn. Hubert bent over the the bar of yellow soap, working its shallow lather into the grease-clogged creases of his knuckles.

“Damn!” He had wet his cuffs.

Wiping a free hand on his hair, he tugged up one sleeve. Hubert wiped the suds from his right hand on the seat of his pants and pulled the other sleeve up. The water stopped. He gave a fly at the pump handle and plied the soap, working under his nails with a stiff fiber brush. At eye level was a gleaming representation of a porcelain sink nestled atop custom cabinetry.

Anna had pinned a picture torn from a magazine where he would have to see it.

“I see it.” He spoke knowing she would be there.

“Better Homes and Gardens. Like it? I like it.”

“This one stays; it’s a zinc sink.” That tickled Hubert, his words and their music. A zinc sink. The words would be there all afternoon, hovering through his exhalations just at the level of audibility. Hubert was not easily or often amused, but when a thing caught his fancy he would savor it all day. He was not purposefully trying to annoy her; he was teasing the words for himself and himself alone. Anyone who attended might be amused or not as they pleased. The zinc sink, the old, ugly and serviceable sink, planted like a foundry casting across a windowless wall in the summer kitchen.

“A zinc sink.” Substantial, a marvel of the last century’s washday technology, with stubby legs, its basins two feet deep — deep and immovable.

“I was only mentioning it. Forget it. I never said anything.”

THE 1920s

Inside the front cover

A mother’s love for you will last
When lighter passions long have passed.
So [faithful crossed out] holy ’tis and true
Her peerless love hath longer dwelt
’Tis more firmly fixed More firmly felt.

LIFE’S DAYS [a newspaper clipping]

Life can be very sweet at times
Through all its cares and stress,
And there are many hours and days
Of cheer and happiness;
For every heartache that we know
Our joys are quite a few,
For every bitter hour there comes
An hour of gladness, too.

Often our days are very dark
And faith and hope seem vain,
And in the anguish of our souls
We cry aloud in pain;
But always in the darkest hour
Hope comes to cheer and bless,
And we are led by wondrous ways
To faith and happiness.

So let us take life as it comes
And live from day to day,
Sure in the knowledge God’s strong hand
Is leading all the way;
Trusting to Him when clouds hang low,
Knowing that He will give
A joy for every darksome hour
While here on earth we live.

The diary is the statement of a remarkable woman, a simulacrum of Winesburg, Ohio as remembered by its last surviving inhabitant. I have enough on my writerly plate to keep the two of us out of harm’s way for the next five years at least, so Anna’ s farewells to her diary will have to do for now:

Thursday Dec 8-27
Big snow storm all nite & day. Many lives lost at sea and on land. Blue room full of snow. I ironed & mended. Got all ready to go to 8 o’clock Mass but it was so cold and stormy we did not risk going. It was 15 [degrees] at 7 A.M. but got as cold as 8 before nite.

Saturday Dec 31-27
Rain all nite turned to snow. Also stormy.
While crouched on couch behind stove this A.M. Hubert talked to me. Has been mad 2 weeks. Had blues, cried, has boils, felt bad all over. Was broken-hearted. I guess things will be better now. Goodby, little diary, you have been a faithful friend. You know a great many troubles also pleasures. Hope the future has better things in store.

copyright 2020 Rob Hunter

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