A real old farmer’s almanac would have started on March 25, sometimes called Farmers New Year. It was the day they began their diaries.
Many New England farmers kept to the old practice of starting the new year on March 25. It may have begun in North America with John Winthrop, who wrote in his diary: March 25: The year 1620 beginneth. (He arrived a little later.)
So important and ubiquitous was the farmer’s day book that the New England Farmer magazine in 1827 gave advice on how to keep accounts in it.
Some had blank pages inserted between the calendar pages. The owner used the blank pages to record his daily expenses, debts, travel, the weather, crops planted and their outcomes.
Thomas C. Hubka, in Big House, Little House, Back House, Barn: The Connected Farm Buildings of New England, explained why 19th-century farmers especially viewed diaries as important. The 1800s were an era of improvement, he wrote. Diaries “partook of the same sustaining spirit of optimism, perfectibility, and progress. Most important, it was an attitude popularly shared and reinforced by most farmers.”
Day By Day
Much can be learned about 19th-century farm life from the diaries that survive. Hubka based much of his book about New England farm architecture on diaries kept by three generations in Kennebunk, Maine. Tobias Walker began his journal on August 1, 1828, when he was 34. He kept it up for more than 37 years until he died on Oct. 10, 1865. His son Edwin continued it, and then Edwin’s son Daniel took it up. The Walker family recorded every single day for 23,691 days.
Daniel Walker made the final entry on Tuesday, June 27, 1893:
Went to the village with butter. Got 10 bushels of corn of Edm. Warren at 5-8cts/bushel. Got a rake and a scyth and —– for haying.
Why Daniel Walker stopped writing is unclear. Hubka speculates he had lost his optimism about the future of farming – like many farmers of that era.
Noah Blake was born on Farmers New Year in Connecticut in 1790. His parents gave him a diary on his 15th birthday. With a crow quill and butternut ink, he wrote about helping his father build a bridge. He also wrote about the weather, a visit from a neighbor (“we drank mead and mint tea” and, maple sugaring. An entry on March 27, two days into the New Year, read,
27: Father was wrong about the weather, for it snowd again today. We kept within the house, sharping and making ready tools for the year’s farming.
In the next century, writer and illustrator Eric Sloan discovered Noah’s diary in a library book sale. Sloan then illustrated and published it as Diary of an Early American Boy, and it became one of his best-selling books.
Farmers New Year
Another typical farmer, Benjamin Harwood began his diary in Bennington, Vt., on the same day in 1805 as Noah Blake. Harwood started with a typical farm entry: “Prun’d my Orchard–” Harwood’s son’s diaries were also published as a book.
Farmers weren’t the only ones who kept diaries in early New England. In A Midwife’s Tale, historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich writes daybooks were also kept by craftsmen, shopkeepers, ship’s captains and perhaps a very few housewives. Maine midwife Martha Ballard started one when she was 50 years old. She made 10,000 entries in the diary she kept for 27 years.
(You can search Marta Ballard’s diary entries here.)
On March 25, 1788, for example, she wrote:
Clear & Cold. mr Woodward & his wife here. They Broke their Sleigh Coming Down the hill. I went to to [sic] mr Williamss to See Patty. Shee has a swelling on her throat.
Joshua Hempstead of New London, Conn., was perhaps the granddaddy of New England farm diarists. He began his day book on Sept. 8, 1711, and kept it for 47 years.
On March 25, 1745, Hempstead stayed home, pruned his orchard and paid down a debt.
Mond 25 fair. I was about home all day. I pruned Some appletrees near ye house [and] I pd Mr Gilberts 8. in pat of ye 25. due more 17.
Samuel Lane of Stratham, N.H., — farmer, tanner, shoemaker — enumerated his blessings in his diary when he was 75. On Nov. 21, 1793, a public day of Thanksgiving, he wrote:
- The Life & health of myself and family, and also of so many of my Children, grand Children and great grandchildren; also of my other Relations and friends & Neighbors, for Health peace and plenty amongst us.
- for my Bible and Many other good and Useful Books, Civil & Religious Privileges, for the ordinances of the gospel; and for my Minister.
- for my Land, House and Barn and other Buildings, & that they are preserv’d from fire & other accidents.
- for my wearing Clothes to keep me warm, my Bed & Bedding to rest upon.
- for my Cattle, Sheep & Swine & other Creatures, for my support.
- for my Corn, Wheat, Rye Grass and Hay; Wool, flax, Cider, apples, Pumpkins, Potatoes, Cabbages, turnips, Carrots, Beets peaches and other fruits.
- For my Clock and Watch to measure my passing time by Day and by Night,Wood, Water, Butter, Cheese, Milk, Pork, Beef, & fish, &c
- for Tea, Sugar, Rum, Wine, Gin, Molasses, pepper, Spice & Money for to bye other Necessaries and to pay my Debts & Taxes &c.
- for my Leather, Lamp oil & Candles, Husbandry Utensils, & other tools of every sort &c &c &c.
Bless the Lord O my soul and all that is within me Bless his holy Name.
This story updated in 2023.