EDITOR'S NOTE: This is the fourth installment in our year-long examination of the adventures of Knox County farmer Harvey Devoe, who kept a diary for the year 1861, which has been annotated and published by historian Alan Borer and is available through online retailers. The series began on Jan. 4. It continued on Feb. 1, and March 7. Harvey's spelling and punctuation have been left as they originally appear in the diary.
MOUNT VERNON -- While the spring of 1861 saw the last snows of winter for Havey Devoe, it also brought thunder on the horizon — in more ways than one.
The month began quietly with the winding down of maple sugaring. Harvey made a final few gallons of molasses with the dark amber syrup of late in the season, then turned his buckets upside down on the trees to let the sap drain and let the wind dry them out for next year.
On the third day of the month, Harvey noted what he called a “white frost.” According to annotator Alan Borer, farmers in this period used the terms “white frost” and “black frost.” A white frost is what we would identify as a regular frost today, with droplets of water crystallized and frozen on plant leaves and other surfaces as a delicate coating of ice crystals.
A black frost is what we would today call a hard freeze, where the temperatures drop so low that the cold kills the tips of plants and turns them black and shrivelled.
On April 4, Harvey, like most of his neighbors in and around Ankenytown, attended the estate sale for Jacob Leedy, who had passed away in March. Such sales were always big social events, and Harvey mentioned that he saw a lot of people.
Additionally, Leedy was known as a fairly prosperous farmer, so the sale stretched over two days, there was so much to auction off. Harvey, however, was none too impressed with the items he saw, describing it in his diary as, “more old trash than ever I saw before.”
Everyone has times when they don't keep in touch with family, and Harvey was no different. He was a bit surprised on April 5 when he took a trip to Bellville to visit his brother Ed, only to discover that Ed no longer lived there!
He was told Ed Devoe had moved to Independence, which was the name for the village later known as Butler, so Harvey resolved to go there the next day, since traveling by wagon took some time.
The next day, Harvey “Saw Some verry hilly Country,” as he traveled up the road today known as Ohio State Route 95. It is the point where the low, rolling hills of Knox County's prime farm land begin to yield to the tall hills of the central highlands region. If Harvey bore any resentment against his brother for moving without telling him, he didn't mention it in his diary.
The second week of the month, Harvey tended to chores, including overhauling his spring house. On rural Ohio farms of this period, the spring house was the primary means of cooling and preserving perishable food items such as milk, cheese, and butter.
Whatever Harvey did to the spring house wasn't major, for he only spent the morning of one day on that project, sowing clover seed in the afternoon, his first planting activity on his newly rented farm. In between spots of rain and snow, worked on miscellaneous chores ramping up for the season throughout the week and even “Jumped a little for exercize.”
Friday, April 12, was quiet and calm: “At Home Cloudy south wind appearance of rain. finished sowing clover seed .. commenced raining rained all afternoon cleared of in the eavening.”
What Harvey did not find out until the following day was that in the harbor at Charleston, South Carolina, a bloody war had begun.
Harvey, in his typical calm and collected way, observes how things seem to be that Saturday, then quietly mentions the dire national event: “Appearance of a pleasant day. But clouded up and commenced to rain & rained all day ... nothing of any note today. Bad news from the South Ft Sumter attacted.”
Indeed, secessionst Southerners had attacked the U.S. military base at Fort Sumter, the opening volley of the Civil War. The fort fell after two days of bombardment.
Monday the 15th, Harvey went to town in the evening and heard that Fort Sumter had fallen. He noted that the news caused “great excitement” locally. The next two days were limited in activity by a winter rebound of cold and snow, so Harvey and his wife took to some inside work: changing the décor of the farmhouse they had rented.
Wallpapering was no easier then than it is today: “cant get it to stick.”
After rescraping the old layers of paper, they were finally able to get the new paper to adhere to the wall. By Friday the 19th, Harvey noticed that hundreds of volunteers were gathering to enter the war, including his brother Ed. Already in his 30s, Harvey did not initially volunteer, though before the war was over, he would serve, too.
On Saturday, April 20, Harvey noted there was “great excitement in Mt Vernon today. Northern rebel nearly kiled.” The Democratic Banner ran a report about the incident: “Intense excitement prevailed in our city during the past week. Martial music constantly greeted the ear, and the volunteers were marching and countermarching through the streets nearly all the time.
While the war feeling was up to the fever point[,] some of our citizens, who had expressed sympathy for the South[,] were assailed, and one gentleman no doubt would have been killed, had not some personal friends intervened on his behalf. One of these gentlemen received a severe cut on the back of his head from a large stone aimed at the party whose language gave offense.”
Harvey noted, “the time has come when people have to be careful what they say in favor of the south.”
While Harvey himself did not appear to have any sympathy toward the rebel cause, he was of course very aware that his parents — and many other people living in Knox County in 1861 — had family roots in Virginia.
After noting details of the weather and the latest war news, on Tuesday the 23rd, Harvey mentions a small but telling detail about local life at the time: “Circus Show in town to day ... pirched their tent got ready to show But thre went in to see them perform[.]”
Granted, if it was stopping in small towns, it was probably a small circus, but if they could only draw an audience of three, it really demonstrates how much the war was in the forefront of everyone's thoughts.
Today, we know that the country survived, but that outcome was by no means certain to everyone experiencing it firsthand.
Harvey's cash accounts page at the end of the diary shows he made a “donation for flag,” in April, which isn't detailed any further, but suggests that it was for some patriotic fundraiser. As the ground began to dry out from the mid-month rain and snow, Harvey prepared for more planting, buying three pecks of timothy seed and shelling four bushels of corn for cow feed.
Finally, on April 30, the weather was dry and pleasant enough for him to begin plowing his garden and get on to the growing season. It was “fine groing weather,” according to Harvey.