More often than not, turning back the pages of time for the purpose of writing these columns means a search through old Lewiston-Auburn newspapers. This time, I decided to combine that research with a look at some old family diaries to get a more personal feel for what was taking place along the Androscoggin River and in the Twin Cities.

One of these diaries is from 1896. Its entries were made by my great-grandmother Dorcas Dill Field. Her childhood home was a large farm on a hill just south of where my wife and I now live.

I turned to pages in her diary that covered late November through Christmas of 1896. It was not her handwriting. My aunt, a prolific writer of Sun-Journal columns under the bylines of Edith Labbie and Edith Dolan, was Dorcas’ granddaughter, and she transcribed that old diary on her typewriter.

Along with daily notes on weather, Dorcas commented on some of the significant news of L-A. On Nov. 11 she wrote that “our new North Bridge cost $128,000.”

Three days later, she wrote, “My birthday. Fifty years old. Half a century. Oh, my, how old I do feel.”

She would live another quarter of a century.

Her birthday gifts? “I had a pair of shears, an apron and a cup and a saucer.”

Later in the week it was “warm as summer,” but a few days later it “snowed hard.” Dorcas noted that this signaled the change from wheels to sled runners on the wagon for travel.

Those diary entries continued to chronicle winter weather, but it seems it was never a hindrance for long. The family was traveling daily a couple of miles to photographers’ studios in town, to church services, to Grange meetings in Minot, and to homes of family and friends all over Androscoggin County.
She wrote often about the “men folk” working in the woods.

On Christmas Day, 1896, the holiday was not even mentioned. “Annie (a relative) came over tonight.”

My grandparents, Fred and Hattie Sargent, also contributed a bit to the family diaries. In fact, there’s an entry he made in 1898 when my grandfather still lived in Methuen, Massachusetts, before coming to Auburn and meeting my grandmother. It gives more detail about Christmas almost 120 years ago.

“Mamma gave me a pair of slippers, Lucy a handkerchief, Margaret a book, ‘The Oregon Trail.’ I divided $15.38 among the family,” he wrote.

My grandmother Hattie Sargent took up writing in her mother’s diary in 1920. On Christmas Day that year, she said, “A lovely Christmas Day. We all got lots of presents and had a pleasant time. Edith had a toy piano.”

One other diary kept by my grandfather came from 1934. On Dec. 21 there were two words: “Christmas tree.” Four days later he described the holiday with “lots of presents” around that tree.

No doubt he referred to cutting that Christmas tree in the woodlot just south of Gulf Island Dam. Our family’s holiday balsam fir trees came from that land for years, right down to Christmases in the 1960s with my wife, Judy, me and our daughters Laurie and Susan.

Writing that brief diary entry about Christmas in 1934, my grandfather said, “Helen (a relative in Boston) sent us $5 apiece,” and he added, “we had chicken pie and roast turkey.”

He also talked about the popular pastime of ice skating in the 1930s. He said there was “good skating everywhere … lake, river, etc.” On the last days of December, he wrote, “Crowds are skating on Lake Auburn … the best skating in 20 years.”

Were the holidays that much different 50 and 100 or more years ago in the Twin Cities? Not really. Things move faster now, on the highways and over the internet, but families managed to connect for many celebrations, even when they relied on horse-drawn transportation.

Dave Sargent is a freelance writer and a native of Auburn. He can be reached by sending email to [email protected]


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