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The Second Generation at Forty Acres: Work and Community

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Renovations under Charles and Elizabeth Phelps gave the house its Federal appearance.

In 1770, Elizabeth Porter married Charles Phelps, and a new era began at the farm. Charles was a farmer, land speculator and public official. Elizabeth supported the family by producing cheese and butter for trade in addition to managing the household chores. They did not labor alone. Their activities linked them to neighboring farmers, church members, hired hands, artisans, servants and slaves. The farm was fully integrated into the community.

A town in early New England was synonymous with its church. All the communicants signed a covenant that proclaimed the members’ commitment to one another. Elizabeth Phelps’ diary, which she kept for 54 years, demonstrates how this covenant became manifest. Hundreds of people were welcomed into Elizabeth’s home, seeking work, refuge, or company. She attended innumerable births and kept vigil over hundreds of deathbeds. Though she sometimes questioned her duty, she never abandoned it.

The First Church of Hadley, built in 1808.

 

"Cheese, cheese, hay, hay, cooking, cooking, churning every other day sometimes- I have had two days now, that I have indulged myself in bed till near 5, but tomorrow morning it must be a little after 3 that the butter may be worked in the cool air... I do not have time for thots and reflection…"

Elizabeth Phelps worked hard, but her greatest economic role was as an employer. Her diary indicates that over a period of 50 years, more than two dozen women were employed to sew alone. These needle workers came for days or weeks, usually from the immediate community. Laundresses and weavers also tended to be women. Indentured servants were sought afield, often at a young age, perhaps so that their parents wouldn’t interfere in the employer-employee relationship.

 The cheese kitchen. 

Slavery was legal in Massachusetts until 1783 when it was outlawed by the newly ratified state constitution. The Porters and Phelpses, in keeping with their social status, owned several slaves. Three generations of one enslaved family lived here. One man, Caesar, may well have served as a substitute for Charles Phelps in the Revolutionary War. Elizabeth wrote about her slaves with both paternalism and true affection, worrying about both their health and their souls. After slavery was abolished, she preferred to hire African-American women for “hard and dirty work” like laundry.

 

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