Edited by his grandson, Francis Phelps Weisenburger, Associate Professor of History, The Ohio State University. Originally published in Northwest Ohio Quarterly, A Journal of History and Civilization April-July 1945. (Notes in parenthesis added by Gazette editor for clarity.)
I was born on the 30th day of December, AD 1815, in the Village of Old De Kalb, so-called now, as there is an East De Kalb and De Kalb Junction, besides De Kalb post-office proper.
My father, the last time I was with him at Old De Kalb, showed me the exact spot, which is just a hole in the ground where the cellar caved in after the removal of the stone wall, as he informed me that the house was burned after he left it and never rebuilt, and the cellar wall removed.
(This house, on the former Canton Street in Old De Kalb was built by Solomon Rich and later sold to Solomon Pratt. Pratt’s estate rented the house to James Phelps a shoemaker in 1814. Ed.)
I was the third son. The first one, Dorvill, died when about two years old, and the second one when only one day old and the next ones succeeding were all girls, five in number; Mary Snow Phelps, born November 24, 1817; Fidelia Phelps, December 29, 1819; Harriet Richardson Phelps, February 7, 1822; Dorothy Phelps, May 14, 1824, and Betsey Bigelow Phelps, January 1, 1826.
My grandfather on my father’s side was Abishi Phelps, who lived with father and died at our house in February 1817, and my grandmother (Katherine Richardson Phelps) also lived at our house and died there in 1826.
Soon after my birth, my father and his brother, Samuel Wright Phelps, Senior, purchased 100 acres of land on what has since been known as Gimlet Street from its crookedness, having to wind around ledges of rock and across black-ash swails, although it has been considerably straightened in later years.
This was near Rich’s Settlement, then called, but afterwards Richville, St. Lawrence County, New York.
My father built a small log house (14 by 20) on his share and a log shop about 12 X 14 in size, which he occupied with his father, who was a tailor.
My earliest recollections are when Grandfather died and was laid out in that shop upon the table he used for cutting garments.
This seems incredible as I was only 14 months old, but as nothing like it occurred later I am sure that I cannot be mistaken as I distinctly remember their taking the coffin away on a sled and remember crying because they would not take me along.
I think we lived for four or five years at this place when my father sold (1821) the whole or part of his land (part 50 acres with a 24 by 16 house) to his brother in law Amos Stoddard who had married his sister Theodora. He may have sold only a part and bought some of Uncle Samuel. I know after the sale he had about 30 acres of land.
The Amos Stoddard house was 100 years old when this picture was taken. It still stands today.
The second James Phelps house was built by this ledge off Depot Street on a five acre parcel.
On his new purchase he built a plank house, I think about 16 by 20 or 24. The plank instead of being placed upright were horizontal and dovetailed at the corners. It was divided into a kitchen or living room and two bedrooms. In this we lived about two years when he built a two story front about the same size and divided in about the same manner, which served to accommodate us after we became a family of eleven persons.
This house was built close to a ledge of lime rock and enough stone were taken out of the cellar to wall it up and make the foundation.
I think that he must have moved his log shop, as I have no recollection of it standing near Uncle Stoddard’s after we moved, and the shop was about the same size. The heating of this shop was original, at least I have never seen anything like it before or since. It was a potash kettle about 3 or 3 1/2 feet in diameter, turned bottom up on a foundation about a foot high. The kettle was one which had given out at the bottom and father had enlarged the hole and built a chimney from that up through the roof.
This shop father used for several years and did a good business, but when it was slack the woods were handy and he used to take the axe and cut down the trees around us, but the most of the clearing he hired done, the chopping especially. Although I was a small boy I did a considerable portion of the burning which was fun for me then and I have always liked it.
The thinness of the walls of our house made it cold, but wood was plenty and the fireplace piled full, and the more burnt the more land cleared.
The two story part of our house was a frame with two inch plank pinned on with wooden pins and it was plastered inside and out and on the outside while the mortar was soft small pebbles and gravel were imbedded in the mortar….
The year after I was born was the year without a summer, when there was frost every month in the year and all that they raised of anything was potatoes. I have heard my father say that but for the cows they could not have lived; roast potatoes and milk was the best food they had. The potatoes were a poor crop, only in favorable localities did they mature. In the valleys in close proximity to the limestone ridges they did very well and were not much affected by frost.
In 1818, about the last of July I should think, my father and mother and Aunt Sophia, afterwards the wife of John Cheney Rich, went in a lumber wagon back to Massachusetts. My sister Mary, was a baby some six months old and I was about 2 1/2 years old. I have a distinct recollection of 3 circumstances which occurred during that trip. The first was a tree across the road in such a position that we could not go around it and father had to go to a farm house some distance from the road to obtain an axe with which to clear the obstruction and left us sitting in the wagon and I remember crying for fear he would not return and that a small boy came with him to take the axe back. Another occurrence was going out with a couple boys to get grapes and there climbing up and picking them and having me hold my apron to catch them and their laughing to see them jerk the apron out of my hands and the grapes fall on the ground. Another was a gentleman giving me a large pear, the only one I saw until I was about 17 years old. I commenced going to school the summer after I was three years old and had to go a mile and part of the way was through a sugar camp or bush as they called it. (The first school house near Richville was on the Lime Kiln or Davis Rd one half mile outside the current village. Edwin was walking from his house on Depot Street cross lots to that road and the school.Ed.)
The Homestead of Samuel W. Phelps Sr. on Depot Street. None of the existing buildings are believed to date from his occupancy.
The Nathan Keyes House as it looks today on Depot Street.
In the winter the larger boys frequently drew us smaller ones to school on their hand sleds.
We lived at that place on Gimlet St about eight years, or until I was about 13 years old (1828), and in the meantime the old log school was abandoned and a stone one built which was about a half mile further to go, and after I was eight years old I only went to school in the winter. (In this time period De Kalb schools only had two three month terms a summer term and a winter term. The winter term began in November. Ed) As I was the oldest in the family I had to help my mother take care of the other children and in other ways about the house and do all the outdoor chores, as father worked constantly at his trade (shoemaker) and my mother did a good deal of tailoring.
My father kept a horse, two cows and some sheep, enough to furnish the wool for all the cloth to make our own clothing, as I never had a suit of any other clothes but homespun until I came to Ohio.
A portion of the time my father kept bees and the honey brought money, the most of which he disposed of at “general muster” (general muster was the annual training exercises of the St Lawrence County Militia.) which was held at Gouverneur, which we took out in two large wash tubs, together with a supply of homemade gingerbread and that was the only time I had money. I helped father peddle it and he generally gave me a quarter of a dollar to spend, which was about all I would have to spend for a year.
During this time while we had the horse I used to take the children to school in a sleigh in the winter. The schoolhouse was also used as a church and there was a shed under which I could keep the horse quite comfortable. We all took our dinners, of course.
My youngest sister, Betsey, was born January 1, 1826, and my mother (Dorothy Snow Phelps) was so smart that she up and dressed and ate breakfast with us and on the morning of the 7th she was a corpse (It was the general practice at that time for mothers to lie in for at least 9 and up to 20 days after giving birth. To do otherwise was thought to be fatal. Ed.)
She left six children, of whom I was the oldest…. This was a severe blow upon my father and in fact upon all of us children, but we did not realize it then. Miss Jerusha Bosworth was at work for us when mother died and was then engaged to be married to my cousin Alfred Phelps. My father hired a woman to nurse my sister Betsey, she having just lost a baby, and I shall never forget how bad she felt when she gave my sister up. One little circumstance I well remember. This woman had sandy hair and so and my sister Betsey and a great many thought she nursed it from her, but although my mother had very black hair some of the Snows had sandy hair.
It was a sorry time for all of us at home and as hard for me as any one except father. He was poor and had to work hard and his expenses very much increased.
On the 15th day of May 1826(7), my father married again to the widow Rebecca (Sprague) Slosson, who had buried three husbands (Thomas Farr, Daniel Smith and Stephen Slosson Ed.) and had three children, the oldest about 3 years older than I was, Almira Farr, Louisa Maria Smith, about a year older and Stephen Slosson about two or three years younger than I was.
Many of father’s friends blamed him for being as they thought rather hasty in marriage so soon, but I did not then, and having passed through similar experiences, do not now, but think it would have been better if he had married some one with less children.
Miss Bosworth had put off her marriage for father’s accommodation. Father had but little acquaintance with the woman he married but was well acquainted with her brother, Asa Sprague, who was once one of the best men in that part of the country and his sister has a good reputation. But it was an unfortunate match for him as it afterwards proved, but probably a good one for me, as she, by her abuse of my sisters, virtually drove me from home or I might never have come west.
It was a hard matter to leave my father and sisters and go so far from home, but I was somewhat broken down in health with hard work, as I had worked very hard the winter before, of which I will write later. I had been going to school about 3 months in the summer and about the same in the winter up to the time of my father’s marriage and was a good scholar for my age, but after that I only went winters. Soon after father’s marriage my sister Mary went to live with my step-mother’s sister Mrs Elijah Farr (Ruth Sprague Farr who lived off the East De Kalb Rd near the intersection with CT. RT. 17 ed) about 8 or 10 miles from home. I recollect it well. She rode behind me on the old mare and all her clothes tied up in a small bundle which I carried before me on the horse. It was a sad parting when I left her there.
Father’s hard work at the shoemaker’s bench affected his health and he had to give it up in a measure and he built a small store building on the road near our house and tried selling goods on a small scale, but I don’t think he made much at it.
He and I managed to work his farm with hiring a little plowing done and some work in haying, a good deal of the work was done with one horse, such as plowing corn and potatoes and hauling hay and wood. From our sheep we made our clothes and got our stocking yarn. The yarn was all spun at home but the weaving we hired done. Linsey woolsey for the females and fulled cloth for the males. In hoeing corn and potatoes my uncle’s three boys and myself would take tasks and when done would play ball, which was about the extent of our recreation in summer. In the winter season we sometimes had a natural toboggan slide. There was quite a high hill on my father’s farm with a fence close to the foot of the hill and towards spring the snow would get drifted in higher than the fence and beyond lay the meadow, and the snow freezing and thawing became so hard that we could ride over the top of the fence and across the meadow. From the top of the hill across the meadow was 100 rods (1650 ft) or more. We frequently enjoyed it moonlit nights and sometimes the old folks would enjoy it with the youngsters if they draw back the sled, and as the hill was some 20 rods (330 ft) in extent there 3 or 4 families could enjoy it at once. When the surface was especially favorable this was quite a rare treat when not to cold.
After my stepmother came the whole family arrangement was changed. Father, stepmother, Almira Farr, Louisa M. Smith, and Stephen Slosson ate at the first table and myself and the other children ate at the second table and took what was left or bread and milk or milk porridge. When the milk was scarce the porridge was made about 2/3 water and 1/3 milk, thickened with corn meal to about the consistency of ordinary gruel, and we crumbed in crusts of bread, or , if they were scarce, a Johnny cake made of corn meal and water and salt and baked very thin, was used as a substitute.
The winter I was thirteen (1828) I went to school 3 months and that was the last I went to school until the winter I was seventeen. I studied surveying 3 months under the tutoring of Dr. Elijah Morton who was an excellent teacher.
In the fall of 1827 or 28 my father moved his little store down to the village (corner of Main St and Bridge St) and went down there and tended it day time and I was there some of the time, and the best recollection is that there was a small library kept there of about 50 books, and father was the librarian and I read every book. Some were novels and some religious books, among which I recollect Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Baxter’s Saints Rest, MIlton’s works Paradise Lost and Paradise Regained, I think the Scottish Chiefs, Thadeus of Warsaw and Jane Eyre, I am not sure about Jane Eyre_ Life of Mary Queen of Scotts, and Children of the Abbey.
I was not at the store much until the winter of 1828 and 1829 when father kept a small eating establishment as there was considerable ship timbering done and the teamsters used to stop and get something in the middle of the day. Pies and gingerbread were the principle, although bread and cold pork were among the eatables kept.
About the first money I ever earned was that winter figuring the contents of ship timber, some of which were very difficult as they were in shape of a truncated pyramid, larger at the butt and smaller at the top. There were but few who could figure the contents correctly and my father got quite a little sum for my services that winter.
In the spring of 1829 I was taken with the mumps and when the snow was going off it was very slushy and going down to the store I got my feet wet and came very near dying and the final result was that I became entirely deaf in my left ear, which has been an annoyance to me all my life and as I grow older and the hearing of the other ear is not so acute the annoyance is much greater.
During the summer of 1829 father bought (from his brother in law John C Rich) about 6 acres of land, having sold his farm to a man from Massachusetts by the name of Elisha Childs (He actually sold the land to Childs in January 1824 according to the deed. He reserved 6 acres where his house was on Depot St. Ed). The land adjoined the old cemetery (Wayside cemetery including the lot where the Richville Historical Society building now stands all the way to the creek) across the creek from Richville and he built him a low 1 1/2 story house and also an ashery just below the grist mill, and we moved into our house late in the fall and I was in the little store most of the time and engaged in figuring the contents of ship timber hauled to the Oswegatchie River about a mile from Richville.
These three houses plus the historical building now stand on the 1829 purchase of James Phelps. He built a one and a half story house on the lot.
The timber consisted of white oak and rock elm, some of the elm growing very large in the limestone ridges. The snow was generally pretty deep and I recollect that as high as ten yoke of oxen were taken to haul a stick (mast) out of the woods on to the travelled road, when 5 or 6 yoke would take it down the river (to Ogdensburg).
I recollect one elm stick was hauled past the store which was over 300 feet which was said to be the largest ever hauled to the Oswegatchie River. After we moved to the village I farmed the 6 acres owned by my father in the summer and chopped wood at the ashery and measured ashes when they were hurried and did odd jobs for the neighbors, and did a great deal of work about the house as all the girls went to school.
Monday was washday and I had to do the brunt of the washing. My oldest sister went to live with Elijah Farr and the next oldest worked out most of the time. Although she was neither old enough nor strong enough to do a woman’s work but it was fashionable then to have from 6 to 10 children and she could take care of them.
Louisa Maria Smith went to school until I left home.
Father bought his wood sled length and I chopped it, split and piled it in the wood house, and one thing my father always insisted on my doing was when I came in the house to bring an armful of wood if the wood box was not already full, and I have frequently been sent back when I came in empty handed and the habit clings to me to this day. We kept two cows and I always had to take care of them, milk them and churn when they gave milk and they seldom went dry over a month in a year. In the summer season I worked a great deal for my for Uncle J. Cheney Rich and I was in special demand during haying, which generally lasted about three months and there were no mowing machines nor horse rakes, all was mown with the scythe and had to be spread and raked by hand. I was a good hand in the hayfield, the only drawback was that (poison) ivy poisoned me dreadfully and I would sometimes get poisoned so badly that I would be unable to work for three or four weeks. But for all the work I did I never recollect of ever seeing one cent of money for my earnings nor did I have any money to spend. I think $1 per year would cover all my personal expenses from the time I was 10 until I was 17 years old. I had some good times. I used to go visit my sister Mary at Elijah Farr’s about once a year and then I would go up the road from Old De Kalb to East De Kalb and play with the Pooler and Spaulding boys who were nephews of my step mother.
My step-sister, Almira Farr, married John W. Moore, of Canton, St Lawrence County, NY. and they lived at Canton some time and I visited them once and there first became acquainted with Mary Woodward, who was afterwards my first wife. They afterwards moved to Russell and kept a hotel there and I used to go from Richville through Teal’s Settlement (now Kent’s Corners) and sometimes through Hermon and sometimes through Marshville. It was then an almost unbroken wilderness but I went there several times alone. My first wife was then living with John W. Moore, who was her uncle, and as I spent several weeks there at different times I became quite well acquainted with her. Mrs. Lyman Langdon, who was about 19 and teaching school there, and there I also became acquainted with Charles Volney Royce, a nephew of John W. Moore, who followed me to Defiance and with whom I spent many happy hours.
In the winter of 1832 and 1833 when I was 17 years old Dr Morton taught the school at Richville and father thought I was to small and slender to do much hard work requiring physical strength and that I ought to study surveying and I studied that 3 months and surveyed a little ……. The summer of 1833 I worked our little farm and helped father in the ashery, which was pretty hard work but I stood it very well and I think I made father a good hand as he could have hired. The ashery was about 40 rods (660 feet) from the house and about the same from the corn and potatoes and I recollect that I did the work in the ashery and hoed the corn and potatoes at odd spells when I could leave the ashery. A great deal of work at the ashery was measuring the ashes as they came in being brought by those who were clearing up their farms, and after I got the fires started in the morning I could have a while before the ashes began to come in. Father ran his little store during the day and would go to the ashery after supper and run it until 10 or 11 o’clock and build a good fire and leave. In the morning I would get up early and go down and get the fires started and the water on the leaches before breakfast. After breakfast I would milk the two cows and then go to the ashery, where I would find father and take my instructions for the day. The ashery was between the house and store, although a little off a direct line, and father always went there on the way to the store.
After supper I had to milk the two cows and then went to bed a tired boy. This was the routine during the summer of 1833 until cold weather set in and then the ashery had to be run night and day to keep from freezing up and I commenced work at one o’clock and worked until supper time and father went to the ashery after supper and worked until midnight and called me. On my 18th birthday (Dec 30,1833) he told me that his father gave him his time when he was 18 years old and he would give me mine and hire me for 3 months. He did not give me a dollar in money. My birthday was Dec 30th and I made arrangements to attend a ball on New Years. I did not ask him for any money but borrowed $3 to pay the expenses of the ball …..
I don’t recollect what pay I got per day of 18 hours and Saturdays we always meter off (Then term for removing the finished pearl ash from the pots and drying it.) as it was called and it took us until 10 o’clock and sometimes until midnight and I recollect that I got so tired Saturday nights that I had to sit down and rest in going to the house. I attended the ball on New Year’s of 1834 and as I was one of the managers it was my duty to see that all the girls were there. W.A. Brown was another manager and I had five girls and he had three and we had to dance pretty lively to keep our numerous partners in good humor. The ball commenced at 2 o’clock in the afternoon and closed at 9 o’clock the next morning and I was pretty sore the next day but commenced my work in the ashery all the same after I had all my girls all disposed of. The sleighing was excellent that winter and there were a great many balls, parties and spelling schools, and of course I had to attend, and many a night I came home and changed my clothes and went into the ashery without going to bed at all and I wonder I did not break down before the first of April when my time was out and it was not necessary to run the ashery night and day.
On the first of April or at the expiration of my three months I hired out to John Lake to work on a farm and the season was so bad that he kept me most of the time chopping firewood and I got a pain in my breast so that I could not do much hard work but worked for Uncle (John) Cheney Rich about the hotel waiting on travelers and about that time Uncle (Amos) Stoddard took a notion to go west as far as Michigan City, Indiana. A man by the name of Teal owed him some money and he learned that he was in Michigan City making money and he had the western fever and thought he could make his expenses out of Teal and I thought I would go with him. I had no clothes to take such a trip and I hired Julia Holt to come to Father’s and make a coat and vest, a pair of pants and 6 shirts.
The coat was made of homemade black cloth and vest of the same and the pants were corduroy. The shirts were common cotton shirts and not a particle of linen about them….. I had been to Ogdensburg, Canton, and Russell and once carried the mail from Russell through Edwards to Gouverneur and once tended store a month or so for Wm E. Sterling in Gouverneur, but thought I could make my way in the world. I could not bear to be about home and see my sisters abused by my stepmother without resenting it and that made trouble.
My father did not like to have me go but thought I would get homesick and come back as soon as I earned money and that six months would find me home again. We left Richville on the 18th day of June 1834, and father went with us to Ogdensburg, where we took the sidewheel steamer “Colburg”, a new Canadian boat, it being about her first trip. I was launching out into the unknown with some compunctions of conscience at leaving father alone as it were, but thanks to Providence I was permitted to visit him a great many times afterwards…
(The remainder of Edwin Phelps’ memoir of his life in Ohio is available at the De Kalb town historian’s office.)
Sidewheel steamer from A History of St Lawrence and Franklin Counties Franklin Hough 1853.