The parchment of Simon Davis’s 1796 diary is fragile, and Fred Brown handles it carefully every time he pulls it out of the storage vault in the Boylston Historical Society’s museum. The pages are thin and crinkled, and the cursive lines of centuries-old iron-oxide ink are fading to gray in places.
Brown has been working to transcribe the historic leather-bound book over the last year, and preserve it for posterity in the society’s granite building at 7 Central St.
“I think Boylston has a little more history than what you might think for a small town,” said Brown, who has taken over the job as curator of the museum.
A panorama spread over hundreds of pages, the volume provides observations and insights by a local businessman into life in Massachusetts around the turn of the 19th century, not long after American independence was won.
Brown said the picture Davis paints isn’t as charming in some ways as might be expected. Though a successful jack-of-all trades, Davis lived a difficult life, beset at times with tragedy and setbacks. Among other things, the journal details his poignant struggles with losing his 5-year old son Ezra, whose grave is in Mount Vernon Cemetery in West Boylston, which was part of Boylston at the time. By contrast, Brown said, Davis only briefly mentions the passing of his wife, Persis, who died when their two children were still young.
Brown wonders whether his wife’s death affected him so much he didn’t even want to write about it.
“Everyone thinks of those people back then as these stern Yankees, but that is not the case,” Brown said.
While the diary records some life-changing moments for Davis between 1796 and 1810, it is for the most part mundane in character, said Brown. Most of the journal entries on specific dates record whimsical observations about the weather, as well as casual remarks about the writer’s moods and work. Many of the entries are short and not well punctuated, as if Davis didn’t have much time to write:
“Tuesday 24th. Warm drying day. J.P. returned safe. Nothing special from Paxton, only it seems if sister Patty is on the verge of matrimony.”
“Tuesday 31st. Fair day — Deeply engaged painting of my shop. My paint consists of Cod oil, Spanish brown, Rosin of brimstone — Much of the smell of brimstone. Newton arrived from Brattleboro.”
In other entries, Davis reveals his political inclinations, such as in a diatribe against the town’s decision to purchase a bell for the local church in 1796. Few in his part of town supported the idea, according to Davis, and, akin to many of today’s debates about special interests in government, he rails at the group he believes snuck the purchase through Town Hall.
“Have paid towards it about 2 dollars. I suppose the town of Boylston granted a sum of money to purchase the bell! Another instance of a small or even larger Country Town furnishing themselves with a bell by a tax on its inhabitants at large. . . At this juncture, it seemed that certain designing individuals conceived it good policy in Town to pick the pockets of those who had no part or lot with them while it was in their power.”
Brown said it was issues like the bell tax, as it was called, that led Davis’s section of town to break away and incorporate as West Boylston in 1808, though a dispute about the location of a town meetinghouse is often cited as a major reason behind the change. Some residents also had to travel close to 5 miles to get to church in Boylston Center, and others, like Davis, felt their taxes were being spent in an area too far removed from where they lived to benefit them, said Brown.
Davis grew up in Paxton, then in 1796 moved the roughly 10 miles northeast to his new town at age 39, primarily to take advantage of the better road system for his business and trade. He had multiple jobs, including tanner, tavern owner, and farmer. In addition, Davis also served as a member of the local militia and as a member of the committee that elected the town’s minister.
About 1810, a short time before his death, Davis moved to Falmouth, Maine, where he purchased a large farm.
The Boylston Historical Society acquired the diary as a donation from a Florida resident, Brown said, and he is still trying to trace where the journal had been over the last two centuries.
Even though the ink is fading after all these years, the diary has proved fairly easy to read for his transcription project, he said.
“It’s pretty legible,” said Brown. “He had a pretty good hand, so it was not too tough.”