Thursday, August 18, 2011

Sarah’s World: Fulton County, Ohio, 1890

Sarah’s World: Fulton County 1890 by Alan Borer

Sarah Crosby Coe Alton had a hard life. Born in Swanton in Fulton County in 1841, she married Henry Coe, a native of Fremont, in 1865. She lost her first husband in 1878. In the census of 1880, she was living alone with her 77 year old mother and three children: Charley (age 12), Clara (age 10), and Viola (age 7). They lived together in Swanton, but life was precarious. At 12, Charley was already listed as a “laborer,” although he had also attended school in the last 12 months. But as the oldest male in a household of unemployed females, he had little choice to find what labor he could.

In 1885, Sarah Coe married a man named David Alton. Alton was a farmer in Swan Creek Township. He brought two boys to the marriage. Charley married a girl from Sandusky, but then fled to the West Coast. We don’t know why Charley Coe left Ohio. Maybe he just “lit out to the Territories,” as Huckleberry Finn famously said. In any case, the next place we hear of Charlie living was in the oddly-named town of Enumclaw in what was then (1890) Washington Territory. Charley eventually returned to Ohio, living in Toledo on Stickney Avenue, where he died in 1959.

Sarah was literate, although her spelling was haphazard. In March of 1890 she wrote to her faraway son (“Dear Sun” [sic]) and let him know the news from Swanton. As was common, she started by outlining the state of her health:

“I am not sick but my head hurts . . . . and I can’t see to read fine print without glasses….I think when it gets warmer I shall feel better….”

In 1890, central heating was a dream of the future, and we cannot but sympathize with this fifty-year-old woman.

Sarah went on to mention some births in the neighborhood and a funeral in Swanton. Then she mentioned a friend who refused to attend a family get-together:

“…wanted him to go a long but he wouldn’t. He staid; went and got oysters and had an oyster supper….”

Although still held at various events, oyster suppers were a favorite community gathering event in nineteenth century. Oysters were an uncommon delicacy, and before jet planes could bring them in from ocean fishing ports, it was a considerable chore to haul oysters to inland locations. Like all marine creatures, oysters have been overfished and exposed to pollution, so one must eat them with care. And of course, like any food, they are an acquired taste (one which this writer never acquired, but that’s another story).

“… John Perkins is a going to farm the old man Zares [Lares?] place. They are going to fix the old school house that sets near the house for him to live in….”

John Perkins was yet another farmer in Swan Creek township. Born in 1861 of English parents, he had two children when Sarah wrote her letter (more came later). We have a sentimental idea that most farmers in the old days lived on their own land. But even at the time of the Civil War, Ohio farmers, especially the younger ones, were as likely to rent land as plant soil they owned. Mr. Perkins certainly seemed to be among them.

The one room schoolhouse was another icon of our rural past. Made obsolete by school consolidation in the first half of the twentieth century, the abandoned schools (one in each township) were reused in a number of ways. They became township halls, tractor barns, and in a few cases, private homes. In Swan Creek Township, the old Lutz School, possibly the one lived in or considered by Mr. Perkins, is now the Township Hall, and, after having been moved at least once, can be seen at the corner of CR “D” and TR 5-1.

“We have got 12 or 13 little lambs….I have 10 little chicks growing nice…..”

Fulton County in our time is mostly corn and soybeans, with wheat running a distant third. In Sarah’s time, farms were more diversified, as the lambs and chicks attest. In 1890, farms had “backup” crops and livestock. If the wheat was poor, you could keep the wolf from the door and sell a sheep, a chicken, or their wool and feathers.

“The robins is [sic] singing for spring….”

We tend to think of the past in terms of only one of our senses, that of Yet the world of texture, sound, and odor existed, although we can only recover hints of it in letters like Sarah’s. Our world, so full of electronic and industrial sound, was different by far then Sarah’s world of birdsong, bleating, and clucking. Fortunately, the warbling of robins is with us still. When you hear a robin, think of Sarah Coe and how different, yet familiar, he world was.

[Information in this essay came from the United States Census of 1900 (the 1890 census was destroyed in a fire in the 1920s), and the website of the Fulton County Historical Society. Map information came from Combined atlases and map of Fulton County, Ohio, 1858, 1875, 1888, 1903 (1980).]

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