This is an attempt to rediscover some of the daily life on a New England dairy farm in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I have used letters, photos, reminiscences and journals that are available to me; and friends and relatives have contributed more information. Because the Seger farm was part of the larger community, it is also in some aspects an attempt to offer a slice of life in the town of Kent, Connecticut, in those decades.
There is an old joke about farming in the Berkshires, where the cows’ legs are shorter on one side to manage the stony slopes. The Seger/Jennings dairy farm comprised over 200 acres, much of it climbing the mountain behind the farmhouse which still stands off Route 341 in Kent, Connecticut. Cans of milk were driven by horse and wagon to the railroad platform at the bottom of the mountain every day. Family, farmhands and children performed endless daily chores, and the numerous Kent farm families swapped labor at critical times in the growing season.
Mechanization came late to the farm. While a traction engine made its appearance and is noted in Frank’s diary in 1915, the family continued to use horses and oxen into the 1940s. Electricity came in 1934 during the great drive for rural electrification.
Frank Seger’s journal divides the land: he mentions the Granny Lots, upper meadow, Comestocks, the Parcell Place, and Edwards lot, among others. In addition to pasturing livestock and growing hay, the farm yielded field crops such as corn, vegetables, tobacco, potatoes. Trees now cover most of the old farm.
Frank inherited the farm from his father George, and eventually sold it to his daughter Lucy and her husband Clarence “Jim” Jennings. Frank and Mabel moved to a small house across the road which eventually became the home of three of their adult sons. Jim and Lucy raised their four children and continued to farm until Jim died in 1945. The family sold the farm in 1949.
Nellie [Frank’s youngest daughter] told me this house was the old tobacco barn, that used to sit across the street from where it is now. The woman standing in front of it was her Mother Mabel. There is actually a date on the back of the picture: July 29, 1936. I believe she said it was taken shortly after it was moved across the street.
This later became the house of their son Lewis, who lived there with his brothers Bart (Paul John) and Lem (Orange) until he sold it in the 1970s.
Small Family Farms
In its early decades, the town of Kent was dominated by iron mining and production of iron and the charcoal which was used to fuel the furnaces. Joseph Seger V (Frank’s 3rd great-grandfather) and Joseph’s son Heman bought interest in a forge in East Kent (possibly the first iron works in Kent) in 1807-1811, but records are vague and by 1841 they were no longer owners. Heman’s son Ira was probably the first full-time farmer on Seger Mountain.
From the collapse of its iron industry in the 1860s until the 1950s, Kent was a farming community. Susi Casey Williams of the Kent Historical Society (and herself the daughter a farmer) offers a narrative geographic tour of the farms she can recall that still existed in her childhood. Most were dairy farms, although many crops, including tobacco, were grown as well. The railroad offered a swift way to get milk cans to market; later the more familiar tank trucks picked up the milk at the farms. In Kent, and throughout the Northeast, competition from modern agribusiness and larger farms in the Midwest doomed these small-scale dairy farms: it became impossible to provide a livelihood off a small herd and stony soil. One by one the farms disappeared. Trees now cover the hills that had been clear in the mid-nineteenth century. The stone walls that crisscross the mountains are the skeletal remains of the bare fields of this era.
The Segers also earned money as teamsters, hauling charcoal and iron during the mining boom, and in Frank’s day jobbed themselves and their oxen out to the Town of Kent. After haying was finished in the latter part of the summer, nearly every weekday entry in Frank’s 1915 diary notes that he or at least one of his sons and a team worked for hire on road building.
At that time a man with a team earned around five dollars a day. At the same time Frank was delivering four or five cans of milk to the distributor daily at a price of $1.40 per can. He may have had a problem with McConnell, his distributor and notes unsatisfactory trips to Bridgeport in February, May, June and July to see him. He paid a retainer of five dollars to a Stamford law firm, Cummings & Lockwood, “on account of Seger v. McConnell.” He also kept records of milk sold daily by the quart to Kent residents in 1915 for six cents per quart. A sample page from a memo book is reproduced at right.
A snapshot: the 1870 U.S. Census: Ira and George Seger and their families
The Seger farm was a multigenerational enterprise. Frank’s father George inherited the farm from his father Ira. The 1870 U.S. Census lists Dwelling #71 in its Kent census as that of 59-year-old Ira Seger (or Segar), a farmer with real estate worth $4000 and a personal estate of $1100. His wife “Janet”, 59, as “keeping house” and in the household a daughter Mary (later Mary, or Maude, Seger Page), age 20. Listed as a separate family in the same dwelling is George Seger, 31, a farmer with real estate worth $200; his wife Alzora, 29, again “keeping house”, and Clinton, age 5; Frank, age 2, and Nellie, age 1.
On this single page of the census document, the assessor records six dwellings and seven families; all but one man is a farmer. Lester Smith, age 40, is a “Wagon Maker.” The valuation of the real estate for these seven households is $15,000, and personal property logged as $4300. The Ira Seger property, even excluding George and Alzora, has the highest value in this list, although personal property is more equal among the households.
A few asides:
people, places, and things…
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There are also photos of the immense Jennings clan, which I have posted at: The Geer Mountain farm of Walter Cass Jennings and Lillian Soule Jennings and also a photo album and further information on the family of Walter Cass Jennings.
Unidentified photos include images from a Seger family photo album and random photos from the family of Nellie Seger Williams
At Seger Family Documents, I am posting transcribed letters and documents, some dating back to the 1830s, which will be a long-term project.
Records of a few individuals have survived with enough detail to piece together a narrative. One direct ancestor, Elizabeth Moody Seager, was tried as witch in Hartford in the 1660s. Another, Frank Seger’s great uncle Erastus Seger equipped himself with goods and a wagon and became a peddler in Pennsylvania in the early 1830s.
Hiram Seger (b.21 Dec 1797 Kent, CT; d. 16 Sept 1848 Redford, MI), the brother of Heman Seger (b. Kent, CT, 2 December 1782, d. 10 June 1864), and Heman’s son George eventually settled in Michigan, and some correspondence survived to document the family connection as they moved west, and the gradual dissolution of the connection between later generations.
There is also a page of group photos I haven’t been able to identify at Photographic Puzzles, which I hope to have help with from visitors to this site.
Down a Few Rabbit Holes…
Quick links to: The Kent Association for Detecting Horse Thieves and other matters regarding dialect and culture; and whatever information I have of some family members who served in wartime. Frank’s wife Mabel Seger saved some newspaper clippings, and other letters, receipts and documents which Joanie Williams has generously contributed to the project.
The silage chopper/blower drove a track belt that fed a chopper and blew the chopped silage into an opening near the top of the silo. I would guess the stationary one cylinder gas engine pictured is from Jim Jennings’ farm. We had an engine that was converted from an old Hupmobile. The driveshaft was disconnected from the axle and had a belt hub mounted on it. It was used to drive the silage processor and, in the fall, it was towed next to the wood pile and used to drive the buzz saw to saw firewood. In one weekend enough wood could be sawn stove length to heat the house and kitchen stove for the year. Unfortunately, my job from about 12 and thereafter was to split the chunks. I loved to see red oak chunks, white ash, hickory—and apple not so much.
The old Hupmobile worked great, plenty of power for both applications. I’m not sure where it came from but probably from Sherm Chase or [Chester] Keeler up in Sharon off the end of Skiff Mountain: I remember going with my Father up there for other things, probably got the buzz saw sharpened up there every year.
While these would not have met OSHA approval they were reliable and efficient as any thing in that time. In one weekend, probably enough wood to furnish at least 2 stoves was processed in the old days with the buzz saw, 3 or 4 men and a good supply of hard cider. One must remember that in our 10 room house most rooms were closed off in the winter.
Now, of course, silage is processed in the field and trucked in, while there is a big business in selling chain saws, protective chaps, eye protection, ear muffs, log splitters of all sorts and whatever else can be sold to process a couple yards of wood for the fireplace.
Saved by Jnet Seger Jennings, transcribed by Bertha Jennings Petith
- Bild fire in backyard to heet kettle of rane water.
- Set tubs so smoak won’t blow in eyes if wind is port.
- Shave one hole cake lie sope in bilin water
- Sort things. Make 3 piles. 1 pile white, 1 pile cullered, 1 pile work britches and rags
- Stir flowr in cold water to smooth, then thin down with bilin water
- Rub durty spots on bored, scrub hard. Then bile. Rub cullered but don’t bile. Just rench and starch.
- Take white things out of kettel with broom handel. Rench, blew and starch.
- Spred tee towels on grass
- Hang old rags on fence.
- Pore rench water in flower bed.
- Scrub porch with hot, soapy water.
- Turn tubs upside down.
- Go put on cleen dress… smooth hair with side combs. Brew cup of tee. Set and rest and rock a spell and COUNT BLESSINGS.
No surprise that Lucy’s daughters could neatly crack an egg in each hand: farm women had to feed hefty meals to a contingent of family and farm hands at least three times a day (including a big breakfast after milking and before the rest of the day’s work). They were of necessity production cooks. They usually baked bread at home, in addition to pies and cakes.
Canning, cooking, butter making, cleaning, laundry, sewing were their domain, although there is plenty of evidence that they pitched in wherever they were needed, working alongside their men outdoors. And raising babies. (and, one could say, doing it backwards and in high heels…)
There are many photos of unidentified infants which show babies that are adored and fussed over. Among the identifiable pictures, at present there are only some photos of Frank and Mabel’s children and far more of grandchildren, and of Lucy and Jim’s children.
Photos of some of Lucy’s younger siblings in later childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Among the family photos, there are tintypes, cartes de visite, postcards, and studio cards. I have little information on these and have grouped them together here.
Other unidentified images from a Seger family photo album can be seen here. Further photos have been added from the papers of Carrie Page Mettey, great-granddaughter of Ira Seger, which are in the collection of the Kent Historical Society.
Work and Play
Make Do or Do Without…
This photo particularly intrigued me. In the winter ice had to be cut from lakes and stored in ice houses for year-round refrigeration. It was a source of cash for many of the small farms, and almost every able-bodied man went out to help cut and haul ice. The farmhand in this photo is piloting a rig he invented and used to get around on the ice.
Frank and brother George Seger haying, a major, weather-dependent necessity.
Frank notes many instances of the boys “chopping stalks” in the winter days. Corn stalks and silage supplemented hay in the winter. Feed grain was purchased.
Phil Camp describes corn storage in his book Fond Memories:
Many of these farms in those early years did not have silos… several acres of corn would be planted… The ears were later hauled to the corn crib or barn floor, where they were fed out to hogs and horses on the cob, shelled for poultry feed, or ground for cow feed. [The corn stalks were formed into large wigwam-like shocks and left in the field to cure.]
Then came the task that few people today remember… About twice a week, a couple of wagon loads of corn stalks would be hauled to the cow barn where, with a gas engine for belt power, a stalk cutter would chop the now dry stalks and leaves into inch long pieces. This was called ‘corn stover.’ and was the most wonderful smelling feed imaginable. A sweet, yet rank, pungent odor would permeate throughout the barn when this process was going on, or when the animals were fed.
Getting Around …
Visits from the Galskis
No idea who these folks are. Evidently Harry liked to hunt, and the Jennings clan was more than happy to join in. Mrs. Galski (no one knew her first name when these photos were organized) looks like she would be more comfortable elsewhere.
I could find little trace of anyone by that name online. I would guess they came up to the country to hunt; perhaps family friends, perhaps paying guests? The fact that Jessie is there, Lucy joins for the festivities and that a seven-year-old Annie is evidently comfortable around them speaks well for their likability.