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  • Writer's pictureMj Pettengill

The Poor: Lending Their Secrets, Part 1

Lewis Hine Photo
Lewis Hine Photo

Amid countless transformations in the social structure of New England, very little has changed in the scope of pauperism since the nineteenth century.

Based on comprehensive, ongoing research and unplanned circumstances, I am familiar with the current social welfare system and the ongoing, urgent need for reform.


One of the fundamental changes occurred in the early nineteenth century when the Lower Mount Washington Valley’s primary industry shifted from farming to tourism. It is still a thriving vacation area relying on its magnificent physical features to draw in visitors.


In the good old days, it was common for families in the farming community to pool their resources, which is an element that is not present on the same scale today. This is partly due to the disintegration of small farms in general, as they have been replaced by commercial agriculture. 


Today, people seldom rely on others outside of the immediate family for support. This is not to say that the community is not helpful during crises. Now—during an unprecedented global pandemic—we are witnessing a coming together of people in record numbers. On the other hand, we are experiencing an increase in deep divisions amongst the masses. Perhaps these differences have always been present, but now they are evident and glaring on the surface. They have become the afflictions that bind us together rather than the solidarity necessary to thrive.


We inhabit a fractured world. The list of polarities—religion, politics, socio-economics, gender, sexual orientation, age, ethnic, and geographic—is exhaustive. Overcoming these differences brings about much needed, positive change—peace. Unity holds promise in healing both individuals and cultures. It is time to set aside these quarrels and get to the roots. There is wisdom in roots, always.


Of course, it is not that simple, but imperative to note that when habitual anger-infused topics arise, listen, observe, and try to see from a fresh perspective. It is time to trace back the lineages of these belief systems and renegotiate them. Stop digging in your heels. You may or may not agree with the other, because we have virtually stopped hearing anything other than the predictive rhetoric being spoon-fed to the masses. Pause, and give yourself credit. You do not need to be told what to do or how to respond to each step along the way. Rage has been carrying the torch, lighting the pathway, and it is not the answer. Snuff it out and shine your own bright light. Try.


Reel in your power and call upon each other and the community. Do you know the way around your village? Is there a place for you? If not, try to find it. The significance of supporting local artists, farmers, and businesses remains at the forefront. A positive shift in supporting community farms and practicing sustainability is evident in the ever-rising popularity of farmers’ markets. 


Food pantries, soup kitchens, and other similar programs are designed to support those in need. I live on a farm, make plant medicine, and volunteer at the Food Pantry. These modern-day organizations are proven alliances in the social sense. Many of these services have been in place for well over a century.


In days of old, farmers would gather together during the harvest, barn raisings, in times of drought, or during other losses, to aid in the recovery period for neighboring farm families. This cooperative nature also included the sharing of daily tasks. Perhaps we are rediscovering this lost sense of community.


With the ongoing disintegration of the nuclear family replaced with exhausted, dual-career families, people move faster. Attention spans are short. It appears that as a society, we have become desensitized in many matters regarding the human condition and possess a lack of general awareness. This desensitization has evolved over the centuries. During the past few decades alone, ongoing violence, the illusion of lack of resources, corporate capitalism explosion, and the escalation of earth and weather-related events have left many emotionally and spiritually diminished. One shock after another is taking its toll. Where do the poor fit in here? The answers are fluid and come in many forms.


What’s next? During the nineteenth century, communities faced the ceaseless burden of caring for the poor. Several programs were in place intending to alleviate the responsibilities of the poor. Many were connected to the workforce, labor, and farming industry. Here in New Hampshire, most of these folks first worked on private family farms and were later housed in town and county poor farms.


As the nineteenth century progressed, farms here in the valley were struggling because of the terrain and limited resources. Due to the number of rivers in the region, and to supplement farming, the logging industry was the ideal solution. The tanning and milling operations were also dependent on rivers. This was a move towards the industrial revolution that was taking place in America and had several phases.


During the operation of the logging, milling, and tanning industries, residents led productive lives. However, there were still farms in existence that withstood cultural, economic, and societal changes. A significant change occurred in the early 1830s when people began to leave the countryside and move to cities where the textile mills started to take shape. This was not only a transition in the structure and character of the small New England town, but it was a significant unfolding for the emerging feminist movement. 


At this time, women were offered choices. Before the industrial revolution, a woman had her place. It was at the side of her husband, raising children, and undertaking chores in the household and on the farm. There was a distinct difference between women of wealth and lower-income levels in both leisure and work. However, there were strong similarities in the role of the woman in the family unit on all social levels.


Women of the upper echelon of society had the opportunity to learn such skills as needlepoint, painting, piano playing, reading, and writing, to name a few. Women of lower social status were not often afforded such luxuries, although there were exceptions. As a rule, women of the upper class did not have the responsibility of arduous daily tasks as did their humble counterparts. Many even had hired help or slaves who were not exclusive to the South. However, the practice of slavery was not as prevalent in the Northeast. 


Through my research, I was impressed by a common thread that women shared, whether rich or poor, and that was the bond of sisterhood. I learned that women possessed a strong desire to stay in touch with one another throughout their lives. As a matter of fact, this was critical to their well-being. 


Women in the mills wrote to their families at home and to friends working at different mills. Women of the upper class wrote to their friends and sisters who moved away from home in marriage or attended a secondary school. The letter writing was not restricted to women. I sense that women were generally more expressive and committed to writing than men. Also, men had different aspirations, which did not focus on keeping the family connected. They were the archetypal breadwinners. 


Many letters from the women who worked in the mills mentioned the conditions and every day mill life situations. I noticed that when letters were addressed to men, they were not as elaborate or detailed as the correspondence between women. Interestingly, the exchanges between men and women often focused on health issues. 


I sensed the innermost feelings of those facing dire social and health challenges such as typhoid fever, how these illnesses affected the family unit, and how they all coped. Also, many letters were about work-related accidents both at home and at the mills, which were frequently tragic and often resulted in death. 


In some instances, I travel back in time, viewing journal entries from various eras and settings, bringing about authenticity in their own words. Letters and journals are my preferred social, historical sources. 


As for the women mill-workers, I admired their courage to leave home, their families and venture into unknown cities to work from sunrise until after sunset for a meager salary. This captures the essence of the independent, human spirit—the willingness to take risks, pursuing a better life in the unknown. 


This was also the first time women were surrounded by their peers in the workforce. The dynamics were so different for them to be amongst a community of women workers in the mills and live in dormitories (tenements). This is vastly diametrical to being isolated on a farm. Finding these letters was akin to finding their voices, which shed light on who they were and how they lived.


I was surprised to learn that some women did not send their earnings home to their families. Instead, they had savings accounts and saved their hard-earned income for their future, and some even went to college to become teachers or nurses. 


The emergence of the mills impacted the family farm and the entire workforce of rural communities. I was astounded to learn that some girls left for the mills as young as eleven years old, and younger. Since many of the youthful family members were no longer at home to help out, poor people were sent to work on farms. Poor Farms were becoming crowded, and workers on privately owned farms provided relief from the County Farms. At this time, family farms were beginning to disappear, and workers were difficult to acquire.

Buried deep in the bones of the earth, in dusty, misplaced archives, and scribbled in faded, yellowed diaries, their stories exist. At first, I might not be sure which door to open, but they come forward, lending their secrets, opening up a world that was meant to be forgotten. It is not. I know exactly where I'm meant to be.


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