PERSONAL REMINISCENCES OF RICHARD MARTIN VARNUM & HARRIET ANN PERKINS, WRITTEN IN 1908 BY THEMSELVES AT THE REQUEST OF AND FOR THEIR SON, GEORGE MARTIN VARNUM, IN DENVER COLORADO.
The following pages contain all of my family history that I can recall at this date and perhaps more than will be found of much interest to those for whom it is written. I was born in the Township of Sutton, Lower Canada (now Quebec), County of Brome, on the 26th of August, 1825. I have very little recollection of the place of my nativity as we left there when I was 5 years sold. The house in which I was born was of logs, one story, with a “Dutch” fireplace as the only means of heating, that at times this proved very much at fault. It will be necessary to explain what a “Dutch” fireplace or chimney was before the present generation can fully understand the primitive methods in vogue in the early part of the century to keep out the cold. After the house was built, it was the way to cut out a space about six feet wide by five feet high in one end of the house and then build a stone wall therein as a place to build the fires. The hearth was of flat stones or oftener of clay beaten down solid. This was the beginning of the chimneys – – the upper part was built of “stick”, i.e. pieces of pine wood about 1 x 1 1/2 inches crossed at the corners and spaces filled by “mud” clay mortar in which a quantity of cut straw was mixed. This was the “stick” chimneys of the olden time. I was the eleventh child of my parents who were living on a farm of 100 acres and were one degree above poverty – – had enough to eat and wear through not of the kind now in vogue by a long way. Corn bread being the staple – – eaten with pork and large quantities of milk. The country was a wilderness with small clearings here and there, and literally no roads in summer – – the common way of travel being on foot or horseback for such as could effort that luxury. My father and mother rode on horseback 75 miles to a “quarterly meeting” in those days, much of the way thru a dense forest, with no other that ‘blazed” trees. There was not a wheeled vehicle in the Township, all the hauling on the farm was done on sleds, and the marketing was all done in winter. Montreal was 70 miles off being the only place to sell produce – – said produce being pork and potash (wood ashes) mainly with some poultry. There was spend the first five years of my life. My father in the time building a frame house of some pretensions for that time and place. But about this time our people got discontented and resolved to move to Upper Canada.
1831 – 1837
And here commences my first distinct recollection of early life. We came in sleigh in the winter, four hundred miles carrying out own provisions and paying only for lodging – – the “taverns'” allowing the travelers to cook their own meals. We settled in Whitby, Ontario County, Canada where I spent the 18 years of my life and where my father died October 27, 1837, leaving my mother with 5 children to care for, the oldest being 19 and youngest 6. The two youngest girls – – and two daughters married. Their other 7 children having died in Sutton one son and six girls. Father was a rather sickly man all his life with a consumptive tendency which as last closed his life, being at the last three years wholly unable to work. He was buried in a cemetery west of Oshawa, a small marble slab marks the spot, which I visited in June 1889.
1779 – 1878
Concerning my ancestors there is little to say – – My father was born in Dracut, Mass …1779 where I believe all his brothers and sisters were born – – Abram and Benjamin, both younger that he and two sisters Elizabeth and Rebecca – – they married Nicholas and Richard Demary respectively and raised large families. Rebecca died in middle age, Elizabeth lived to be 96 years of age. Of my two uncles, Abram never married by always lived in out family – – a good and of a quiet temperament – – but well versed in general information for those times. The other, Benjamin, was married three times and died at 97 years of age in Quincy, Michigan. Abram died in North Dorchester, Ont., 69 years old (Grandfathers and mothers bible). Of my numerous cousins and either side it is not necessary I write – – they were about the average of mankind in out stations in life and lived honest lives so far as I know, none of them were prominent in anything.
1748 – 1820
There is no record of our family back of my Grandfather, who was born in 1748 and whose name was Benjamin – – he lived in Dracut, Mass., till about 1800 when they went to Canada. From correspondence with John M. Varnum of Boston, who is collecting material for a history of the V”s (collected and in print 1911) and other sources I am led to be believe that we are sprung from the source viz. George Varnum, who came from England and settled in Dracut in 1634, so says John M. who now owns the first V homestead in America. The removal of Grandfather to Canada caused the loss of all direct connection with the other branches of the family, but all branches of the same name trace their origin to the Merrimac River. Grandfather was a tanner by trade and made a uncertain living in that way – – latterly having no home of his own but lived to a great age. After his removal to Canada with many other “United Empire Loyalists” they had a hard time to live.
1834 – 1835
It is not wonder children were brought up in ignorance, and it is a fact that in those days many grew to manhood without even entering a schoolroom, and just here it maybe of interest to describe the first school I ever attended, which was fair example of the schools in my very early days – – before I was ten years old. The schoolhouse was of logs – – built as the rest were including the chimneys – – desks were slabs with the flat side up, resting on pins driven into the logs. On three sides of the house the seats were of the same material as the desks supported by legs of a good height from the floor without the semblance of a back support – – and there was absolutely nothing else in the way of school apparatus – – unless a stout blue beech rod and a heavy ferrule could be called such – – everything else had to be furnished by the “patrons” of the school and when I add the time schools were supported by voluntary subscription contributions is it a wonder that such poor service was rendered? I ought not to omit the name of my first teacher – – Mary Dimmit.
1840 – 1849
I afterward attended two schools of a better grade – – the one taught by W. E. Cornell, a Yankee, where I learned to “spell” and read, and the other taught by S. Roberts, and Englishman where I learned all I know of writing, arithmetic and geography. I never studied any other branches, in school or out. Grammar was on unknown quantity in the schools I attended except in the last one where “one” pupil, Amelia Leonard, was vainly striving to understand the mysteries of the English language as explained in … grammar. The two first school I attended was before I was 13 and last one was five and six years later – – about 3 months winter, all before I was 19 years of age. In my last school my studies were often disturbed by the big Scotch boy who was constantly bothering me about his arithmetic – – but that was nothing to what I endured from the bewitching ways of a certain Scotch-Irish maiden a few years my junior, who’s raven tresses (whose curls no modern curling iron can approach) pure pearl complexion and dark blue eyes and the perfection of grace and manners – – such as I scarcely seen equaled since: and when I remember that this vision of sweetness and goodness was my best friend in the school and out of it I do not wonder that I made such poor progress and my studies and I have often soliloquized on what “might have been” had not certain conditions intervened – – to thwart the best laid plans and not after the lapse of fifty years it is difficult to decide whether to be thankful or not for those “conditions” but I guess providence was better to me than my own inclinations.
1840 – 1849
But by school days ended as everything mundane sometimes does, and I began to lay plans of life which like so many others have been proven abortive. At this time my mother owned 45 acres of land in Whitby township, which sold for $1200 and we moved to North Dorchester, where she bought 70 acres and I 100, she paying about $500 for me. The land was in its virgin state, and I continued to live with Mother for the next four years, making some improvements on my land – – and then came the California gold craze which ruined so many. I sold out and got ready to go, even the day was set for out going (around the Cape) but my brother-in-law, Sam Ward, who was going, fell sick and I did not dare to go alone, which was I think a merciful Providence.
1785 – 1870
This is a place perhaps to give some account of my mother and her family. Mother was born at Pittstown, N.Y. , 9 July 1785. Her father being a New Englander – – and her mother, Polly Baas, a Hollander from Dutchess County, N.Y. – – she could speak but little English when married. They went to Canada about the time father did. She was small in stature and thin flesh never weighing more that 110 pounds with brunette complexion and jet black hair of marvelous length and beauty. Mother was possessed of wonderful vitality and endurance and was a hard worker all her days. Her education had been sadly neglected – – and she had very little sympathy or respect for what she rater curtly called ‘booklarning”, but she never neglected the practical duties of life always sending her children to school and doing the work at home herself which in those days meant very much indeed – – for there was the Home production already entirely, clothing and bedding being wholly the handiwork of her untiring industry. In those days we were clothed with linen in the summer and woolen in the winter, and all was of the strongest and coarsest texture – – no shoddy. It was before the days of the cotton kingdom and it required some work to take the fleece from the sheep’s back and the flax from the soil and clothe a family, 14 children and Uncle Abram for over fifty years. Mother lived to be 85 years of age and died in North Dorchester Ont. Nov. 26, 1870. I visited her grave in 1889. A small marble slab marks the spot. She retained her mental and physical faculties in a wonderful degree and died of old age – – very few gray hairs marked the course of time on her head and until the last six or seven years of her sojourn she scarcely showed any signs of approaching age. The above portraiture of my mother may be thought to be overdrawn, but is a fact that no pen picture can convey the full extent and the tireless character of her nature. The laws of heredity seem to be at fault in the immediate descendants as none of her children possessed in the same degree whose traits that made her so conspectus. My brother Abram was the nearest to her in those respects. I hope the best of her characteristics may crop out in some of her later posterity. She had no bad qualities except that would now be thought too stern a manner in dealing with what she thought to be hearsay of any sort.
After giving up going to California and having no land in Canada, I went over to Michigan in May 1833, and remained there in Sanilac County for about four months working by the month on a farm at $15.00 per month. And it was here that I met my future wife, then Miss Harriet Ann Perkins who was then stopping at the same house in the capacity of seamstress, but her home was in Canada near St Thomas, where she returned in September of that year, without our having any acquaintance to mention never having been introduced to each other, and barely speaking during those four months, which virtually decided the course of our lives – – though neither of us were aware of it at the time – – but more of this later on. I failed to mention in its proper place that in crossing the St Clair river going to Michigan, crossing in a small sail boat, I was probably nearer death than at any other period of my life. The wind was very high and in tacking to get across, the sails struck the water and I was thoughly wet through but we landed safely or I should not be writing this. Before leaving Michigan I made a trip to Detroit and the south part of the state where some relatives lived, in and near Ypsilanti, visiting the State Fair at Detroit and the Normal School at Ypsilanti where my cousin, D. S. Varnum, held the lucrative post of JANITOR – – and where I first saw an air pump and electrical apparatus of considerable power. On returning to Canada I found land more that doubled in value in four months, consequent on the opening of a railway from Niagara Falls to Detroit – – but I stayed and bought a place of 100 acres, and then being 28 years old I supposed it time to settle in some local habitation and here commenced the important and delicate business of finding a woman (there were no “ladies” in our part of the country in those days) willing to accept as my wife. But not finding any one to my liking near home, although there were plenty of girls, some of them rumor had connected with my future, and after some consideration it occurred to me that I might write to Miss Perkins whom I had seen in Michigan. This I accordingly did, not knowing her P.O. address the letter was long delayed and I supposed the matter was ended, when her sister saw it advertised and finding the same of interest she forwarded the letter to its proper destination. Well, two months had passed since my letter was mailed, although we were not 30 miles apart all this time and Miss Perkins hardly knew what to do, as she as well as I supposed the lapse of time would cause a failure of communication – – but finally decided to write, and send a rather equivocal note not intended to mean anything if it fell into the wrong hands, but which I understood to express a willingness to open a correspondence, on a certain prescribed condition with which I was willing to comply, and from thence on we kept open the channel of communication till we were married.
1827 – 1853
Miss Perkins, the person here introduced was a native of Nova Scotia, born at Akylesford, 3 September 1827, her family having been residents of the Province for many years – – being the second of six children. William Perkins, her father, had been dead some years at this time and two of the children were married. The family had been in closer contact with civilization than mine in my earlier years – – which accounts for any disparity of manners that may be noticed between us. Her education had been limited as well as my own. We were both too old when we became acquainted to indulge in any romantic or lengthy courtship – – in fact our environment was not factorable to such a course – – and besides both of us had become adverse to long wooing, partly by observation and more by experience, consequently only three letters were required each way to complete our contract and on Monday May 1st, 1853 we were married in Yarmouth, Ont., at the home of W. Welding and we went home the next day to Dorchester where we lived for eight years.
I don’t think it necessary to say anything about the wisdom or our choice of life partners – – except that we both considered we had won the best of life’s blessings – – and after 40 years we continue to think the same. Not that either of us are or claim to be perfection, but that in spite of many adverse happenings our esteem for each other continues to increase as time rolls on. My wife’s mother Mrs. Perkins, (at least at that time) was a most estimable woman or lady if that means any more which I deny – – one of earth’s rarest gems, always the same, affable, kind and wise friend in adversity as in prosperity. I never saw her temper ruffled in the least, during the sixteen years of our acquaintance. I am tempted to say this much because of the prevalent slander of mothers-in-law and because it is the exact truth. Arriving at our home we found a log house, such as was common in those parts of the country with very little in the way of furniture or of worldly goods of any kind. Most of our neighbors were in the same plight as ourselves, working people with little or no education as was proved shortly after. I had to write seven affiliates to be sent into court in London – – and then the parties were sworn, only one could read the document – – the clerk remarking that he supposed they did not belong to the reading community – – however the case was won through these same affidavits. (Walter, John and Cyrus were born in this house)
1861 – 1891
About this time I was appointed to the first public office I ever “enjoyed” Township Auditor, and not till we went to Dakota in 1902 was I free from some petty office for any length of time. Here is the list: Tavern Inspector, Township Auditor, Secretary of School Trustees, Returning Officer, Township Councilor (three years), Deputy Reeve (one year), Reeve (one year) and Returning Officer again. The Reeve is Chairman of Township Councils and the Deputy Reeve is second in command, both being ex-officio Justices of the Peace, this much in Canada. In Michigan I was first School Inspector, involving examining of teachers and giving certificates, next School Director three years, next Justice of the Peace, then County Supervisor, which made me assessor of the Township, resigned the last when we went back to Canada. Returning to Michigan I was School Director three years and Justice one year. In Iowa I was first Clerk of Election when the Township was organized, Justice at the same election two years; The Township Clerk five years, Treasurer of School Fund four years – – till 1876 and secretary of Board four years till March 1898 when we moved to South Dakota.
1836 – 1858
Regarding the preceding pages I would remark that I think probably, if I had never accepted any of those petty offices I should have been better off in a financial way and at times should have enjoyed tranquility of mind. The money in such things should never induce one to engage in them, in all that list I never got over one hundred dollars in one year and most of the time only half that – – but if in travelling in Ontario or Michigan or Iowa anyone should wish to look over county records especially in London, Ont. late in the fifties, where I spend about six weeks each of two years in County Council work. There were twenty eight members in the Council and they did their business in strict parliamentary ways. A resolution that I moved in rather pompous words – – to go in to Committee of the whole, to consider the propriety of petitioning the Legislature to pass a prohibitory liquor law occupied one whole evening – – and was finally lost on a division but I got my views on that question pretty well aired – – which was about all I expected.
As before intimated we began life on rather limited means and continued much in the same way many years, seldom at the very lowest depths of poverty and never “getting along” very much in money affairs and with this remark I dismiss the subject from the records. It was during this time that our first son was born, which is of course somewhat of an event in any family, followed in due time by five others – – the last seventeen years younger that the first. (C.W. was born in VanWaggon’s house on hill on south side of road between ourselves and Mr Shells). In May 1861 we moved to Michigan, Sanilec County, and began life again on a new farm where we remained three years and then returned to Ontario in August 1864 spending the winter with Father Lanning, my wife’s stepfather, and then we went to Oil Springs where we remained eighteen months and then back to Michigan on our old place where stopped till August, 1878, when we left for Iowa on the cars to Waterloo where we bought team and drove two hundred miles camping out nights for eight days when we got to Le Mars on 9th of August and remained in that country till March 1892 when we came to Dakota. (Lived two weeks at Lexington – – there Pa build a shanty 3 miles from Lexington and lived there until fall – – then to the Van Waggoner house mentioned above. Lived there during the winder of ’61 – ’62 and part of the next summer – – then to the new farm mentioned below. George was born here. Among my first memories is the trip to Van Waggoner’s place. Two cows behind the wagon, barrel of pork which tipped out in a mode hole.. (Interview with Pa Oct 1907 at Shoshone Idaho, – – C.A.V.) Regarding my habits of life I may say that I was always a strict tee-totaller – – never having drank a glass of intoxicating liquor in my life, as was the case of both my brothers also, which habit was not the fashion in those days – – as my life antedated the first temperance in our part of the world. In religious matters Father and Mother were Methodists of the old type (Father was a class leader 15 years) and both died in that faith but it was not till the 34th year of my life that I accepted Christ as my Savior, and let thereto though the importunities of a loving wife who had long been a faithful Christian and we are expecting to continue in that faith to the end. We long ago discarded all the old superstitions whims that so much troubled our fathers and have always endeavored to counteract such nonsense by straightforward facts.
1895 – 1915
I have lived thus far without ever having been “plaintiff” or “defendant” in a civil court, and without having been “the prisoner” or “the State” in a criminal court, and I was never called to testify in any court. And only three times was I called to perform jury duty – – so that I have not paid much costs in court. I do not know the reason that I have always kept clear of courts, unless it is that I always paid my debts or got an extension sometimes at a loss but always better than going to court. Of course I never had any complicated business transactions, which may be an other reason, but I hear by express my belief that a square deal is the best policy at all times.
(Written by Richard Martin Varnum and Harriet Ann Varnum at the house at 4th & Dowing in Denver Colorado while visiting their son George Martin Varnum and Eva Lee Varnum during the severe winter of 1908)