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Family Business


This Peabody family portrait shows an older Sheffield seated with a book, surrounded by his family. While all look at attention, Helen Esther lends a relaxed element to the formality as she leans on her mother’s lap. This mixture of professionalism, closeness, and a book perfectly sums up the impression one gets from Sheffield’s writings.  Seated: Sheffield W. Peabody; his wife, Mary Marilla Robinson Peabody.  Standing: their children Starr W. (b. 1874), Martha Ellen (b.1876), George L., (b. 1866), Helen Esther (b. 1883), Mary Emma (b. 1872).

If we are to transform Sheffield Peabody’s home into a metaphorical circuit, our understanding of what a traditional rural family looks like must shift as well. The classic Rockwellian image of hearth and home becomes a buzzing hive of activity and hard work. There is a clear division of labor which Sheffield documents: “Mary and I went to the valley. Got 15 50/60 bushels of wheat of Harvey Wilcox and got it ground for flower. Mary got her carpet. Starr planted a few potatoes. G.W. Capron and G.L. Peabody commenced to plow buckwheat ground on the flats” (28 May 1885). The roles indicated here display each member of the family contributing to daily life.

Mary Peabody is often described as traveling throughout the community to visit the sick. She attends the home of Ed Coats, because, as the diary notes, “their girl, Ella Coats, is crazy”; Mary visits four times before the young woman's death (28 Jan. 1886). In addition to promoting community welfare, Mary is the primary caretaker of their daughter--Helen Esther--who first appears in the diaries at two years old: “I went to the valley today. Mary and baby went” (April 4, 1885). Daughters Martha and Mary Emma are mentioned working alongside their mother.

The family's eldest son, George Lincoln, works alongside his father as well as the other employees which Sheffield often notes: “G.W. Capron and G.L.P. plowed all day” (7 May 1885). This connection between working as a family and working as an employee extends the family network into the business network.  Starr Peabody is a farm employee in training and at 10 years old, in 1885, he completes tasks beyond the capabilities of most modern young boys. He works alongside his brother and father drawing wood and planting potatoes. And with a new year comes new responsibilities--“I sent Starr to take back a borrowed lantern to Marcus Ingram”--where Sheffleld's son makes his first trip alone by wagon (1 Jan. 1886).

Sheffield’s diaries, which track primarily business and farm matters, includes little to no obvious sentimentality. When Starr is ill, it is recorded that he "is sick” along with a recovery three days later: “Starr and I went down and got 70 sheep” (7, 10 June 1886). While this seemingly gruff business tone permeates Sheffield's diary, the dynamics presented reveal a family that not only works together, but shares the labor of education and community connections. George L. Peabody attends school at Geneseo and the family often visits temperance camps and lectures. This pursuit of knowledge within the family demonstrates the family as more than workerbees, but an evolving enterprise. Amongst the work, there is time for recreation as the family attends the State Fair and goes fishing but these outings are moderately limited in comparison to work.

Sheffield's family network spends their holidays together but unsurprisingly, the primary activity seems to be chores, which Sheffield records almost every Thanksgiving and Christmas. Their commendable work ethic and interest in the community grounds the family in their circuit where everyone effectively plays their part.