Abail and Emma 1870-1913

The work of a curious fellow
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At the age of twenty-two in 1870 Abial Small was the farmer of the Small Road property. His parents helped with the chores but Abial was making the decisions. The decision making was becoming more difficult and more critical as the railroads brought competing produce into the northeast cities from the mid-west and the prices fell.

Abial Libby Small 1910ish
Abial Libby Small about 1910

Abial studied the literature on farming methods and in spite of some suspicion of the organizations objectives, he joined the Grange. He replaced the oxen with horses because of their greater speed. He cleared additional land and put it under cultivation. Sure enough the yield of the farm increased but the income decreased. Abial was not alone in this experience. Some farmers took jobs in the towns and simply walked away from their property. Land value plummeted to almost nothing.

In 1873 Abial and his father were talking about the situation.

“Pa, we are working sixteen hours six days a week and losing ground. I don’t know that we can work any harder. I wonder if we should sell out. I could go to work in one of the mills.”

“You know Abial, you have always been the true farmer. I did my life’s work at sea. This farm was a place for me to rest. I don’t know this business half as well as you do. If you need to get out, Mother and I are going to go along with you. Still we are attached to this place. The way land is now I doubt you could get what we paid for it thirty-eight years ago.”

“I like the place too,” Abial said. “I don’t really believe we would be any better off in town and certainly no happier. I think I need to make a change in how we manage the place. If we can’t sell our produce maybe we should quit trying.”

What he did was to stop running the farm as a business. He planted about 75% of it in hay and kept under cultivation only that bit needed to provide food for a family. He brought in chickens, some dairy cows, some beef animals and a pig. He planted some apple trees near the house. In short he went back to the subsistence farming practiced by his ancestors two centuries before.

With his father to help with the chores Abial had something he had not experienced since his youth… spare time. To his way of thinking spare time was something to be filled so he began taking some carpentry jobs. From the sale of hay and the part time carpentry Abail was able to set aside a bit of money.

One day a neighbor stopped by the Small Road farm.

“Abial,” he said. “How you doin?”

“I’m staying busy Merrill. How bout you?”

“Well I been better. I need hay for this winter and am real short of cash. I wonder if I could trade a strip of land across from your place for a winter’s hay. I know it ain’t tillable but it does have that nice stream running through it.”

“I know the piece. I didn’t know who owned that stream. It seems like I been spearing your sucker fish in there since I was a kid.”

“Well if you will trade for hay I’ll throw in all the suckers you caught and call it good.”

“Let’s walk the line so I can see what the property is like.”

So they did and Abial agreed to the deal. He built a dam and water wheel. With that he powered a small sawmill. He got rid of the horses and went back to a team of oxen, which required less maintenance and were better tractors in the woods. Then he cut a few trees from the Pine Tree Road property, dragged them to the road with the oxen, carted them to his sawmill and cut them into boards.

The people moving to the towns needed housing so to the towns Abial went to sell his lumber. With the proceeds from the lumber sale he could afford to buy fresh cut timber from his cash poor neighbors.

So Abial established the pattern by which generations of Maine farmers would survive on the land in the next hundred years: farm to live and do something else for money.

His ambition and inventiveness came to the attention of his neighbors, among them Levi Rhoades. Levi was a stonemason and papermaker most famous for his patent medicine “Rhoades Liniment” nicknamed “Rhoades Hell-Fire”, a name of which Levi, as an elder of the Litchfield Plains church, did not approve.

“Morning Abial,” said Levi after the church service. “Perhaps I could come by tomorrow and visit your saw mill. I have a notion that might improve my papermaking.”

“That would be fine Levi. I expect to be there most all day.”

So Levi came to the mill in mid-morning in a downpour.

“Come in Levi and shake the water from you. What do you have in mind?”

“In making paper I need wood pulp. Sawdust is no good because it is too fine. Beating sticks to pulp is a laborious business. I wonder if we could attach a some sort of wheel to your mill that would bite off chips of soft wood.”

“Well we could give it a try without much effort,” Abial said. “Let’s go and see Albert at the smithy and talk about what kind of wheel would serve best.”

Abial opened the door to find the rain harder then ever.

“Ah, Levi it appears the Lord wants us not to hurry. Sit a while until this lets up.”

“The only thing I would go out for in this weather is fishing,” said Levi.

“Oh. You are a fisherman?”

“Sure am. My family thinks I have a secret life, I am away so much on the streams.”

“I like to fish myself. I like the bass over in Pleasant Pond. We should try it together some day soon.”

Levi and Abail tried without luck to get the chipper idea to work. There just wasn’t enough power available from the mill. But they did become fishing buddies, swapping fishing tips and tall tales.

On a visit to Levi’s house one day in 1875 Abial was introduced to Levi’s daughter Emma when she was nineteen and he was twenty-eight. Emma was a well educated and sophisticated young woman for the time and Abial was pretty much unschooled and shy. Abial thought she was wonderful but he hardly spoke to her when they would meet.

Emma A. Rhoades about 1875
Emma A. Rhoades about 1875

After some months of dealing with Abial’s downcast gaze and foot-shuffling conversation, Emma, for the first time in her life, developed an interest in fishing. It turned out that she was rather skillful at it and with fishing to talk about Abial got off the starting line and the romance got rolling. They were married in June of 1878.

Abial and Emma had three children:
Edith May Small 10/26/1880, Litchfield, ME
Benjamin Raymond Small 10/2/1882, Litchfield, ME
Delmar Rhoades Small, 12/2/1886, Litchfield, ME

Abial and Emma ensured that their children were well educated and that each had a cash trade other than farming. Edith became a teacher. Benjamin farmed the Small Road property and ran the sawmill. Delmar reclaimed the Pine Tree Road property and became a carpenter and stonemason.

Emma died in 1904 and Abial in 1913.

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