Lucy’s Story: “Memories of a Commonplace Life”
Last year, E. W. Buell’s granddaughter, Dorothy Gantner Giglio, donated small booklet to the Historical Society. Entitled “A Historical Sketch of the Congregational Church in Gilead, Conn., From the First Settlement of the Town by the English,” written by Reverend Josiah A. Mack, it was read before the Tolland Congregational Association on June 4, 1878.
This valuable work chronicles Gilead’s three longest-serving ministers from its inception until 1856, when the third of these ministers, Reverend Charles Nichols, was “dismissed by council.” This action was supposedly taken despite his “long and useful ministry” in which 77 couples were married, 129 children were baptized, 248 people were laid to rest, and 151 new members joined the church.
In 1825, Gilead had taken a chance on young Nichols, a poor seminary student born in Derby, CT on February 19, 1798. But the 27-year old’s fiery enthusiasm was a good fit for the church, and he ultimately served the Gilead parish for 31 years.
The story of Charles Nichols – and life in mid-19th century Hebron – might have ended with Mack’s cursory work, were it not for three women: Nichols’ youngest daughter Lucy, who wrote an account of growing up in Gilead; Annie Hutchinson Foote, who carefully typed out Lucy’s story; and local resident Olive White Doubleday, who recently loaned Mrs. Foote’s transcript to the Historical Society.
The document is fascinating, not only for the intimate details of daily living, but also for solving the mystery of Reverend Nichols’ ultimate “dismissal.”
Lucy was born on April 19, 1842, the fifth child of Charles and Louisa West Post, widow of John Post of Gilead. By the time she was born, her father had already overseen the taking down and rebuilding of the Gilead “meetinghouse,” and her eldest sister, Julia, had died at age two. It’s clear that the girl had a lonely childhood, especially since she rarely saw her brother Julius, who was 11 years older and already hard at work on the family’s farm by the time Lucy was born. (He died of typhoid in 1851 when Lucy was only nine.) Older sisters Martha and Laura were extremely close, and were sent to various schools in Massachusetts, leaving Lucy alone with her parents and grandmother.
As a young girl, Lucy arbitrarily took the middle name “Freelove” in honor of her paternal grandmother, an interesting choice. She remembers her father as “a stern, rather severe man: a father whom I feared more than loved… [But] he was a man of strong affections, sternly repressed, according to the old New England ideas of what was right and fitting for a man, and especially for a minister. I have no recollection of his ever playing with me, of my ever sitting on his knee or of any caresses between us.” Likewise, she remembers her mother primarily for her hard work. “Washing, ironing, making and mending clothes: all must be done, and largely by her own hands.” In addition to these demands, there were great expectations on the part of the parishioners regarding the minister’s wife. “Few babies were born in Gilead without her attendance, and when death came to a household her presence to aid the family was expected… She was oppressed by her many and great responsibilities and never seemed light-hearted and really glad to be alive…I did not fear her as I did my father, but she never was my ‘chum.’”
The small child had few toys, so reading became her favorite pastime. “I have no recollection of learning to read nor of any time when I could not read.” While she supposed she must have had rag dolls, “I do not remember them.” The only toys she does remember were corn cobs used to make log cabins, old spinning spools set up and used for a creative type of bowling, which she calls “knocking down spools,” and pieces of old picket fence used to create a makeshift “house”, complete with dishes, which were just broken pieces of crockery.
Reading Lucy’s detailed account of spinning, from carding the wool to winding the finished product into skeins, makes even a novice feel they could follow her instructions. A foreign concept to us today, it was an expected skill. “‘Boughten’ stockings were almost unknown in those days. All the womenfolk knitted.” New clothes were also a luxury. Dresses and pants were handed down generation after generation until they were almost rags. A man’s wedding jacket and coat became his Sunday-go-to-meeting clothing for the rest of his life. The one exception seemed to be shoes. “My shoes were often made by the village shoemaker, Mr. Edwin Strong, and were coarse and clumsy and tied with leather strings. I had better ones for Sunday wear, which my father used to buy for me in Hartford.” Lucy tells the story of many children who walked to the church wearing their daily shoes, then would hide them and put on their “Sunday shoes” before entering the building.
The memoirs contain explicit descriptions of all types of clothing, including bonnets and hats, how they were made, and the types of fabric used. We learn about hair styles, how women’s hair was braided and held up with combs, and how men parted and combed their hair forward when they began to bald.
Lucy notes that Gilead was “five miles to everywhere.” It was five miles to Andover, Marlborough, Bolton, or Columbia. While Hebron was only 3 miles away, it offered only small stores for groceries, and the road (Gilead Street) was extremely rough and rocky. It appears most Gilead residents traveled the 16 miles to Hartford to get supplies. This might seem odd except that one could easily catch a train to Hartford in Bolton at the Hartford-Providence-Fishkill depot.
Daguerreotypes came into vogue and a traveling artist came to Gilead in 1849, offering his services. Lucy writes that a single picture took four minutes to develop, and the subjects had to remain perfectly still that entire time. This often resulted in multiple takes, as someone in the picture was sure to move or sneeze during the long wait. The cost was an astronomical $5, money which a parishioner gave to Reverend Nichols so that he could have a picture taken of his three daughters.
Despite the fact that the War Between the States would break out in less than a decade, Lucy seems oblivious to the issues of slavery, which Connecticut had abolished in 1848, shortly after her birth. She mentions that when a copy of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was finally brought to their household in 1852, she “devoured the book in a very short time.” She also noted that “the pew next to the door was reserved for colored people… I remember one colored woman and one half-Indian who sometimes sat there.”
Most children attended Gilead Hill School, about a half mile from the meetinghouse. In the mid-19th century, the building was brick, and had two doors, one for girls to enter, and one for the boys. There were two terms, summer and winter, both geared around the growing season so that children would be free to plant in the spring, and harvest crops and berries in the fall. Even so, boys older than 8 rarely attended the summer session.
Interestingly, Reverend Nichols, a teacher prior to his ordination, had opened up a school in his house during winters “for the older boys and girls who wished more education than the district schools afforded. There was no High School nor Academy near, and few parents sent their children away to school.” Lucy was not allowed to attend district school until she was 12, and was home-schooled by her parents up until then. When her parents finally relented, they learned firsthand that district school, with its very young, inexperienced teachers, offered little except play time that bordered on chaos. Favorite among girls, and especially Lucy, were the running games, which she describes in great detail: Thornaway, Run-Across, Hump Stump, and Go to School Cross Lots.
Lucy Freelove Nichols, born in 1842, wrote a detailed account of growing up in mid-19th century Gilead. Her father was Gilead Congregational Church’s second-longest serving minister, having accepted the position in 1825 and resigning in 1856.
On March 5, 1830, five years after accepting Gilead’s call to minister, Reverend Charles Nichols purchased the property just south of the meetinghouse from Elisha Post for the sum of $1,000. Not surprisingly, given its close proximity to the church, the house had previously been owned by Reverend Nathan Gillett, who had been minister at Gilead Congregational Church from 1799-1824. Lucy's detailed description of the interior brings the elegant structure at 650 Gilead Street to life.
“Our house was originally a gambrel roofed house, two and a half stories high… Later someone had added two or three rooms on the back of the house, and when I was a little girl my brother [Julius] altered and added to this addition,” she wrote. According to Josiah Mack’s 1878 historical sermon, it was Reverend Gillett who had made those changes: “When [Gillett] purchased the house it was but one and one half stories; but at well nigh ruinous expense he raised it to two stories with gambrel roof, and finished off sleeping rooms in the attic story.”
The attic is intriguing. According to Lucy, “In the north room we used to keep corn on the ear, and I remember laboring up the two flights, carrying baskets full of it…On the walls hung great bundles of religious newspapers. Reading matter was scarce in those days and not to be thrown away lightly. So when the year was over, the weekly papers, which had been carefully saved, were put in order and sewed together and hung on the wall.” Lucy’s brother, Julius, occupied the second attic room.
On March 18, 1846, Reverend Nichols bought additional acreage adjoining his garden from Samuel Talcott for $20. Lucy estimated that her family now had a total of 20 acres. Nichols’ annual salary of $450 (paid for by pew fees) was supplemented by corn, grain, potatoes, apples and hay grown on the land. In March 1878, shortly before his passing, Nichols wrote of his time in Gilead, “I purchased ‘a cage’ for my bird [wife Louisa West Post] and myself, in which we spent nearly thirty years together, where our five little birds were hatched, and where they sang and were happy.”
Despite her father’s idyllic reminisces, Lucy was still lonely. Sister Julia died in childhood, her brother Julius died in 1851, and her two older sisters, Laura and Martha, had been sent to Mt. Holyoke Female Seminary in Massachusetts. Lucy was left in the rambling house with her parents and her paternal grandmother. Were it not for the fast friendship she formed with Anna Gilbert, life might have been dull and drab for the youngest Nichols “bird.”
Anna lived across the road, almost directly across from the old burying grounds. The Gilberts were a long-established Gilead family, and Gilberts lived throughout the parish. Even though she had many aunts, uncles, cousins, and grandparents, Anna shared Lucy’s feelings of friendship. They explored the hills of Gilead, though rarely venturing beyond the confines of their own family’s property without proper accompaniment by their mothers. Lucy was an obvious musical prodigy, and Anna had a melodeon! Lucy had a marvelous voice, and Anna got her parents permission to take singing lessons from Sylvester Gilbert in Hebron. Nichols initially refused to let Lucy go, even though Anna’s grandfather, known to all as Esquire Gilbert, was willing to drive a wagon the three long miles, and Anna had promised not to leave her friend behind. But Esquire Gilbert assured Nichols that he was not doing any “special favors” for Lucy; there was plenty of room in the wagon for any Gilead girl who wished to go. Lucy was soon among the six girls making the weekly trip, thanks to Anna.
Despite these occasional diversions, life centered around the church and the family farm, and their respective demands. Farm chores took up most of everyone’s day, with much scurrying to get work done before Sunday. The tolling church bells marked the start of Sabbath, when all secular activity ended. Church bells tolled for the start of the two Sunday “preachings,” with Sunday School for youngsters in between.
The bells also tolled for deaths, six times for a man, nine times for a woman, followed by a toll for each year of the person’s life. The bells would toll slowly as a funeral procession approached, and then toll again slowly from the time the coffin left the church until it was lowered into the grave at the old burying grounds. Bells didn’t toll for marriages, which were generally small affairs, and which almost never saw the exchange of rings.
The only holiday truly celebrated in mid-19th century Gilead was Thanksgiving, and families traditionally gathered together for the occasion. Lucy envied her friend Anna, and the noise and gaiety her large family created at Thanksgiving. “But there was no one to come to our house…it was a rather stupid day after all.”
Christmas, except as a reflection on the birth of Christ, was not celebrated. Children were allowed to hang a stocking on the fireplace, “but usually a bunch of raisins, a lump of sugar or rarely an orange were all the gifts I received or expected… We were [however] allowed to exchange Christmas greetings.” One year, Lucy and Anna begged for a Christmas tree, offering to decorate the two Norway spruce trees in front of Anna’s house. “We could not expect presents, but both Anna and I could bring pretty things and hang them on the tree and have the pleasure of seeing them there.” Reverend Nichols finally agreed, contingent on Lucy earning good grades. That Christmas Eve, he brought in a small tree, set it up, and allowed the two girls to decorate it with whatever small objects they came up with. Anna’s parents also came to the big event, and it was a delightful evening. The next day, the tree was gone.
By 1856, Lucy was content, with no thought or desire of ever leaving Gilead. But everything changed dramatically that September, when her father returned from a short trip. “On his return [he] found a letter awaiting him, which changed everything for us all. It was from a member of his church and said that in the judgment of the writer nine-tenths of his parishioners wished him to resign. It was a bolt from a clear sky and however intended it certainly seemed unkind. Father was not a man to hesitate in such circumstances…the following Sunday he read his resignation, greatly to the surprise and apparent grief of his congregation.” Lucy never identified the letter’s author, although we can assume it must have come from a high-ranking church member, especially since her father took the words unquestioningly to heart.
The next month saw many parishioners come to the house and “cry over us and to express their more or less sincere indignation over the letter and grief over its effect.” But Nichols was “exceedingly hurt and felt that he had been unkindly treated,” and remained steadfast in his decision. Unable to change his mind, the church formally dismissed him on October 21, 1856.
Years later, in a somewhat bitter tone, Nichols wrote, “I found [in Gilead] a number of lingering cases of seriousness, waiting and praying, but enjoying no comforting light from [God]….It seemed to me at first that I could help them out of the slough of despond; but I soon and painfully found that if the Lord does not help, man’s help is vain.”
Despite thoughts of giving up his preaching career, Reverend Nichols spent the fall and winter interviewing at various churches, leaving his family to fend for themselves. One night the roof caught on fire, and the water pumps were frozen. Lucy took off for the Gilberts; despite the short distance, it took a long time for she had to battle waist-high snow drifts. Once there, two Gilbert men immediately took off for the Nichols house with ladders, only to find that the snow had put the fire out. Nichols showed up the next day, having struggled himself to get home through the deep snow, and announced that he had accepted a preaching position in Higganum.
“Father was in a haste to be gone,” and he set the family’s moving day for Wednesday, March 25. The pace of packing up the house accelerated. But on Friday night, March 20, another disaster struck. A Mt. Holyoke teacher appeared unannounced; Martha had died of scarlet fever. The family packed up the wagon and left for Massachusetts the next day. Martha was buried in South Hadley; Laura came home with the family, never to return to school. The five “birds” were now only two.
On Saturday, March 28, despite all the improvements made to the property, Nichols sold his home and land to Harvey Hutchinson for $1000. The land deed transaction was officially witnessed by 15-year old Lucy. And on Tuesday, March 31, 1857, the family, in two packed wagons, left Gilead for their new life in the Connecticut Valley.
Lucy’s story was eventually published in 1927 by Perry & Elliott Company of Lynn, Massachusetts. Exactly half of the 112-page book describes her 15 years in Gilead; the balance describes the next 70 years and her apparently arranged marriage to Mr. John B. Smith of East Hartford. She bore a total of nine children. At her Silver Wedding anniversary, Lucy noted that “guests were present from Gilead,” although she doesn’t mention if her old friend, Anna Gilbert, was among them. Despite an extensive search, only one copy of the book has been found: at Hebron’s Douglas Library.