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Out & About: Norwich historical diary project offers lessons for modern pandemic

  • Norwich resident Ella Sargent kept diaries from 1896-1922. A group of seven women are working on transcribing them for the Norwich Historical Society during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photograph courtesy of the Norwich Historical Society) courtesy of the Norwich Historical Society

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 5/9/2020 9:01:42 PM
Modified: 5/9/2020 9:01:37 PM

Throughout 1918, the year an influenza pandemic ravaged the globe, Ella Sargent tucked the four-leaf clovers she found into the pages of her diary.

They were placed alongside short descriptions of Sargent’s days on her Norwich farm.

“She was glad to have found them and she tucked them away,” said Mary Jane Clark, who is part of a group of seven women transcribing Sargent’s diaries on behalf of the Norwich Historical Society during the COVID-19 pandemic. Each Monday, they meet on Zoom along with Historical Society Director Sarah Rooker to discuss their progress.

Sargent’s diary spends a lot of time documenting the simpler events of life at her home — she spills little ink on major world events like World War I and the 1918 flu, but she has plenty to say on her farm’s egg sales or the doings of her handyman.

Yet the limited scope of her diary, a window into her life, has offered these seven women to more than a way to keep busy while spending time at home; it gives them a connection to one another and a chance to reflect on life in the modern pandemic.

Sargent was born in 1856 and died in 1941. Her diaries span 26 years from 1896-1922. Clark has been transcribing the years of 1918-19 and 1921-22.

“She had a very nice penmanship,” Clark said.

Elizabeth Nelson is transcribing Sargent’s diaries from 1904 and 1905. It takes her one to two hours to transcribe one month, depending on how much Sargent wrote in that time.

“The shape of certain letters, such as the ‘s’ and her belated crossing of ‘t’s’ took a bit of extra time to decipher. Sometimes she uses unfamiliar words and occasionally her spellings are unusual. ‘Moped,’ ‘choped,’ for ‘mopped’ and ‘chopped’ are examples,” Nelson wrote in an email. “We now have a list of relatives and friends and this helps with the transcription. We have guidelines for how to handle transcription questions and how to format the transcription.”

Sargent wrote an entry almost every day, though during the holidays and summer there was a bit of a lull. Her entries include reports about the farm and the weather, said Clark, who has been working on the transcriptions with her daughter. The two have driven out to see where Sargent’s farm once stood and where she is buried.

“There are very few events that really stand out, but what strikes me is that her life has rhythm to it. Every day she observes the weather, she talks about what her handyman/boarder does every day,” Clark said. “She talks about what she does every day, the chores and different kinds of work. She talks about food, what she bakes, what they ate for dinner. She talks a lot about who comes by.”

Sargent had no children and never married, but she had a vast network of friends and relatives.

“She was known as Aunt Ella and I think she was sort of a matriarch of her family. It seems like a lot of the younger people stopped by and they would help her on the farm,” Clark said.

One of the stories in Sargent’s diaries that has affected Clark the most is when Sargent’s horse, Bessie, got loose and died after falling through the floor of an old barn on a neighbor’s property.

“She described it all as hard luck, as bad luck,” Clark said. “She doesn’t talk a lot of about her personal feelings.”

And Sargent rarely mentioned her health.

“One day she only wrote one line in her diary and she wrote, ‘I feel rather old and tired,’ ” Clark said.

But mostly, she writes about the farm, the weather and the people who visit. She makes note of when she sells chickens and eggs and what she gets in return.

“I think the sense of community was reflected in the diary. All the various names of who lived and who died and who was sick and who was friends with whom,” Clark said. “You get a sense of who she is even if she doesn’t talk about herself very much.”

Her personal feelings, however, can sometimes be ascertained through her entries including those that mention handyman Joseph Wood, who was a couple decades older than Sargent and appeared to be responsible for the outdoor chores.

“A very common phrase she repeats in the diary over and over again is ‘Mr. Wood hasn’t done anything today but the chores’,” Clark said. “She says, ‘I kept busy all day but Mr. Wood hasn’t done anything but the chores.’ You sort of a sense a little irritation going on there.”

Nelson particularly delights in Sargent’s descriptions about the weather, including these examples: “Monday, May 8, 1905, Pleasant but a cold air this morn,” “Tuesday, May 9, 1905, Cloudy and the wind has blown very hard and it is growing colder There was a thunder Shower about 3 Oclock this morn,” and “Wednesday, May 10, 1905, Pleasant but the Wind has blown hard It was pretty cold last night.”

Even though Sargent was writing during major U.S. events, including the Great War — “Not one single word mentioned about the war,” Clark said — and the 1918 flu pandemic, she writes little about them.

“The only thing she mentions is the various people dying,” Clark said. “There’s a wave of people who die in the spring, not too many people die in the summer and then all of the sudden there’s another outbreak in October and every other day people are dying. I don’t think she goes to the funerals; she mentions them.”

The project has provided a way for the women to stay connected during the pandemic and foster a greater sense of the community that they all share.

“As each of us is transcribing a different year in Ella’s life, our discussions are a bit like time traveling,” Nelson said. “A friend jokingly asked me if we issue spoiler alerts. I laughed, but in fact we are all very intrigued with Ella’s story and the sum of her life. While on the surface she appears to be a simple, hardworking farm woman, I think we all understand that everyone has a unique story and that if you dig deep enough you will get beyond the one-line description.”

And then there’s that image of Sargent out in her fields, looking for four-leaf clovers and tucking them away in her diary. She knew how to find joy — or you might call it good luck.

“One hundred years ago, it sounds like a long time ago, but in some ways it isn’t,” Clark said. “Ella gives me the sense that the daily routine is important.”

Liz Sauchelli can be reached at or 603-727-3221.

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