Etched in Granite
Historical Fiction Series
"I smiled when I thought about him lyin’ alone in that field with his bones picked clean. Live free or die... I finally understood."
The year is 1872. The Civil War has ended,
leaving behind a nation torn and economically depressed. "Etched in Granite" is a harrowing account of life and death on a rural New England Poor Farm – a tragic, yet triumphant novel that tells a story of courage, survival, and secrets surrounding lost love.
The story is narrated by the three principal characters: Abigail, a young woman facing unimaginable hardship when agonizing circumstances and betrayal lead to life on the Poor Farm; Nellie, an Abenaki elder and healer enduring great loss while exhibiting resilience during a time of social, racial, and religious intolerance; and Silas, a spirited farm boss illuminating the conflicts of balancing a position of authority with his personal life while navigating small-town politics.
Their unforgettable stories are carefully woven together to reveal a hidden part of America’s somber past.
The novel was inspired by the author's discovery of a pauper cemetery in New Hampshire where there are 298 numbered graves. It is her mission to give voices to those silenced, to evoke images where they have been erased, and to replace the numbers with names.
~ A Story of triumph and tragedy revealing a somber truth buried in America's past ~
For the Hodgdon women, 1872 is a year of reckoning.
Alone and determined, 17-year-old Sarah Hodgdon boards a train, trading farm life in New Hampshire for the textile mills of Fall River. Woefully disillusioned, she finds herself trapped in a brutal factory and living in a filthy tenement.
She is tormented when she learns the fate of her family. Returning home is no longer possible. About to drown in a sea of spindles, she meets lamplighter, August Wood, who illuminates the gap between the affluent and the undesirables that dwell in the murky shadows.
Stripped down to her bare instincts, she retreats into a secret world, that if revealed, would shatter all that remains. Everything collides when Bess, the captivating woman across town, emerges, navigating the dense world of the local elite, offering a glimpse into an era when women were beginning to take the stage. Survival, a resilient thread of music, interweaves their compelling stories, binding them together, unveiling grievous misdeeds from the past.
In the summer of 1878 at a New Hampshire County Poor Farm, lived a boy and a tree. The boy—the youngest inmate in residence—is Samuel. He is the illegitimate son of Abigail, a beloved girl herself, known over and above her act of harlotry for nurturing the sick and the dying.
The tree is not just any tree. It is a knowing tree, a tree reported to have magical properties. It is said that if one climbs high enough, he may become invisible and be able to view the entire world. It is from his secret place, in the heart of the tree, where Samuel witnesses that which will forever change him and the lives of others.
After his loving mother, Abigail, tends to the many inmates afflicted with a grave illness and is laid in her own anonymous grave, he makes a promise to be the keeper of the Book of Numbered Souls.
With Mamma gone, not only must Samuel fend for himself, he must also piece together the clues that lead to the identity of his father, Silas, the Farm Boss who never claimed responsibility for him, resulting in Abigail’s fate of being sentenced to the Poor Farm to wear a yellow dress indicating her sin.
Samuel knows of no other way of life and has only heard grim stories of the world beyond the fence. He faces having to leave the Farm to live with his mother’s sister, Aunt Sarah, or go with Silas and his barren, vengeful wife who has made it clear to all that she considers Samuel to be the spawn of the devil.
More secrets are revealed when Samuel discovers an old fiddle that his great-grandfather brought with him from Ireland, and he learns the unimaginable truth about his family, giving him more reasons to wish to remain on the Farm. Will he come down from the tree? What will become of Samuel J. Hodgdon II?
Down from the Tree is the third book in the Etched in Granite Historical Fiction Series.
HOW IT CAME ABOUT
On a dreary March afternoon in the quiet town of Ossipee, New Hampshire, I encountered a place that would forever change me. Sprawled out in long, meandering rows on a snow-covered hillside, were 298 numbered gravestones. When I learned that this was a county pauper cemetery, I was inspired to discover who lie in the earth beneath the shadowy graves. I decided that this would be the subject of my culminating study at Vermont College.
Initially, I was advised by several people not to bother with my research because the records burned in a fire. Although I have lived in Carroll County and in other parts of the state for most of my life, I faced resistance. I was new to the Ossipee region and was considered to be an outsider. My questions raised suspicion, and many others had little or no interest in the paupers. Meeting with these obstacles fueled my own fires. I had no choice but to follow my instincts and unveil a somber truth.
My research led to a comprehensive, painstaking account of life in rural New Hampshire in the late 19th century, which carries with it dramatic lessons about a nation torn by the devastation of a civil war and economic depression. I quickly realized that this significant part of our past was essentially omitted from traditional history books.
Some of us may have heard references made to the Poor Farm in jest, but we do not comprehend the depth of its meaning. I believe that it’s worth knowing what it meant to be a pauper in the late nineteenth century and what it means today. It’s a part of our story.
Following the days of auctioning off the poor to the lowest bidder (yes, the lowest bidder), came the 19th-century county poor farm. Sometimes known as almshouses or poorhouses, these farms were large complexes intended for people of all ages, character, and circumstances, to be housed together, resulting in wretched conditions.
Contrary to what we may have heard, a poorhouse was not a debtor’s prison. A person with debt, but able to meet his needs and the needs of his family, would not be required to go to the poorhouse. The plight of the paupers was affected by the unsustainability of a rural, post-war society. When they became a burden on the community, it was the county poor farm that offered relief. Their crimes were that of poverty, old age, vagrancy, mental and physical disabilities, being orphaned, or being pregnant and unwed.
I focused primarily on the life and death of the paupers, also referred to as inmates. The question that continued to motivate me was, “What did it mean to be a pauper?” However, in order to fully comprehend the complex nature of the county poor farm, it was necessary to expand my investigation to include a cross-section of others associated with the institution, such as overseers, workers, townspeople, the religious community, and those who found relief at the facility by checking in voluntarily during hard times. From their multi-faceted perspectives, I was afforded a glimpse into the foundation of America’s current welfare system.
Ongoing societal change, reform, and local and state laws brought about many changes within the county farm complex. Separate institutions such as hospitals, correctional facilities, orphanages, nursing homes, and agricultural extensions emerged. The roles of charitable and religious organizations regarding the poor and disadvantaged were redefined, bringing about the field of social work, which was and has continued to be invaluable in promoting quality care, adequate placement, and the protection of human rights.
In New England, many of the aforementioned facilities are situated on the very same grounds as the original county farms and are somewhat, if not completely, operational. Some of the historic buildings currently standing are partially or fully renovated, and they serve a variety of functions, while other buildings are crumbling. In many cases, the land is used for local agriculture, community action programs, and working farms in connection with correctional facilities.
When you see a sign marked “County Farm Road,” it is certain to lead to a current or past site of a county farm dating back to the 19th century. We do not deny the existence of these farms, but what we know about them are merely remnants of information scribbled in handwritten records, yellowed newspaper articles, fragments of dwindling stories passed down from our elders, or what we have read in popular Victorian literature. The paupers themselves are no longer visible.
After careful thought and deliberation, I decided that Etched in Granite would be a work of historical fiction. The personal narratives of three individuals with diverse backgrounds and connections to the Poor Farm are woven together to tell a story of tragedy, courage, and lost love. Any resemblance to real people is coincidental.
The narrators are: Abigail Hodgdon, a young woman who through unexpected events becomes an inmate at the Poor Farm; Nellie Baldwin, an Abenaki Elder and healer who shares her rich story of immigration from Northern Vermont to New Hampshire during a time of racial intolerance; and Silas Putnam, a young farm boss and the object of Abigail’s affection. He offers a male perspective, illuminating the administrative or “other” side and how being in a position of authority often brings conflict.
The aftermath of the Civil War is clearly defined in this story, as both Abigail’s and Silas’s fathers served together in the 6th New Hampshire Volunteer Infantry. Like so many others, Abigail’s family endured the loss of the male head of the household when her father was killed, and Silas’s father returned home with a wooden leg, an affinity for whiskey, and Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.
Although veterans received pensions and had access to rest homes, the casualties of war left many orphaned and widowed. A substantial number of those who survived returned home with physical and emotional wounds, unable to sustain a healthy, functioning family unit. These conditions resulted in insurmountable stress on the family structure, leaving it both economically and emotionally unstable for generations, adding to the ongoing burden of pauperism and general dysfunction.
My experience as a Civil War Music Historian was of great worth. The research required to ensure a historically correct performance, sifting through archives and participating in living history events, broadened my comprehension of the era, providing insight into details that may not have been included.
The process of gathering information, opening a dialogue, and sharing the names of the paupers, is a story in itself. I became keenly aware of the collective fear and shame regarding the secrets of our past. I believe that acknowledgment and acceptance bring healing.
To preserve the integrity of native language and dialect, a handful of Abenaki terms are used throughout the narrative. A glossary is provided.
It is my mission to give voices to those silenced, to evoke images where they have been erased, and to replace numbers with names. During the early stage of exploration, I discovered the identities of 268 souls. They are listed at the end of the book.
A Boy ~ A Vision ~ A Knowing Tree
The Journey Continues
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