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 their two youngest children in 1828. Today this dark-red, gambrel-roofed home is open to visitors: the sparely furnished
“best” room with its 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.
Pliny Jr., in his early twenties, the family’s second of their seven children, left Sturbridge in the spring of 1829 to seek his fortune in Parma, Ohio, where his uncle Samuel Freeman, Pliny Sr.’s older brother, had settled some years earlier. It was a difficult start for Pliny Jr., a housewright by trade, in that customers back in Massachusetts still owed him payment, leaving him short of funds and somewhat dependent on his extended family, as noted in this letter home, written in August of that year:
I was rejoiced in receiving the favour of your letter August seventh … I have not much at present to write. I am full of trouble as you may expect, after losing all I have, or rather all that I depended on to buy me some land or tools to work with. Without money or without tools I cannot find but little employment, but with good friends I can get along without any trouble at present. But I should like to … pay my way if possible.
The following spring, Pliny Sr. wrote his oldest son, Silas, a stagecoach driver living in Sutton, Massachusetts, to tell him of a further misfortune that had befallen Pliny Jr. over the winter—and to chide him for neglecting his filial duty:
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, whether your dividends at your company settlements are favourable, but I see no opportunity to make these inquiries … Misfortunes often happen when we least expect them. When Pliny was returning from work on the nineteenth of January … he made a blunder in stepping over a log, dropped his broad axe edge upwards, and fell on the same which cut a gash in the calf of his left leg three-and-a-quarter inches long and to the bone … The letter was dated February 22, at which time he was confined to his bed—and had been ever since the cut—and was no better. Has had a surgeon two or three times from Cleveland. I hope we shall hear again soon … You must take some opportunity to call soon.
By May 1830, Pliny Jr. was mending slowly, and although grateful for the care that Samuel’s family was taking of him, was still missing his family in Sturbridge:
I was happy in receiving your kind letter March eleventh. [I have had] the pleasure in reading it a number of times and expected that I should hear again in a short time. Yours was thankfully received April twenty-third—nearly two months. It seemed to me like two years … As it respects my leg … if you had been with me and lifted me from bed to bed as I have been and watched with me nights when my leg was the most inflamed, when poultices were applied once in two hours part of the time and sugar lead dissolved in water once in thirty minutes for three or four weeks, then you would have known more than I can tell you. I had made up my mind from what the doctor said that I must lose my leg; don’t think I felt so low about it as [did] Uncle’s folks. I had undergone so much with pain I thought that I would give away my leg to get rid of the pain … My leg is gaining slowly, can sit on the side of the bed with my feet on the floor a short time at once.
In that same letter, Pliny Sr.’s brother Samuel enclosed a note mentioning his own sons as they assisted their cousin—and paused for an observation of the world outside his window:
You would be pleased to see the process of moving him from one bed to another. You would see Lyndon [age 27] placed at his shoulder, Henry [age 14] at his lame leg, Charles [age 20] at his well leg, and Laurens [age 12] at the back side of the bed to keep it from sliding … He has got so much better that they all have some sport in doing it … While I am writing a charming shower has commenced. All nature is dressed in fresh robes of green.
In July 1830, despite the comfort and assistance of his extended family, Pliny Jr. was desperately missing home:
You informed me that Silas was at home the time that you wrote. I wonder why he does not write. It has been ten months since he has written to me. Please to tell him (for me) I think that he has neglected a brother’s duty for not writing. I think that communications ought to be kept up between brothers and sisters only 600 and 50 miles distant. Lyndon says, “Tell Silas that I will give him a York sixpence if he will sit down and write one hour and send it to me.”
And in November, Pliny Jr. counted his blessings but was nevertheless filled with longing:
Tender and affectionate Mother … What kind friends I have. What I should have done had it not been for friends, I should have been a begging my way to my native land. And now I have a good home, am happy and perfectly contented. I will do my best in whatever land I may be in to get friends, such friends that will not leave me when trouble and sickness overtakes me. If you think of me you must think how much there has been done for me here.
Sister Augusta… I am much pleased to see a few lines in Fathers letter from you, should like to see them oftener. I shall expect to receive a letter in a short time from you and the rest of my sisters.
In a letter written the following July, Pliny Jr. spoke again of his loneliness—and celebrated 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 … All that I want to make this place suit me is to have my parents, brothers, and sisters to live nearby so I can once in a few days make them a few hours visit … I will congratulate with you all in Silas’ marriage and with pleasure will receive Maria as a sister. With the greatest pleasure and honour and respect her the same … May it prove to double their joys and divide their sorrows … Give my love to Silas and his wife when you see them or write to them. I should be exceeding glad to have either or both of them write to me. If I could think of anything that would induce him to write to [me] if it was in my power I would bestow it … You see it is time for me to come to a close. Shall visit again as soon as time and opportunity will occur. Write often, write when you think best … My love and best wishes to all—parents, brothers, sisters, and cousins.
In a letter written in May 1835, Pliny Jr., then settled in Cleveland, chided his family for neglecting to write:
I once more set myself to make known my love and esteem I have for my honourable and beloved parents. For months I have waited with the utmost impatience to hear from home … I still wait in the expectation that I shall be satisfied that my parents have good reason for withholding from me for nine months the precious privilege of reading and reflecting upon their good advice, situations, prosperity (or adversity, if it should happen to be), of my brothers and sisters, and the current news of the day which would be very interesting in my solitary room … 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.
In July, Pliny Sr. responded with sad and 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. The skin on her neck and shoulders was some torn and her clothes behind were very much shattered … It seems the lightening passed from the top of the chimney to the bottom of the cellar. The body of the chimney is so badly shattered that it cannot be used until it is repaired and every room in the house injured. Tore off plastering, chimney pieces, ceiling broke a hole through the chamber floor, shivered one cross-sill in the cellar, and shivered some posts. It shivered a board of the floor directly under the foot of the cradle that the baby was sleeping in … It was a melancholy and heart-rending sight to see three coffins in the meetinghouse at the same time.
Pliny Sr. and Delia’s two youngest children, Augusta and Dwight, journeyed west in the late 1830s to join. In March 1839, a bereft Pliny Sr. sent a poignant message to Ohio. Delia Freeman had suffered with scrofula (a painful inflammation of the cervical lymph nodes, associated with tuberculosis) for a several years:
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 [age 23] would come home and live with me if she thinks she can be contented to live a lonely life … If Dwight [age 20] is not likely to find business there I should like him to work with me on the farm, but wish him to do what is thought best for his interest and happiness … I shall write but few lines more at this time but renew my invitation to Augusta to come if she dare trust herself on so long a journey with strangers … I hardly know what I have written, but will close by subscribing myself “Your father in affliction” Pliny Freeman
Augusta and Dwight dutifully moved back to Massachusetts, but in February of the following year, Pliny Sr. received a teasing note from Mary Pease, 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, which I think you are worthy of such a one … If you should have any call to Boston 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 … My respects to Mrs. [Lucretia] Vinton. Tell her I am the same old sixpence.
Reader, she married him:
You have given me an invitation to your castle for a home and 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.
Over the years, Samuel, the philosopher of the family, had also kept in touch with family back in New England. In August 1844 he wrote to a sister and brother-in-law in Southbridge, Massachusetts, and extended an invitation:
How quick, how quick a year has passed since I left you. The year has not only gone but it has carried us with it. How rapidly you and I are going down the stream of life. You and I once thought that when a person had arrived to the age of seventy years he was almost to old to expect to live much longer. We have arrived at that age and know we cannot remain here much longer … I am not without hopes that you may visit us should our lives and health be continued another year.
In May 1849, Samuel’s son Lyndon wrote Pliny Sr. to tell him of his father’s death:
It seemed to me that old age was making unusual progress. He himself marked this and used to speak of it. He seemed to be watching with his lamps trimmed and burning. He often spoke of his departure near. Some of us had noticed that for some time before he was taken sick, his memory was impaired. This he noticed and often spoke of it. For some weeks previous to his being confined to his house he had complained of a pain in his head … He first gave up doing his chores and took [to] the house on Sunday the 25th of December, just four weeks previous to his death … The first indications of paralysis was a slight lameness in his right side … His mind seemed to be affected simultaneously with his body … He complained that he could not think of words to express his thoughts. In a few days he was unable to walk across the floor without aid … During the first nine days of his sickness he sat up during the day in an armed chair. He was cheerful and enjoyed the sports of the children. Was much pleased to see his friends that called to see him. On the tenth day he took [to] his bed from which he never arose … He failed from day to day … Mr. Brewster and wife (Lucetta) came to see him. He knew them and was affected unto tears. A few days before his death his left side became paralyzed. For two-and-a-half days previous to his departure he lay in a stupor from which he never awoke.
Mary Pease Freeman passed away in 1850, and Pliny Sr., age 70, was a widower once again. A year later, he sold his farm and moved in with his daughter Delia and her husband, who were living nearby in Webster. By December 1854, Dwight had journeyed to Geneseo, Illinois, to purchase a farm; Augusta and her husband would eventually join him there. On his return trip, Dwight contracted typhoid fever and stayed in Cleveland with Pliny Jr. while recovering. Pliny Jr. had suffered another setback himself:
Pliny, [one] week ago last Monday went off to the medical college and took some chloroform and had his tumor on his side operated upon. They cut a gash about three inches long and another about two inches, pawed into it to their heart’s content and then dressed it and let him wake up, and that is about all we know about it. He is very comfortable with it, being about the house up and down as he wishes and even out-of-doors. He thinks it won’t keep him from work more than two weeks longer.
The following month, Pliny Sr. passed the news on to Silas in West Millbury, Massachusetts, where he was working as the overseer of the town poor farm:
Dutiful Son …?I write a few lines to inform you of Dwight’s return. He came the 5th instant. His health is now good. Looked rather sharp-faced when he arrived, caused by his sickness of six or eight weeks at Cleveland. He left Pliny in a critical situation … He had an abscess opened in his side some time in December and it doesn’t work as favourably as expected. His appetite gone and he is very low spirited … Dwight has purchased a lot of 40 acres with a good house thereon—price $1400—in the town of Geneseo, County of Henry, Illinois. He expects to leave here about the middle of March for his new home … Hollowell and Augusta have come to a final conclusion (as I now think) of trying their fortune at the west. Leave here in March … John [May, Delia’s husband] thinks he shall leave [Webster] in the spring … I shall be obliged to quit my little snug room where I have taken so much ease and comfort with good attention paid to me the past four years. Where I shall next live (if I do live) I can’t even guess.
Two months later, in March 1855, Marcia Freeman wrote her father-in-law from Cleveland with the good news that Pliny Jr. was on the mend at last—and looking for letters from home:
I am happy to tell you that Pliny’s health is improving a little. Since I wrote last, the doctors have made a new incision near the center of his chest … We hope it will heal up in a few weeks. The doctors visit him only every other day now, and think he will soon be so comfortable that he will get along without their care. His appetite is quite good … Saturday the third of this month he sat up for a few minutes for the first time in several weeks, and is going to practice sitting up a little while every day … Pliny thinks if he has got any friends in Massachusetts, it is time some of them wrote to him.
John and Delia remained in Webster and cared for Pliny Sr. until the end. In October, Bradford Baylies, daughter Florella’s husband, wrote from Southbridge to Pliny Jr. and Marcia in Ohio:
It has fallen to my lot to communicate to you the sad intelligence that Father is no more. He died this morning at three o’clock. He spent the second week in September with us, and was in good health, and went to Sturbridge to make his usual visits. He was taken sick the last week in September … Had the doctor and October third was much better. Said he hoped he should be able to go to Webster the last of the week, but Saturday was taken worse—pain in his bones and a trembling, and at times his mind was confused and wandering. Was very anxious to go home to Webster, but it rained … We tried to prevail on him to stop with us, but no. He said he must get home. He stood the ride better than we expected. But he failed very fast and the next day was almost helpless. The doctor said it was the typhus fever. The funeral will be on Friday the twelfth at nine oclock at Webster and one at Sturbridge.
He was 75. Ninety-five years later, the Freeman home was rescued and moved from its original location south of town to the Old Sturbridge Village property. In 1956, OSV 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 later is still a working farm—a fitting resting place for this venerable house that saw so much of the community’s early history.
Quotations by permisson of Old Sturbridge Village; research by former OSV historian Holly Izard and interpreter Connie Small. For transcripts of the Freeman family correspondence, go to: osv.org/explore_learn/document_list.php