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JEFF MEADORS: Burge diary chronicles Decembers of another era

On this day in Newton’s history in 1852 Dolly Burge passed the day frying doughnuts, building a fire, and looking for “a beau for Miss Barber.” The beau never came, but Dolly went right on writing prolifically through Christmas chronicling killing hogs, drying up lard, and stormy weather.

Christmas Eve 1852 was a wet one. Burge records on Dec. 26th of that year it is “still raining and has been for the last three weeks.”

Across the pond in the same year Victorian contemporary Matthew Arnold, British poet, cultural critic and inspector of schools, kept watch over isolation and loneliness, both of which would soon impede the diaries of Burge. Arnold’s 1852 “To Marguerite Continued” captures melancholy of the “unplumb’d salt, estranging sea” where “we mortal millions live alone.”

One year prior Burge wrote far less in her diary but chronicled unusual cold, so cold in fact that “Mr. Burge,” she writes, “has just remarked that it is too cold for work.” That same day in 1851 Burge records, “Killed hogs yesterday. Meat frozen. Thermometer 14. Irish potatoes frozen!!”

Two years prior Burge recorded a thermometer “standing at 30” — a cold so bitter that no one attended church that day in 1850.

By 1853, on Christmas Day, Burge waxes eloquently that “the rain ended by snow and this morning we find the ground covered with (snow) looking for all the world like New England … “

She writes little about weather during Christmas 1854 except to comment on a “very warm and pleasant Christmas.”

Weather proved salient in 1800s Newton County and the fall and winter of 1855 brought warm, wet, and a “hard and killing frost” on Halloween. Meat preservation like peach and plum blooms in March was inextricably linked to weather and survival.

December writings were relatively sparse until Christmas Eve 1859 when Dolly, widowed again in 1858, thanked God for her bounty of cotton and meat. But Burge records deep loneliness in a diary on Christmas Eve of 1860: “Thankful for the care of my Heavenly Father yet gloomy and sad in my loneliness. Tis a lonely Christmas Eve.”

By New Year’s Eve of 1861 harrowing solitude and ravages of war took hold. Writing Dec. 31st, 1861 Burge laments, “… O the horrors of war. The privations the hardships to which our soldiers are exposed. Everything is very high. Coffee 75 cents and not to be had at that. Salt 18 and 20 dollars a sack and everything in like proportion, bagging 30 cents a yard and rope 25 a pound while cotton is unsalable… “

Salt was so critical for curing meat, tanning leather, fertilizing fields and maintaining livestock that Georgia’s governor issued rations from which counties crafted Salt Lists. Half bushels of salt were administered through the courts on lists documenting thousands of early Newton citizens.

With European supplies blocked, U.S. mines captured by Union soldiers, and sea salt of inferior quality it became the salt, the loneliness, and war through which, not unlike Arnold, a local woman of unassailable faith and fortitude left us more firmly rooted in our own human experience 161 years later.

Columnist Jeff Meadors may be reached at pjeffreymeadors@gmail.com