A Change Every Hour
Sheffield Peabody’s diaries reveal how cyclical a farmer’s life could be. For several days in a row, he often records the work of plowing, planting, digging, or threshing. Over a period of many decades, moreover, such chores tend to recur at about the same time every year. Perhaps this is why, set against the wonders of 20th-century modernity, farm life increasingly appeared to be either picturesque and timeless—if one were mythologizing rural America—or simply boring. T.S. Baldwin speculated that “There must be a reason why so many young men leave their homes to seek a livelihood in towns and cities,” despite the seeming independence of farming, its “pure air, pure food, and good health.” Since Sheffield purchased and presumably read Baldwin’s book, the Practical Telephone Hand-Book & Guide to Telephonic Exchange, it is interesting to imagine how he evaluated his own lifetime on the farm. Did he agree with Baldwin that new technologies like the telephone could overcome “the evil effects of bad roads, the delays in transportation, the lonesomeness, the lack of companionship...which conceal from young men the normal attractions of a country life” (11-12)?
As Sheffield entered his seventies, we find him continuing traditional farm activities but also commenting with great interest upon modern life. In 1901, he traveled twice to the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, NY (26 August, 30 October), perhaps noting at dusk the 240,000 light bulbs powered by Niagara Falls electricity. In the years following, he purchased books with titles like Practical Electricity and Dynamo Electric Machinery, not to mention a so-called “electric belt” whose shock was supposed to deliver health benefits. In the back of his 1901 journal, Sheffield (re-)quotes a gee-whiz maxim of the day: “With the aid of a microphone you can hear a fly walk.” Beginning in 1902, his home was connected to the wider world by telephone (26 July 1902), and electricity wasn’t the only marvel of the 20th century. Sheffield remarked upon automobiles—his son Starr eventually bought one to deliver Springwater’s mail—threshing machines (29 Sept. 1904) and a “flying machine” show in nearby Wayland (4 Sept. 1911).
It’s easy to envision a rural farmer gaping at the march of progress and writing (as Sheffield did on 10 April 1909) of “a change every hour.” But in this case he was writing about the weather—which is to say that farmers always had been attuned to subtle changes in climate, soil, agricultural practices, market trends, and off-farm opportunities. Sheffield always had been intrigued by novelty, even when it disrupted his life in fundamental ways, and in this sense he is a very modern figure that we might recognize in ourselves.
—Baldwin, T.S. Practical Telephone Hand-Book & Guide to Telephonic Exchange (Chicago: F.J. Drake & Co., 1902)