The Women of Phelps Farm: Sarah Phelps and Ruth Huntington Sessions

A portrait Sarah Phelps by her niece Ellen Bullfinch.

“Our glance rests more gladly upon the gentle lady herself, portrayed as we last saw her, with the lace cap on her soft white locks and the bit of black velvet at one side, which brought out the rosy softness of her cheek.”[2]

Sarah Phelps was born in 1805, the third child of Moses “Charles” Porter Phelps or “Porter” and Sarah Parsons Phelps. In 1817, her father made the decision to move his family from Boston to a home he built in 1816 on land he acquired after the death of his father. Phelps Farm was just across the street from his childhood home, Forty Acres. In the process of moving, Sarah’s mother, Sarah Parsons Phelps died of Typhus. Porter, Sarah, and her five siblings moved to Phelps Farm with Charlotte Parsons, her mother’s cousin, who helped care for the family. Charlotte and Porter later married in 1820 and had four surviving children. Charlotte died in 1830. Porter died in 1857, leaving Sarah to care for her brothers Theophilus, Billy, and Charles who remained at home.[1]  

Ruth Huntington Sessions remembers her cousin Sarah Phelps throughout her writing. Ruth grew up spending her summers at Forty Acres. She spent time with her cousins Sarah, Theophilus, Billy, Charles, Caroline, and Ellen. After Sarah died, her sister Charlotte and her daughter Ellen Bulfinch inherited the house. It is unclear where the three brothers lived during this period. In the summer of 1892, Bishop Frederic Dan Huntington, Ruth’s father, rented Phelps Farm from the Bulfinches for Ruth and her husband Archie for the summer. Ruth and Archie lived in Brooklyn where Ruth longed for the countryside where she had spent her childhood summers. The following year, Frederic Dan purchased Phelps Farm from Ellen Bulfinch, making it Ruth’s summer home in 1893.

It is clear in Sixty Odd, Ruth’s memoir, and in “A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago,” printed in the October 1899 issue of The New England Magazine, that once Ruth arrived to live at Phelps Farm, she felt a deep connection to Sarah. When Ruth wrote this story, she had been living at Phelps Farm for seven summers and felt a profound connection to her cousins and to the history of the house, as described in Sixty Odd,

As we opened the door and entered in, it was like being suddenly touched with the spirit of the old Phelps ancestors, and finding unseen personalities waiting for us with a welcome. [3]

Upon her initial inspection of the house as described in her memoir, Sixty Odd, Ruth chose Sarah’s bedroom to be her own.

In “A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago,” Ruth illuminates Sarah’s life at Phelps Farm. Ruth also delves into Sarah’s intellectual history by exploring her library. She refers to Sarah as “Miss Lucia” to protect her identity. Ruth remembers Sarah in the beginning of the story,

A glance from her keen, dark eyes, glowing to the last with the last with the fire of appreciation and sparkle of wit, might have convinced once that the young Boston beauty who, in the midst of her girlish conquests and gay companionship, was called to turn her back upon life, as it were, and settle down into monotonous existence for scores of years, did not acquiesce in this without full realization of the joys she was leaving, and did not voluntarily resign the interchange of thought and repartee to which she had long been accustomed.[4]

Ruth believed that Sarah gave up her independence and prospects in life to become the unmarried caretaker of her siblings after her mother’s death and the move to Phelps Farm.

Ruth found hope and hints of agency in Sarah’s life through her library works of various genres: poetry, cooking, education, travel, history, philosophy, biography, French, and  novels. Ruth concludes after reading poetry in Sarah’s library that,

It is pleasant to think that by lines like these an optimism and courage were kept alive which made life bearable even in the seclusion of an Old farm, amid the performance of harsh duties and dreary association with decayed or repressed mental powers.[5]

Sarah’s library, for Ruth, was an important tool in understanding her personality and capabilities; giving the family caretaker a world outside of her life at Phelps Farm.


To continue reading  “A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago” click   HERE  or on the image of the page above . The story is printed on pages 145-153 of the October 1899 issue of  The New England Magazine  and has been digitized by Google from an original at University of Iowa. It can also be found in Box 126, Folder 43 of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers on deposit at Amherst College.

To continue reading “A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago” click HERE or on the image of the page above. The story is printed on pages 145-153 of the October 1899 issue of The New England Magazine and has been digitized by Google from an original at University of Iowa. It can also be found in Box 126, Folder 43 of the Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers on deposit at Amherst College.


Notes

[1] See Ruth Huntington Sessions’ Sixty Odd pages 128-131 for Ruth’s memories of Theophilus, Billy, and Charles.

[2] Ruth Huntington Sessions, A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago, The New England Magazine, October 1899, 153, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/iau.31858019466519?urlappend=%3Bseq=165.

[3] Ruth Huntington Sessions, Sixty Odd: A Personal History, (Brattleboro: Stephen Daye Press: 1936), 298.

[4] Ruth Huntington Sessions, A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago, The New England Magazine, October 1899, 145, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/iau.31858019466519?urlappend=%3Bseq=165.

[5]Ruth Huntington Sessions, A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago, The New England Magazine, October 1899, 151, https://hdl.handle.net/2027/iau.31858019466519?urlappend=%3Bseq=165.

Bibliography 

Amherst College Archives and Special Collections. “Description of the Papers.” Porter-Phelps-Huntington Family Papers. https://asteria.fivecolleges.edu/findaids/ amherst/ma30_odd.html#odd-cpp

Carlisle, Elizabeth Pendergast. Earthbound and Heavenbent: Elizabeth Porter Phelps and Life at Forty Acres, 1747-1817. New York: Scribner, 2004.

Sessions, Ruth Huntington. “A Lady’s Reading Eighty Years Ago.” The New England Magazine, October 1899, HaithiTrust, digitized by Google from an original at University of Iowa. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/iau.31858019466519?urlappend=%3Bseq=159

Sessions, Ruth Huntington. Sixty Odd: A Personal History. Brattleboro: Stephen Daye Press, 1936. https://hdl.handle.net/2027/mdp.39015011951129.