Belles of New England, via Quebec

A complementary colorized photo by friend, David Dreimiller of the original monochrome, enhances the women’s faces and the distinct differences in the color and detail of their dresses.

Ten months ago in May of 2021, I was reading a book called “Belles of New England,” by William Moran. I selected this book out of respect for my Great Grandmother, Emilie LaHaie, who migrated to Maine around 1873 with her parents, two brothers, and sisters. In the photo above Emilie is standing second to the left in the back with her seven sisters and mother, Julie Desfosses. It’s likely her wedding day. Although Emilie and her sisters were of French Canadian stock, her initiation into American life began when her mother and sisters started working in the New England mills. Emilie remembered before she died in Turtle, Wisconsin what it was like to work from dawn until dusk in the mill at age twelve years old, and when she came home was obliged by her mother to spend the evening in prayer. She worked hard like this until she married Delphis DuBois in Worcester, Massachusetts in 1884. Emilie and Delphis subsequently migrated to Wisconsin, along with all her sisters, mother, and one of her brothers, Frank LaHaie. They spoke French but not English very well, nor did they read or write either language, with any fluency to speak of. To avoid isolation and culture shock, it was extremely important the entire family lived in close proximity to each other to comfort, support and keep each other company.

I let them be called Belles of New England because in the book this referred to the young women of all ancestries who worked in the mills. Mary Lyon an advocate for women’s education and rights is quoted as saying about the women of the mills. “As other women vanished from the mill cities, they also left behind scant details of their lives except for their record as pioneers in American labor history.” They were as Mary Lyon said, ‘the bone and sinew and glory of the nation.’

Emilie’s life after the mill was spent in having numerous children, and continued hard work on the family farm. Fortunately she had the presence of her daughters and sisters for care and help, but her life passed throughout the decades at a great price. When she told her stories about the mill in her last years of senility, it was repetitive, and grandchildren and great grandchildren weren’t very good at lending an ear. But the stories were told and people like my mother listened and showed an interest. She always told me Emilie worked in the mill in Fall River, Massachusetts, and other places too. In telling, we remember. Je me souviens.

4th of July, 1826

Nelson, Ohio ~ 1826

Elizabeth Garrett, a pioneer woman, and daughter of John and Eleanor Garrett, the founders of Garrettsville, Ohio, begins a diary dated July 4th 1826. She says, “I shall have transcribe a memorandum which I have kept for a year past Elizabeth Y. Garrett”. Even though the transcription is dated July 4th 1826, the wording suggests that she is writing a memoir looking back at the recent past.

One must admire the sense of immediacy to Elizabeth’s expression and her facility for journalistic prose in the following excerpt. She is not writing a day-by-day account of trivial events, but rather in her mind, chronicling something of great social importance.  In this case, it is the jubilee of American Independence being celebrated in Nelson, Ohio for the very first time. Elizabeth’s journalistic character takes on substance as she shares her knowledge and perception of community in a historical context.[1]  This isn’t the first time she shows appreciation for public opinion and affairs. Elizabeth comes across as a solidly concerned and responsible constituent of her town, despite the fact that women would not vote until almost 100 years later.  She attests to the innovativeness and patriotism of the citizens of Nelson in their enthusiasm to celebrate the American Independence Day. At the time of writing Elizabeth is only 26 years old.

July 4th 1826  attended the celebration of Independence at the centre of Nelson.  It was the first time that any thing of the kind had been attempted in this town as it was the fiftieth year – the jubilee of American Independence they thought proper to celebrate it here, as well as in other places.  The day was fine; and a large number of citizens attended.  A procession was formed and we walked to the meeting house, where a discourse suited to the … was delivered by the Rev’d Mr. Booth the declaration of Independence was read by David Garrett, and an ovation, pronounced by Mr. Washington.  The procession was again formed and they marched to Mr. Bancroft’s tavern and dined, we returned home before night, well pleas’d with the performances of the day.

Curiously, Elizabeth highlights David Garrett’s role as a statesman, reading the Declaration of Independence, without even mentioning that he is her brother. This third person perspective reinforces her intention to maintain objectivity.[2] Elizabeth was obviously pleased by the congregation of citizens in her town and the festivities that ensued on this historic 4th of July.   She shows pride and eagerness to be a part, evidenced by her choice of the pronoun ‘we’. Her words project hopefulness for the future.

One must recognize that Elizabeth Garrett, in the act of writing, is not only making a contribution to her town’s history, but is also beginning a literary tradition found in the next generations of her offspring. Her own daughter, Lizzie Atwood, at 13 years of age, also becomes a fastidious reporter of local goings on. This journalistic aptitude is passed to the next female descendent, Cornelia Atwood Pratt Comer, who becomes a prominent writer in literary circles at the turn of the 20th century.  Like her mother and grandmother, Cornelia writes diligently, leading to a career as a prolific author of short stories and literary criticism.  Although Cornelia publicly denied the influence of her roots,[3] her success may undoubtedly be attributed to the acute intellectual prowess of her mother Lizzie, and grandmother, Elizabeth Yeatman Garrett, who both, faithfully and valiantly, kept pen and paper at their side.

A special thanks to Dave Dreimiller, for reading and editing the script.

[1] In accordance with what Lynn Z. Bloom says in her article ““I Write for Myself and Strangers”: Private Diaries as Public Documents”, Elizabeth’s writing shows that she ‘conceives of an audience external to,” herself.  The July 4th transcription is a perfect example of a diary, which William G. Gass says, ‘originates as “emotionally naked’ writings that metamorphose into public documents.  This happens he says when the ‘writer already has an eye on history’ which is the case here for what Elizabeth writes.

[2] Elizabeth’s objectivity toward her brother David is quite different in tone from the endearing words she uses later in her diary to describe her brother John, who is ill and comes home to visit.

[3] “The Critic”, October 10, 1896, Miss Cornelia Atwood Pratt, p. 205.