Trailblazing Women: Sally Experience Brown

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(HOST) While conducting research for the Vermont Women’s History Project, Cyndy Bittinger discovered a Plymouth diary from 1832 that reflects trailblazing of a different sort.

(BITTINGER) She was not special. She did the day’s work. Women’s work. Sally Experience Brown was the second of 11 children born to Thomas and Sally Parker Brown of Plymouth Notch, Vermont.

Yet she did something unique on January 22, 1832; she started a diary. To our modern eyes, the cursive writing is difficult, the vegetable ink fading. The entries were simple, just her daily life, but they give us in the 21st century a window to peer through and see what women did in Vermont in an earlier age.

Unmarried at 22, Sally lived with her older sister in Cavendish and helped with the housework and the care of her sister’s five children. They were like other women of their era. Household skills were passed from one generation to the next as mothers, daughters and sisters all worked together and shared their lives.

Each day’s entry of the diary has only a few sentences, mainly consisting of what Sally did that day and the books she read. For instance, she spun wool on the spinning wheel, fashioned a cage for young turkeys, wrung the liquor out of the herbs to make dandelion wine, sewed bed quilts and knitted mittens. She mainly worked in the house, but sometimes ventured outside to pick blackberries or apples.

Theirs was a self sufficient farm, but they often sold turkeys, chickens and Sally’s stocking yarn in Ludlow. Here are some samples of diary entries:

“This day, Sunday, commenced keeping a daily journal. James and Betsey went to meeting at the Academy leaving the babe with me. I read some and took care of the children.”

“Sally read the Bible and other books of the day such as ‘Last of the Mohicans’.”

April 29, 1834: “I taught school at Moses Hall’s for five shillings per week. The rest of the time have been employed as usual at home…”

School-teaching became an important resource for young women and a chance to excel outside the home. During this historical period, a quarter of all New England women were schoolteachers at some point in their lives.

Sally married John Dix in 1835, and the next year, they pulled up stakes to move half way across the country to Three Rivers, Michigan to open a hotel and start a family.

Vermonters often went to the Midwest to find opportunity. By 1850, half of Vermont’s native born population had moved away. Some men left farming for other jobs, and the women had to start households all over again. They lived in very simple houses and had to rebuild community networks. Many urged their relatives and friends to join them.

Sally’s sister, Pamela, did move to Michigan, and when the Civil War started, offered her home as a safehouse for fugitive slaves in the underground railroad.

And we know this because Pamela kept a diary of her own.

This is Cyndy Bittinger for the Vermont Women’s History Project.

Cyndy Bittinger is executive director of the Calvin Coolidge Memorial Foundation. She spoke from our studio in Norwich.

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