'Write Often, Write When You Think Best'
At the end of a dirt path winding gently south from the Old Sturbridge Village green, a worn yet tidy farmhouse sits humbly upon the land. For some 23 years of its long life, it belonged to one Pliny Freeman Sr., who settled here with his wife, Delia, and the two youngest of their seven children in 1828. Today this dark-red, gambrel-roofed home is open to visitors: the sparely furnished “best” room, with family mementos, including Pliny’s 1811 commission as a captain in the Massachusetts militia proudly framed, and his simple writing desk; a first-floor bedroom, papered in a bright, blue-striped pattern; the buttery and the kitchen, with its big hearth and iron implements, where so many meals for family and friends were prepared.
What remains when a generation passes? Personal keepsakes and household wares, perhaps, but if we’re very lucky, words, as well: a family’s own words, committed to paper, in all their unguarded intimacy, preserved and protected by the generations yet unborn. So it was with the Freeman family. From 1829 until his death in 1855, Pliny Freeman Sr. corresponded with family members near and far; 132 years later, a collection of the surviving letters was donated to Old Sturbridge Village by Kenneth Perrin, Pliny’s great-great-grandson.
Sitting in the Village’s research library one afternoon this past spring, I was afforded a rare privilege: As I held pieces of the Freemans’ correspondence and turned the pages–Pliny Sr.’s neat and graceful hand, a ribbon of faded ink unspooling across once-sturdy paper grown delicate with age–I saw their lives revealed in all their vulnerability. I’d come upon that “low door in the wall” that serves as portal to both past and future; time receded, and in that moment, I reached back across the centuries to touch the spirit of this family. Taken together, these letters are eloquent testimony of the enduring bonds of family love; they speak to us as witnesses to the everyday joys and sorrows, triumphs and hardships, experienced by this typical New England farm family of the early 19th century.
By 1829, a number of Freemans had already migrated west. Pliny’s brother Samuel had settled in Parma, Ohio, and Pliny’s second son, Pliny Jr., was on his way there, too. His eldest son, Silas, had stayed closer to home, but like many young men then and now, he was often remiss in visiting his parents, as we see in this March 1830 letter from his father:
I have been in expectation that you would call at our house before now. I hear nothing from you except that you were at Sturbridge once since I have seen you. We
always feel anxious for the welfare of our children. I wish to inquire after your health, whether you have frozen your feet or any other of your limbs, how your business prospers … but I see no opportunity to make these inquiries.
As for Pliny Jr., absence did indeed make the heart grow fonder. A housewright by trade, he had a difficult start in Ohio, but eventually prospered. Homesickness, however, was something he never successfully mastered, and because of that, he became one of the more faithful and frequent Freeman family correspondents, as we see time and time again in his letters home, full of longing:
[from 1830, to his family]
Beloved Sisters … I mean that you shall hear from me as often as it is necessary if I can hear from you as often. I hope that the waters of Lake Erie will not wash and fade away that love which brothers and sisters have or ought to have for each other … Although I am six or seven hundred miles from you remember that I shall never forget any of you … I should like to hear from the biggest part of Sturbridge. What are the young people about? … Brother Dwight [age 11]… It has been a long time since I have seen you but I have not forgotten you … I hope you will write when you have an opportunity. Had I practiced writing epistles when young as you it would have [been] no damage to me.
[and in November of the same year to his parents]
This day is Thanksgiving in this state. I cannot enjoy it with you. I will enjoy part of it in writing to you and sending my love to you all … [cousin] Sarah says she remembers your putting an apple in her mouth and … let[ting] it freeze, so she often says she is not to blame for her great mouth.
Still missing his family the following July, Pliny Jr. wrote again of his loneliness as well as to celebrate a joyful family occasion far from home:
I have anticipated a great deal of pleasure in thinking I should see my parents, brothers, and sisters this fall, but now I think probably it will be two years before I shall return to Sturbridge … I will congratulate with you all in Silas’ marriage and with pleasure will receive Maria as a sister … I should be exceeding glad to have either or both of them write to me … Write often, write when you think best.
Word play and gentle humor are often quite in evidence, as in Sarah’s message to Pliny Sr., noted in the Thanksgiving 1830 letter above, and in this May 1835 letter from Pliny Jr., then settled in Cleveland, to his family:
I remain the same old bachelor without any alteration except muse rational and whimsical which you know is universally the case with us privileged old bachelors.
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