During the late 1800s and early 1900s, many farms in upstate New York still remained fairly small and, for the most part, self-sufficient. Still, with mechanization farmsteads were evolving from production for the family or other farmers, to production for national markets. If a farm could not keep up with the demands of competition, it would flounder economically until it no longer was self-sustaining (McMurray). With this in mind we focus upon Sheffield Peabody struggling to maintain a personal sense of purpose on his farmstead, at the same time that rural America is threatened with obsolescence by the evolution of farming economics and technologies.
A farmer for the majority of his life in upstate New York, and a hard-working individual for the entirety of it (even into his seventies and early eighties), Sheffield maintained a powerful presence on his farm. From tasks as mundane as repairing mittens and doing chores around the house, to those as labor-intensive as ploughing the fields and digging ditches, Sheffield was constantly working. As he approached, then entered, his early eighties daily tasks gradually change so as to require less exertion or time to complete them. In his earlier years, there are diary entries that recount how he “cut wood” or “drawed stone”; as the years progress, such occupations become less predominant while tasks such as “chored some” and “cut weeds” become more prevalent. Sheffield also begins to use terms like “some” and “few” more often in the later entries, implying that he is not personally producing as much crop, or completing his tasks to the same extent, as he used to. This does not deter him, however, as he continues to make a livelihood from his beloved farm.
Before the advent of railroads and highways farmers were necessarily self-reliant, utilizing family members for the majority of their labor, hiring neighbors and other workers only when absolutely necessary (McMurray). As Sheffield grew older, he became more dependent upon his sons to help him tend to his farm and sell its produce. His sons, with families and farms of their own, were able to help here and there, but it also became necessary for Sheffield to employ outside help. Especially during 1913 and 1914 (the final years of his life), he employed many other men to work on his farm, with many diary entries describing the labor of others or the work he did in the fields as “helping out.”
When so much depends upon a farmer’s able body, it’s hard for him not to feel obsolete as his role slowly diminishes in maintaining his own livelihood. It’s clear from Sheffield’s diary that he experienced this loss but was determined not to be superseded because of his age: he remained an active worker on his farm until his body physically could not take it any longer. Sheffield held on to his hard-working ethics until the very end, and as his world of traveling by horse-drawn sleigh and living off of the fruits of his own labor passed outward to the fringes of modern culture, so did he, grasping to what he had known for so long to be the only way of life until the very end.
—McMurry, Sally. Families and Farmhouses in Nineteenth-Century America. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988. Print.