THE 1909 DIARY OF A VALLEY FARMER (September 30/05)

“October 26, Tuesday. Digging potatoes. I went to a raising.”

This is a typical entry in the diary of Dempsey Corner farmer Dimock Freeman Bowlby in that it is brief, at times cryptic, and at the same time a revelation.

For a full year in 1909 when Bowlby’s age was 40 kept an account of his daily activities. All of the entries are similar to the one quoted above and for the most part, refer to work activity on the farm and in the woods.

Reading the diary, I got the impression that life in the period Bowlby chronicles was a constant struggle to wrest a living from the land. With the exception of the period in which Bowlby refers to a stint in the militia, he is constantly working the land and there is scant mention of recreation, leisure time or social activities. “I went to the woods in the morning,” “I got the oxen shod,” and “we were hauling manure and packing apples,” read typical entries.

Dimock Freeman Bowlby was born on January 11, 1869, and died on April 25, 1933. He was undoubtedly too old to serve in the armed forces during world war one since he would have been approaching 50; but as mentioned, he had militia training which was obligatory in that period. Bowlby lived in a time when most people dwelt on and worked the land and his diary indicates it was a life of constant labour. At the time, the majority of Nova Scotia’s population lived and worked in rural areas and enjoyed what economists referred to as a “agrarian economy.”

So what was life like in rural Kings County early in the 20th century? Mr. Bowlby may have been stinting with words but his diary entries said enough to glimpse farm life at the time. In the era before tractors were in common usage his beast of burden was the ox; he had horses as well since he mentions going for a drive and there is an entry referring to the cost of pasturing a mare and colt.

We can also infer that the barter system was in effect in 1909. There are various references to receiving goods for goods and apparently, money didn’t change hands.

Bowlby was typical of farmers in that period in that he practised mixed farming. He had cattle and sheep, was a fruit grower, and grew a mixture of vegetables, among them turnips, potatoes, beans, corn and tomatoes.

Another revealing entry is the one quoted above about the “raising.” I assume this referred to the raising of a barn or some sort of farm building on the property of a neighbour. In Bowlby’s day it was common for friends and neighbours to come from miles around to assist in the raising of a building; actually, it was one of the few social events in that era.

However, despite the almost daily entries about farm work, it wasn’t entirely all labour and no play in the early 20th century. There are references in the diary to evening drives, presumably with horse and carriage, visits by friends, the occasional trip into Kentville, and church on Sunday. There is even time for activities that possibly were of a charitable nature but the entries were too brief to determine this.

Mr. Bowlby’s diary for 1909 was transcribed by his daughter, Janet Parker Vaughan of Middleton, who donated a copy to the Kings County Museum. I’ll take another look at Mr. Bowlby’s diary next week, concentrating on his militia career. As mentioned, Bowlby spent time in the county militia and the diary contains interesting details on this aspect of farm life nearly 100 years ago.

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