At the end of a dirt path winding gently south from the Old Sturbridge Village green, a worn yet tidy farmhouse sits humbly upon the land. For some 23 years of its long life, it belonged to one Pliny Freeman Sr., who settled here with his wife, Delia, and the two youngest of their seven children in 1828. Today this dark-red, gambrel-roofed home is open to visitors: the sparely furnished “best” room, with family mementos, including Pliny’s 1811 commission as a captain in the Massachusetts militia proudly framed, and his simple writing desk; a first-floor bedroom, papered in a bright, blue-striped pattern; the buttery and the kitchen, with its big hearth and iron implements, where so many meals for family and friends were prepared.
What remains when a generation passes? Personal keepsakes and household wares, perhaps, but if we’re very lucky, words, as well: a family’s own words, committed to paper, in all their unguarded intimacy, preserved and protected by the generations yet unborn. So it was with the Freeman family. From 1829 until his death in 1855, Pliny Freeman Sr. corresponded with family members near and far; 132 years later, a collection of the surviving letters was donated to Old Sturbridge Village by Kenneth Perrin, Pliny’s great-great-grandson.
Sitting in the Village’s research library one afternoon this past spring, I was afforded a rare privilege: As I held pieces of the Freemans’ correspondence and turned the pages–Pliny Sr.’s neat and graceful hand, a ribbon of faded ink unspooling across once-sturdy paper grown delicate with age–I saw their lives revealed in all their vulnerability. I’d come upon that “low door in the wall” that serves as portal to both past and future; time receded, and in that moment, I reached back across the centuries to touch the spirit of this family. Taken together, these letters are eloquent testimony of the enduring bonds of family love; they speak to us as witnesses to the everyday joys and sorrows, triumphs and hardships, experienced by this typical New England farm family of the early 19th century.
By 1829, a number of Freemans had already migrated west. Pliny’s brother Samuel had settled in Parma, Ohio, and Pliny’s second son, Pliny Jr., was on his way there, too. His eldest son, Silas, had stayed closer to home, but like many young men then and now, he was often remiss in visiting his parents, as we see in this March 1830 letter from his father:
I have been in expectation that you would call at our house before now. I hear nothing from you except that you were at Sturbridge once since I have seen you. We
always feel anxious for the welfare of our children. I wish to inquire after your health, whether you have frozen your feet or any other of your limbs, how your business prospers … but I see no opportunity to make these inquiries.
As for Pliny Jr., absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder. A housewright by trade, he had a difficult start in Ohio, but eventually prospered. Homesickness, however, was something he never successfully mastered, and because of that, he became one of the more faithful and frequent Freeman family correspondents, as we see time and time again in his letters home, full of longing:
[from 1830, to his family]
Beloved Sisters … I mean that you shall hear from me as often as it is necessary if I can hear from you as often. I hope that the waters of Lake Erie will not wash and fade away that love which brothers and sisters have or ought to have for each other … Although I am six or seven hundred miles from you remember that I shall never forget any of you … I should like to hear from the biggest part of Sturbridge. What are the young people about? … Brother Dwight [age 11]… It has been a long time since I have seen you but I have not forgotten you … I hope you will write when you have an opportunity. Had I practiced writing epistles when young as you it would have [been] no damage to me.
[and in November of the same year to his parents]
This day is Thanksgiving in this state. I cannot enjoy it with you. I will enjoy part of it in writing to you and sending my love to you all … [cousin] Sarah says she remembers your putting an apple in her mouth and … let[ting] it freeze, so she often says she is not to blame for her great mouth.
Still missing his family the following July, Pliny Jr. wrote again of his loneliness as well as to celebrate a joyful family occasion far from home:
I have anticipated a great deal of pleasure in thinking I should see my parents, brothers, and sisters this fall, but now I think probably it will be two years before I shall return to Sturbridge … I will congratulate with you all in Silas’ marriage and with pleasure will receive Maria as a sister … I should be exceeding glad to have either or both of them write to me … Write often, write when you think best.
Word play and gentle humor are often quite in evidence, as in Sarah’s message to Pliny Sr., noted in the Thanksgiving 1830 letter above, and in this May 1835 letter from Pliny Jr., then settled in Cleveland, to his family:
I remain the same old bachelor without any alteration except muse rational and whimsical which you know is universally the case with us privileged old bachelors.
The family also shared misfortunes and tragedies, grieving together, in the only way available to them. In a letter that July, Pliny Sr. delivered shocking news:
Beloved Son … On Sunday last, 5th instant, there were two deaths by lightening in Sutton and one in Oxford … The one killed in Oxford, painful to relate, was your sister Beulah. She went upstairs to shut the windows, as was supposed, and a flash of lightening struck the chimney and threw the top mostly off … They found her little daughter about three months old in the cradle in the kitchen and her little son about twenty months old on a bed in the bedroom, both covered with soot and dust and screaming. And in searching for Beulah they found her [in the] up chamber dead on the floor, lying on her face and her clothes on fire … It seems the lightening passed from the top of the chimney to the bottom of the cellar.
And again, four years later, in March 1839, equally sad news would travel from Sturbridge to Ohio in this letter from a bereft Pliny Sr.:
Bereaved Children … [Your mother] continued to fail very fast until Tuesday the 19th, when at half past five PM death retrieved her from her pains which were severe … I am about to be left alone. The old lady [Mary Pease, who lived in to help nurse Delia during her last illness] which I wrote you will stay about one week longer and who I can get to keep house I know not … I wish Augusta would come home and live with me if she thinks she can be contented to live a lonely life [and] if Dwight is not likely to find business there I should like him to work with me on the farm … I hardly know what I have written, but will close by subscribing myself “Your father in affliction”
Augusta and Dwight dutifully moved back home, but in February Pliny received a teasing note from the same “old lady,” who was then living in East Boston:
I have often thought of you these long winter evenings, that you must be lonesome. But leap year is here and widowers and bachelors are choosing their mates and I think if you should make up your mind the time would pass more agreeably away [with] one who would share in your domestic concerns … I should be happy to have you call over to East Boston. I have not purchased any spectacles at present for there is rumour that the world is coming to an end in 1843 and I did not think it was worth a while to spend my money useless.
In May Mary Pease wrote again, and we learn of a happy development:
You have given me an invitation to your castle for a home and [I] am happy for the invitation as I know you are a man of honour. I shall throw myself upon your care and protection and according to your invitation I will meet you at Brookfield the fifth day of June.
Reader, she married him … Pliny and Mary Pease Freeman would live together at the Sturbridge farm for the next 10 years. When Mary passed away in 1850, Pliny Sr., now 70, was a widower once again. A year later, he sold his farm and moved in with his daughter Delia and her husband in nearby Webster. He passed away in 1855, at the age of 75. Ninety-five years later, the Freeman home was rescued and moved from its original location south of town to the OSV property. In 1956, the museum settled it on its current site, a pasture that once long ago was part of the David Wight homestead–a patch of fertile ground that 150 years on is still a working farm–a fitting resting place for this venerable house that had seen so much of the community’s early history. –E.T.
For more on the Freeman family and additional excerpts from their correspondence, visit: YankeeMagazine.com/more. Quotations by permission of Old Sturbridge Village; research by former OSV historian Holly Izard and interpreter Connie Small. For full transcriptions of the Freeman family correspondence, go to: osv.org/explore_learn/document_list.php