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Springwater 1912.jpg

Village of Springwater, NY as it appeared ca 1912. When Sheffield Peabody wrote that he "went to valley," this is often where he traveled. It takes an effort for contemporary Americans to think of small villages and their surrounding countryside as a technology for undertaking coordinated economic and social work--different than what we know but equally sophisticated. (Photo courtesy of Joyce O'Neil)

The literary tradition of a fictional journey maps out not only physical travel from place to place, but the emotions that surface along that trajectory, or movement across time and space. Sheffield Peabody lived in Springwater, New York, a small agricultural community in the Genesee Valley during the mid-nineteenth century. He was rooted through networks of commerce and neighbors, the members of a religious community that congregated at a local schoolhouse for varying occasions. Though he traveled frequently, Sheffield routinely attended a myriad of community meetings at this school house. Meetings produced a space where individuals could have their voices heard and see familiar faces; equally important, personal grievances were contained and the ensuing conversation was mediated. Peabody's pre-digital rituals and religious attendance at meetings offers modern readers a chance to understand how their own communities have been inextricably altered by digital information technologies.

Let's juxtapose Sheffield Peabody's weekly attendance at “gatherings” with today's social networking sites that spread news and ultimately widen our social and economic locales through the virtual. Social networking sites both focus on and encourage continuous documentation of the personal; discussion is generated and later mediated by invisible algorithms. Peabody's relations, economic transactions, and provisions materialized in front of his eyes with the aid of farm hands and his team of horses. The periodic instances when Sheffield attended public meetings was reflective of a momentous historical occurrence, such as Presidential elections, Westward expansion, abolition and temperance. Opinions regarding politics and history flutter and fester online, and this discourse can sometimes become hazardous and memetic. Information travels by the instant in our communities today, and the resulting surge of "public opinion" is left to be filtered through by another human staring at a screen. The speed at which news travels in communities today, due to the internet and its never-ending algorithmic processors generates feelings of virtual connectedness, and results in less importance placed on physical community congregations.

Peabody's milieu was mediated in the real. On July 26th in 1868 Peabody writes: “There was a large gathering.” Those who gathered were “checked-in” there and nowhere else; they collected and remained for that time and did not talk to or see anyone else's face besides those who gathered there. Peabody attended a vast range of meeting types that were held at the schoolhouse in Springwater, New York, the topos of which ranged from spiritual to political to "singing school." Today one is able to dial, interrupt, chat, message, e-mail, or write to whom ever they please as long as they are on the grid, while they are gathered or collected with other people. Sheffield attended other gatherings that did not occur in the schoolhouse. Numerous auctions, funerals, lectures, and days and nights spent “visiting” are noted in Sheffield's diary. Peabody operated within a small locale with his agricultural business and as a result grew to occupy a rather large space in his community located in Springwater. His pre-digital rituals are exemplary of the slow pace in which both news and feelings travelled across time and space in the valley, a little less than two hundred years ago. The community has transformed, formulates different social patterns, and utlimately generates different feelings today.