Friday, January 8, 2016

Begin With the Weather: Diaries of a "Common Laborer"


     My days of regularly haunting antique shops are largely over. For many years, I fancied myself a collector of fine things, and in truth, the phrase “hand-painted Bavarian porcelain” still whets the appetite. But one does reach a point when arithmetic trumps the flashier arts, when the likely cost of keeping body and soul together in old age multiplied by the desire to leave behind something other than shelves of tchotchkes is too great to ignore. And in time, the tyranny of possessions, of bright, shiny objects, does loosen its grip.
     During that wanton heyday, though, I came across a set of four diaries from the early 1900s, meticulously kept by a man named Luke Flynn, who lived in Waterbury with his wife, Kate. Small, unpretentious volumes, four in all, about an inch thick and the size of an index card, covered in canvas with an overlapping flap, the edges trimmed in narrow, burgundy leather. In these diaries, Mr. Flynn recorded what we might assume mattered most to him: the weather, his work, the comings and goings of family and close friends.
     As a writer, I was immediately intrigued. I’ve kept a journal most of my adult life, though slacking off for great stretches now and again, when the tedium or occasional tragedy of the days seemed too numbing to chronicle. I rarely return to them; the banality of most entries serves only to upend the already fragile confidence.  I only hope that before I reach a state of mindless decrepitude, I have the good sense to take a match to the plastic tubful of assorted spiral notebooks, sketch pads, and leather-bound journals I’ve despoiled over the years.  God forbid anyone should read them. 

Waterbury, VT 1914 -- Library of Congress
     Yet, Mr. Flynn’s diaries have survived for over a century, and I’m glad for that. In laconic prose, and spelling we’ll call idiosyncratic, they reveal a poignant if narrow slice of his life and an earlier time.  We are listeners in a darkened hallway, leaning toward a door left just slightly ajar.
     Luke Joseph Flynn was born on January 12, 1855 in Moretown, Vermont, one of six children of Irish immigrants; the family appears in the 1860 US census. At that time, the surname was Flinn. In 1885 he married Kate Donovan, whose own parents were born in Ireland as well. When his first child arrived the following year, Mr. Flynn called himself a farmer. But by the time he penciled in his days in the pages of “The Standard Diary,” he was, in his own term, a common laborer.
     Every entry begins with the weather, as we might expect from one who spent so much of his life toiling out in the elements. Simple descriptions suffice: cool, cold, warm, clear. In the last volume I have, 1913, Mr. Flynn logs the temperature as well. Strong winds merit notating their direction. Many a day, even one that dawned at zero, are, in his words, “fine and pleasant.”  Hot summer days are sometimes simply “lousy.”
     Occasionally bad weather – heavy snows, or pelting, lasting rains -- keeps him from his work. And that work was hard: building roads, raising barns, chopping and drawing logs, shoveling gravel, as well as every sort of field labor one can imagine. Cultivating corn, sowing oats, digging potatoes. Long weeks devoted to mowing hay.

1906 Waterbury, VT -- Library of Congress
     Although the Flynns were boarders, they kept a garden for themselves, and raised livestock, too.  A sow has piglets. Sausage is prepared. A cow is slaughtered and the weight of even the hide documented.  Bette, a beloved mare, gives birth to a colt. Her movement from one pasture to another is worthy of mention in these spare entries.
     Six days of work nearly every week brought Mr. Flynn about $10.50.  He detailed money received and spent, credits extended and occasionally requested, as well as the names of his employers: Palmer, Donovan, Shepler, Arkley.  A hunting license in 1913 cost 75 cents; a shave and a haircut, 35. A can of tobacco was a dime. He bought a suit of clothes on installment. Two shirts cost $3; a pair of shoes, $2.50.  He “pays” the priest a dollar for the monthly collection. Every penny spent on lodging and a single hotel meal during a trip to Rochester to work on “the road” is jotted down.
     More than a few times, the entire week’s wages went directly to doctors’ fees. Illness finds its way onto the diary pages with some frequency. Now and then, it keeps Mr. Flynn home. Often we read, without further description, that Kate or Nellie or John is “sick.”
    A little research revealed that John, whose work is recorded periodically, was the Flynn’s eldest son, and Nellie, their daughter. Mabel is mentioned now and again; she was John’s wife, and Georgie, their child.  Who Will and Christie might have been, I’ve not yet uncovered.  
    The names of those who don’t appear in Mr. Flynn’s diaries deserve acknowledgement here: two other children.  In 1892, a second son, Daniel, was born, and five years later, Florence arrived.   But 1903 was a year of unimaginable heartbreak.  In February, Daniel, then 11, died from cerebrospinal meningitis following a fall.  And in August, little Florence, just six, was lost to typhoid fever.
     I don’t know how you go on after such a year. But the Flynns managed to do so.
     Visits from John and Nellie, young adults, are documented in the diaries. Kate makes frequent trips to “the center.”  John sells a carriage; Nellie acquires a piano. The price for the former is given, but not the later.  John’s marriage receives a notation that runs along the left hand of the page.  Nellie’s marriage in Burlington, apparently not attended by her father, does not. Funerals and hospital visits are cataloged, as well as a fire at “the creamery.”

Typical entry in Mr. Flynn's Standard Diaries.
     Sunday is a day of rest, and nearly always attendance at Mass. As you might imagine, entries describing entertainment are few: the Flynns enjoy an “Italian wedding” and a dance at the Catholic hall. John and Mabel go to a party. There’s berry picking at a state farm, and one evening devoted to playing cards.  Notable is a trip to Montpelier to see the circus, and another outing to watch the “moving pictures,” where they probably saw silent film actress Edith Storey in “A Postal Substitute,” which a Barre Daily Times advertisement describes as “a thrilling Western drama.”

November 9, 1910 advertisement from The Barre Daily Times

     If Mr. Flynn kept additional diaries, they were not among those I found. Regardless, there’d be few more. He died on the 8th of July, 1915, his death certificate states, of “valvular heart disease” complicated by tuberculosis.  His last diary confirms he was a granite worker toward the end of his life, spending many days as he noted in “the stone shed.” He was 60 years old.
     Kate died a few years later, after an operation; she’d suffered from stomach cancer and chronic bronchitis. Mr. Flynn’s surviving son did not outlive him for long, either.  Apparently, he got into a bad bottle of Grappa and was found dead at the age of 34.  But his daughter Nellie -- for whom that luxury, the piano, was acquired -- had married a barber named James Finnegan and later worked as a clerk in a pharmacy.  A Berlin resident, she buried an infant son and both her husband and young daughter far too soon. But she lived to an admirable 106, her passing attributed simply to “advanced age.”
     We can’t be sure what will become of our stories, once we tell them. In all likelihood, Mr. Flynn couldn’t have imagined that 100 years after his death, a woman would discover his diaries and find in them a testament to resilience and strength. As a writer, I spend my hours crafting and revising and culling until the sentences reach a state as close to song as I can manage, as I’ve learned to do, through study and practice.  Luke Flynn started each day appreciating the weather. He never left a page blank. There’s a lesson there, as well.

This article appears in the January 2016 issue of The North Star Monthly.  Check out their site:


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