In August 1860, Alice Watts was a 15-year-old Vermont farm girl struggling to get an education, struggling to be independent and struggling with her religious beliefs.
She hoped school would be her ticket to follow her three older sisters off the farm.They were the first women in the family to earn money outside the home. Her sister Sarah worked at the Lowell textile mills, and Chastina and Clara were teachers.
But Alice Watts’ mother badly needed her help on their farm in Peacham, Vt. In the fall of 1859, she had let Alice go away to school more than 100 miles away because she was offered free tuition. But she called Alice back after the New Year.
The school was Castleton Seminary, where her stepbrother Lyman was teaching (hence the free tuition). Lyman had strong evangelical beliefs, and his preaching exacerbated her struggles with her Christian beliefs.
On Jan. 1, 1860, Lyman gave Alice a diary. She would keep it for almost her whole life. The diary reveals Alice as moody and depressed. After she returned to Peacham, her father enrolled her at Peacham Academy, two miles from the farm.
Diary of Alice Watts
During the summer of 1860, Alice Watts recorded in her diary her visits to friends and neighbors, Sunday meeting, chores and quotations from the Bible – or she chastised herself for being wicked because she didn’t read the Bible that day.
Aug. 15 was a pretty good day for Alice Watts. She recorded in her diary:
Went to St. Johnsbury to day for the first time. It was a muddy ride but otherwise pleasant. Heard Prof [S.W.] Boardman in the afternoon. Miss Caroline Bickford and I stay at Mr. Hawes’. Went to the Menagerie this eve. Staid till 9 o’clock then came back and saw a torch light procession who serenaded J[ustin] S Morrill.
Justin Morrill was a congressman from Vermont in 1860 and later a U.S. senator. He co-founded the Republican Party, but is best known for the Morrill Land-Grant Colleges Act that helped establish many public colleges and universities in the United States — the kind of school Alice Watts might have attended had she only been born a few decades later.
Morrill also sponsored a series of tariffs, beginning in 1861, to protect American manufacturing.
The Justin Smith Morrill Homestead was one of the first declared National Historic Landmarks in 1960.
This story was updated in 2022.
Image: Torchlilght parade By photojenni – https://www.flickr.com/photos/jenni40947/2146970543/, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7816076.