by Alex Brooks
This is the beginning of a series about the life of George Holcomb, a Stephentown farmer of the early Eighteenth Century. He kept a journal of his activities which ultimately filled over 11,000 pages. It is a fascinating document, but the trouble is, the antique script is extremely difficult to read. This problem is solved by a typescript that, incredibly, was the work of only one woman. Betty McClave worked long hours every day for a year and a quarter, typing the journal and recording references to people in the Stephentown Historical Society’s cemetery list. It was her hard work which makes possible this series of articles on Holcomb’s life.
The Holcomb family first settled in Stephentown, Rensselaer County, New York, during the 1780s when Josiah Holcomb (1717-1805) moved here with his family from Simsbury, Connecticut. Josiah Holcomb leased Stephentown farm lot 24, comprising 59 acres, on 6 December 1786. This lease was transferred to his second eldest son, Beriah Holcomb (1748-1827), on December 28, 1789. (Copies of the original leases are found in the Rensselaerwyck Manor Records.) Beriah Holcomb married Lucretia Pease (1751-1937), who bore six children.
George Holcomb was the youngest son of Beriah and Lucretia Holcomb. He was born February 13, 1791 in Stephentown, during President George Washington’s first term, at about the time Washington was scouting locations along the Potomac River on which to build the nation’s capital.
Holcomb lived most of his life in Stephentown and lived a life that was in most respects perfectly ordinary. But one thing that he did set him apart from all his peers.
He wrote in a book every day from the age of 13 until his death, noting what he did that day. It is not a diary – he does not confess his inmost thoughts to the reader. He simply writes down what he did that day.
The early entries are short and simple: “Thursday I hode corn.” or “Saturday I hoed potatoes.” But even in the first few pages we learn a number of things about the everyday life of a 13 year old Stephentown boy.
We know that at the age of 13 he appears to be already working full time on his father’s farm. He works six days a week, except when he goes to a religious meeting or a funeral. When it rains he gets the day off.
The crops grown on the farm include wheat, rye, potatoes, corn, flax, beets, onions, beans and hay. His other tasks include milking, drawing stone and laying up stone walls, fetching water, cutting wood, making cider, mending fences, fetching sap, shoveling dung, slaughtering a hog and running errands to the neighbors to buy or sell, to use a neighbor’s grindstone or to get a horse shod.
He begins school around Thanksgiving time and continues at school through March. In April there are no more entries concerning school. There are precious few entries concerning anything that he does for fun. On March 31 and April 15 he played ball for part of the day, and on Saturday, May 24, he went fishing, in between loading beets and washing sheep. Perhaps he went fishing and played ball more often. If so, he didn’t write it down.
When he was 14, he didn’t start school until December 8, and it let out on March 26. He notes on that day that he went to school 72 days this winter.
The last year that his entries reflect regular school attendance is the winter of 1809-1810, when he was 17.
by Alex Brooks