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Book examines life in small town between 1885 and 1899

MILFORD – On Polly Cote’s home computer are files any history lover would be thrilled to have: 67 years’ worth of her great-grandmother’s diaries.

Cote acquired the diaries in 1997 when she helped her mother move, and 10 years ago began transcribing the tiny pencil entries in the 67 small leather-bound volumes into her computer, and then began putting them into a narrative form.

The result was her first book, published in 2016, called “They Called her Cate,” which starts when her great grandmother, Cate Langdell, was almost 22, a young wife and mother living at her father’s farm in Francestown.

Now Cote, who is past president of the Milford Historical Society, has published the second in a multi-volume series.

In “Rising Water: Our Life Along the Souhegan,” Langdell and her husband, Zaph, have moved several times and are living in a house located where the Milford Post Office is now, just above the Souhegan River on Mont Vernon Street.

In the book, Langdell recounts the day to day events – work, visits, sickness, deaths – in her family’s life from 1885 to 1899. For unknown reasons, as Cote notes, there were no diaries from 1888 through 1893.

What did people do with their leisure time before there was radio, television and computers?

For Langdell’s family, there was constant visiting and entertaining friends and relatives and checking on the elderly and sick.

There also were church-going, and for the young people, sledding and boating and bicycling.

Living so close to the river, it became a feature in their lives, and Langdell mentions ice jams and high water, boating and ice skating. Her enterprising son, George, acquired a rowboat and charged people 50 cents a ride. Her eldest, Charles, takes up photography, and his photos of their home, the river and other Milford scenes are in the book.

For Cate Langdell, her happiest times seem to be socializing, but there also was a tremendous amount of work, especially cooking and baking to feed her family and a constant stream of company.

“What I found most interesting,” Cote said in a phone interview, was getting Cate’s “first-hand opinion (of) what life was like – what a woman had to do.”

And what they had to do was a lot. On nearly every page, Langdell notes the chores she accomplished, or was too tired to accomplish, for the day. Here’s what she wrote about the first two days of 1886:

“I finished my ironing and made nine pies and doughnuts. On Saturday, I did my heavy cooking, baked beans and bread.”

For the same days one year later, she writes, “I was busy cooking most of the day, made mince and apple pies, fried fish for dinner, cooked white and brown bread, beans and cooked up and canned seven quarts of mincemeat.”

On her 53rd birthday, she writes that she “celebrated it by doing a very hard day’s work and my feet and legs ached so at night.”

As Cote writes in her book’s introduction, her great grandmother “could not just run to the store” to buy butter, soap, cheese or washing fluid. Everything needed had to be made by hand.

In the meantime, Langdell’s husband did odd jobs, and he and other men helped one another with farm chores, building repairs, cow milking, livestock butchering, haying and planting. Sometimes Zaph or one of their sons helped with the clothes washing, an arduous chore done each Monday.

The book, published by Christian Faith Publishing Inc., also includes the diary entries of one of Cote’s relatives, Cyrus Porter Colby, which follow roughly the same period as the early years of Langdell’s diaries. The father-in-law of Langdell’s son, George, Colby served in the Civil War and was a prisoner of war in North Carolina.

“Cate knew very little of what was happening during the Civil War,” Cote wrote, “and this addition adds a different dimension to her story.”

She has written a third book, called “Oxcart to Auto,” and is working on a fourth and expects to write several more that will cover the final 25 years of Cate’s life.

It’s work, but it’s also a pleasure, because the diaries have given her an endlessly fascinating window on a life lived long ago.

Asked if she still enjoys writing the books, Cote said, “I love it. I love it!”

Kathy Cleveland can be reached at 673-3100 or kcleveland@cabinet.com.

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