1874 Diary of a Young School Teacher in Liberty, NY

This is the 1874 diary of Flora Emaretta Parsons, who turns 20 on July 18 during the diary year. At the beginning of the diary, she is finishing her last year of schooling. In May 1874, she begins working as a school teacher and boarding near the school, sharing with us her hopes and thoughts along the way. Throughout the diary, she copes with numerous troubles, including the serious illness of both of her parents.


Flora Emaretta Parsons was born in 1854 and turns twenty during the diary year. Her brother Seth’s 23rd birthday is on June 18 and they have at least two sisters. Their parents are David D. Parsons (1822-1881) and Eliza Sturdevant Parsons (1819-1899).

The family lived in Liberty, Sullivan County, NY on a farm that was owned by Elihu Hull by the time of Mrs. Parsons’ death.

Flora lived to the ripe old age of 93. She married John Newton Clements (1851-1937), known in the diary as Newton, in 1878. They lived on his family farm in Liberty, and had a son and four daughters.

Sullivan County is in the Catskill Mountains. Parksville, where Flora attends school, is 5 miles to the north, apparently far enough away that she needs to stay over during the school week. Family members sometimes go to Monticello, 12 miles to the southeast. People also visit Middletown, 38 miles away in Orange County, Deposit, 53 miles away in Delaware County, and Pennsylvania, right across the Delaware River from Sullivan County.

Liberty came into existence in 1807 and was settled by families from Connecticut and other eastern states. The population in 1870 was 3,392.

Liberty received hydro power from streams as far back as 1873, and still does. The ponds in the area powered grist mills and saw mills, and also served as resorts for anglers.

The town is hilly and, being in the mountains, often cold. Flora frequently mentions rain, hail, and storms. It’s not well situated for some agricultural pursuits, but was well known at the time for its dairy and “grazier” industries.

Many roads intersected the town, but those roads were difficult to travel. Most buildings were large and made of wood and, according to an 1873 history, the “general aspect of the town” demonstrates that the population is characterized by “industry, sobriety, and thrift.”

Liberty opened a post office in 1822 and by that time was also the home of a hotel, several stores, and other concerns. The Liberty Normal Institute (1847-1885) was one of the first teacher’s colleges in the state.

Flora and her family were members of The First Presbyterian Church of Liberty, which built a new structure in 1870. Sometime later that church was moved to a new location by twenty yoke of oxen on “Newton Clements’ account,” according to an account written in 1963. When Flora died, she was the oldest member of the congregation.

Other churches in Liberty in 1874 included a Methodist Episcopal Church (referred to by Flora in her diary as “the M.E. Church”), a Baptist Church and a Roman Catholic church for the Irish.

Flora’s family and friends occasionally attended the M.E. church and the Baptist church as well as their own.

Flora begins the year as a student attending school in Parksville, where she studies arithmetic, history, and grammar. She stays with people there during the week and is always very glad to return home: “Now for ‘Home, dear old home. Home of my childhood and Mother.’ I do not know what I should do if I could not go home.”

She often stays home on Mondays to help Mother with the washing, or can’t go up to school because of the weather. By mid-summer she’s teaching at Parksville.

Some of her other chores at home include ironing, sewing, sweeping, dusting, whitewashing, milking, baking, boiling cider, picking geese, and emptying the straw from beds to clean the ticking.

Other, more pleasant chores: chestnutting, picking berries and apples, hunting for ferns.

Daily life in Liberty includes lots of activities: visits to and from friends and relatives; going to Sabbath School and church (“it’s long dreary Sabbath” when the weather interferes); attending lectures, prayer meetings, concerts, plays; shopping, rambling in the woods, walking around town, visiting Young’s Café, riding.

Flora and her friends also go sailing, fishing, and picnicking. They play croquet and dominoes, and Flora has taken up making hair flowers. She’s also in the choir and, for “the festival” she has to “sing pieces alone which I dislike to do.”

Favorite treats include warm sugar, maple, candy, nuts, apples, candy, oranges, ice cream, and lemonade.

There are funerals, weddings, baptisms, a festival, and “a Fenians dance down to A.C.C.s tonight. I think it is getting to be quite a common amusement.” Sociables are held, usually on Fridays and in a different home each time, to raise money (for the church presumably).

Flora suffers often and badly from “the sick headache.” She has a couple of bad colds during the year and often just doesn’t feel well.

Both of her parents experience health crises in September that don’t resolve until late November. At one point Flora says: “My heart is filled to over-flowing with sadness. I am feared that I am to be an orphan.” Fortunately, they both pull through.

She occasionally chides herself: “I have been wicked again today by being angry,” and “I wish that in my daily walk and conversation I could act and show what I profess.”

But mostly she is glad that “I connected myself with the church of God” and prefers to be thankful: “It has cleared off at last and it seems very good in our Father to remember us with his sunshine.” She also prays for her friends and family: “Amelia Young started for Sheffield yesterday. I hope she will not forget her god while there, Father do not leave or forsake her.”

As for boyfriends, she spends time with Chandler (Young?), possibly as a friend, and with Newton Clements. Chandler does tease her about Newton, and on one occasion she: “Received a Philopena from Newton.” And it is Newton she marries four years later.

The diary mentions lots of neighbors, relatives, preachers, and teachers and is a goldmine for anybody with ancestors from that time and place.

Selected Images

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Preview of The Diary of Flora Parsons: A Young Lady Setting Out on Her Own in 1874

This preview of The Diary of Flora Parsons: A Young Lady Setting Out on Her Own in 1874 contains the diary entries of May 1874.

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