Catherine Jones Thomas
At the age when people of our generation are starting to think about retirement Catherine Thomas was still working hard and facing the hardships of pioneer life.
Throughout her diary we get a picture of a tired, sick and worn-out woman, but one must search to find mention of why she is tired. On the other hand, every time her male counterparts are going out to bale hay or thrash oats, she feels their work is noteworthy. Her work is rarely mentioned. For example, only once did she mention herding livestock, cooking for the crew, going down to the river to haul water, and churning butter.
It is a fair assumption that all these things were part of Catherine’s daily routine. The work that is involved in doing these chores was difficult, but to Catherine it was taken for granted, not worth mentioning. And, perhaps she was too tired to list the many, many chores she did in one day and only could muster up the energy to write the results: “I’m tired today.”
Nevertheless, there is one aspect of her work that was mentioned almost every week in her journal – the marketing and selling of her homemade butter.
January 4, 1879: …went to Marshall sold 40 pounds of butter at 15 (cents per pound) the boys went back to (boarding) school for 2 month it is very cold but I stood it good. Ben and I stop at Mr. Berry to tea and when I came home Mr. Mills was here to stop over night with us”
Her butter money was one of the main means of income for herself and her family, and she kept an accurate account of all income it brought in. However the tremendous work she did to make the butter, from milking the cows to churning the milk by hand, goes unmentioned. It is no wonder she was sick and “tired” almost every day of her life.
Her work making butter was especially worth mentioning because it brought in much-needed cash. It was a way that Catherine could feel productive, even though, by any rational account, she was definitely productive.
It is no wonder that by age 60, she looked at least 10 or 15 years older than she actually was – at least by today’s standards. Life’s hardships showed up in her face, although not once in the two diaries did she speak of her appearance or her weight.
Incidentally, she never mentioned other’s physical attributes either.
The only reference to her body was when she fretted over her lame legs not being able to take her places that she wanted to go or do the work she needed to do.
When Catherine, as a rural woman in the late 1800s lost her husband she had to find ways to survive on her own.
Her social security was her children, but as they also were struggling pioneers, she still had to worry about money, and that meant she still had to earn it.
There was no pension, no retirement, no nursing home, and no rest. After 60 years of hard work she had to keep on working as hard as ever.
She was simply in the survival mode with not much time to think about her situation. However, it is revealed toward the end of her life in her journal entries that there was some contemplation on the meaning of her life as a poor farm woman.
December 31, 1878: “The year rolls round and steals away The breath that first it gave What’re we do what’re we be We’re traveling to the grave Not many years there round shall run Nor many mornings rise Ere all its glories stand revealed To our admiring eyes”
January 1, 1879: “While with ceaseless course the sun Hasted through the former years many should thar race have run Nevermore to meet us hear Fixed in an eternal state They have done with all below We a little longer wait but have little none can know”
Most of the time Catherine was tired and/or sick but had to keep working. Throughout the diary Catherine indicates that she is sick on many occasions, but not once did she call for the doctor. On the other hand, on Aug. 3, 1879, she indicated that her husband was sick, and the next day the doctor was called to the house.
It was as if her sickness was not important enough to call the doctor while her husband deserved to see the doctor. This entry in her diary was actually only one of the few times she mentioned her husband.
Catherine never wrote about what her husband was like or her feelings about him In fact, even though during the time she wrote her first diary, her husband Ben was alive, he was rarely mentioned, and she was very lonely.
Even around the first anniversary of his death, Catherine mentions not a word about him in her journal.
Apparently, her husband’s company hadn’t quenched her thirst for companionship. On one of her wedding anniversaries, Catherine writes of her wedding day in Wales.
March 1, 1879: “a cold day and when I look back to 39 years ago today whar I lived it was pleasant the grass green and we had diner out under the trees I was a bride of a day thar was six couples of us to gether that day a few still lives and have large family and some under the sod I am left and have children and grand children 6 liven and one in heaven.
(To be continued)
Sources: Lyon County, Minnesota (1884-1912), A.P. Rose; History and Description of Lyon County, Minnesota, C.F. Case, 1884; “Catherine Jones Thomas,” Christine Sartor, March 1998.