The following are letters written by Ellen D. Witherbee Atwell in 1899 and 1900 to her nephew Tyler Reed Woodbridge of Victor, Colo. She was age 64 at that time. She tells of her family life, traditions, and some facts of history relating to the Witherbee family, handed down by her parents and grandparents, written at Port Henry.
These letters were sent to me from Bill Knowlton of Liverpool in 2002. Ellen Atwell was his great aunt.
“Father died in August, 1850 when Tommy was six years old and Mother had the sole responsibility of him and to his credit I will say that he never caused her any trouble except his propensity to destroy something to make something else. When he was fourteen he made a steamboat with machinery which propelled the boat. The boat was about two feet long and the machinery was made out of the sleigh-bells which he took without leave and some of the rods were knitting needles out of Mother’s work, and various other things as he wanted. He always owned up to having them when they were missed.
He also about the same time, built a steam engine large enough to saw wood. He also had another contrivance with a saw attached to cut soft materials and one morning Mother missed her boiled potatoes and he said he had sawed them up. The same machinery was attached to the churn when he was given that to do. Mother asked him not to wait and he said he would do it soon. And then there was heard a great clattering and Mother rushed out to see what he was doing and was just in time to save the cream which was flying in all directions. He was often experimenting with steam and she found her tea kettle stopped with leather and one time a potato was stuck in the nose and as he had not thought of the steam cooking the potato, he got a scalding and the potato flew across the room.
He had his den where he spent much of his leisure time making something and even spent his Sundays there working, despite Mother’s lectures to him. One time she went up and began talking to him mildly and said she did not like to have him do so. He listened attentively but went on with his work and, as he needed a little help, he asked Mother to hold it while he did the work. She held it for him, talking to him all the time about working Sundays, not thinking she was helping him. He was strong and helped in gardening but would never learn to milk. I will say here that Mother had more faith in that statement than I had.
She also took the New York Ledger for him if he would go to church. He owns up to owing her several copies still. He and I were the only ones living at home for some time and as he was very fond of athletics, I had to take boxing lessons of him to defend myself, he washing dishes for me to save time. As a rule, he was not very particular about his dress but there came a time when he enjoyed a clean face and well brushed clothes. Mother told him to get her a bag of meal.
Not liking to soil his own coat, he took his cousin and put the bag of meal on his shoulder and then shouldered his cousin and brought him home. This cousin was delicate and city-bred and Tom played many practical jokes on him, for which Mother rebuked him. And Tom played the martyr, saying that Mother favored him more than she did Tom and called me to see the difference. Brown was on top of the woodpile picking out the straight grained sticks and Tom, to show how he was abused, was splitting the hardest of them with one blow of his axe, while Brown struck several blows on his straight sticks before they yielded. These are only a few of the doings of the pet of the family.
(Aunt Ell forgot to tell about the time Tom induced her to go up and hold an umbrella over him while he shingled a roof to keep off the hot sun; also about the time that Uncle Silas found him in the machine shop and presented him with a cake of soap, which he took home with great pride, not realizing the implications.)
As Tom is the last, but not the least, of this “poor but respectable” family, I will bring these reminiscences to a close, hoping you have enjoyed them as much as I have in recalling them. I fear I have given a ridiculous impression of some of the family but I have only pointed out some of the prominent traits. I should be very sorry to have conveyed the idea to anyone that your mother was entirely void of common sense or that my amiable sisters were well represented by their treatment of their sisters. They were very affectionate to each other and, while I have written the truth about them, they had fine traits of character to offset all these less desirable ones.”
Joan Daby is town of Moriah historian.