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Life in Emmitsburg in the mid 1800's

Interview with Mrs. Esther Barry

[Originally published Feb 7, 1908 in the Emmitsburg Chronicle]

Esther BarryReverence for age has been from the beginning of history, and further back than that, one of the fundamental traits of  human nature. From this sentiment have been evolved all religious and all political institutions throughout the world. It would often appear in these latter days that some of the time consecrated instincts of humanity were becoming dulled by ages of use or were slowly fading in the garish light of the modern world. Who would deny that we are less reverent and obedient than our forefathers, or that old age, in these days, seems not to be so beautiful and sacred a thing as in the olden times?

It is a benediction to know the old people; to minister to their simple needs, to listen to the memories of their youth, to protect them from loneliness, to compensate them as best we can from the loss of the old friends and the sundering of the old family ties, to render them due respect and reverence and to treasure their words of admonition and advice. Therefore, it has seemed good to the Chronicle to embody in its pages, through the medium of informal interviews, the lives of some of Emmitsburg's oldest citizens; to let them relate in their own words 'their reminiscences, their recollections of their youth and of Emmitsburg as it used to be and, not of least importance, their messages of counsel to the young people who are so much in the a thoughts and prayers of the aged.

So far as is known, Mrs. Esther Barry is the oldest inhabitant of Emmitsburg and its vicinity. She was born in County Kildare, Ireland, on July 2nd, 1811 and is, therefore, in the 97th year of her age. When she was a few months old her parents emigrated to America and finally settled at Lewistown in Frederick county where her father operated one of the first woolen mills in this section of the country.

Although she has lived to a great age none of her family, so far as she knows, was noted for longevity. She credits her good health and long life to that sovereign prescription, hard work, regular and moderate habits and a quiet mind. Even now she knows not indigestion, eats when and what she pleases, sleeps well and is able to help a little about the house, and she goes to church when the weather is fine. Her hearing is not good and her eye-sight is nearly gone but she still enjoys the company of her friends and such simple pleasures as are within her reach. She is making her home, at present, with her cousin, Mrs. J. M. Adlesberger, who, she says, is most kind and does everything for her an own daughter could do.

When the Chronicle representative was ushered into Mrs. Barry's bright and cozy sitting room several weeks ago, through the door he could see the old lady in the rocking chair by the window, in the bedroom, counting over her money. When Mrs. Adlesberger had found the missing quarter on the floor she said, "Aunty, here is somebody wants to see you!" So when "Aunty" had been made tidy with a fresh handkerchief about her neck and another cap on her head and was ready to receive company she was brought into the sitting room and the Chronicle man was introduced in due form.

"Sit down, my dear, I am glad you came to see me," washer kindly welcome. "I am getting old and you know old people get lonesome and want company-that's something we can't get too much of." "Well," said the man of pencils and paste, "if I live to be as old as you, Mrs. Barry, I hope the young people will like to come to see me as much as, I hear, they enjoy visiting you. And I am going to ask you to tell me some of your good stories of the old times so that they may be printed in the Chronicle for the entertainment of all its readers and especially of your old friends who cannot get to see you but would like to hear from you. Talk to me just as you would to some one dropping in for a visit and I will try to put down what you say in as nearly your own words as possible. Now begin at the beginning and tell me about the days when you were a little girl."

"Ah," she said, "that was a long time ago but some of the things that happened then I remember as if it were yesterday. I learned my prayers on my father's knee and he taught me the catechism - I can say the first chapter of it now, word for word," and she repeated it without, hesitation and without a break. Resuming, she said "And I remember some of the little prayers he taught me.

One of them was like this
God is my Father, Heaven is my home.
Never let me live
But for God alone.

"I can remember my childhood days so much better than I can my later life. My memory is very poor for recent events but the further I go back into the past the clearer it becomes. Yes, I remember Mother Seton perfectly. When I was about six years old my father carried me to Mother Seton to see about my going to school at the Convent. She took me on her lap and said: 'Why, she is too little to go school, keep her at home for a while,' so my father took me to Emmitsburg to stay with a relative but later I went to the Convent as a day scholar.

Everybody loved Mother Seton. I can see her now-her pretty black eyes and the elevated expression of her face. She wore the black habit and the black cap when I first saw her but later she put on the white coronet when she joined the Sisters of Mercy. The poor people loved Mother Seton but most of all the children loved her. We were always happy when she came into the school room to talk to us. Yes, Mother Seton was a saint and she worked the greatest of all miracles the living of a saintly life.

"After I had been at the Convent a few months my parents died-within two hours of each other. I was only nine years old then but I well remember how, when my mother was dying, she wanted my father brought in to say good-bye to him. He was very ill but they carried him from his room to her bedside in a chair. When they got him there he fainted and had to be taken back to his bed. Then she died. They tried to keep it from him but he saw them carry her out. He clasped his hands and said `She's gone, she's gone!' Then he mourned and mourned for two hours until he died. They were buried in one grave in St. Joseph's churchyard. Later, when the church was rebuilt, it was extended out over our burial lot and five of my family lie under the sacristy: Father, Mother, Uncle John, Uncle Martin and Uncle Patrick. I had a tablet placed at the right of the sacristy door to show where they are buried.

"Before I went to the Convent I attended a country school taught by a Mr. Donnelly. One of, my father's apprentices would take my brother and me on horseback when the weather was bad, one in front and one behind him. Did we play games at school  Yes, indeed. Puss-in-the-corner, hide and seek and others I don't remember. The girls played with dolls but we made them ourselves out of rags and put on the features with ink. I believe we enjoyed them more than the girls nowadays do their French dolls. We made them clothes and nursed them mother-fashion. We made socks for them but they had to go without shoes. No, we didn't play at giving them a bath when we put them to bed.

"I grew up to young womanhood in the care of my aunt Dougherty and when I was sixteen years old I went to Baltimore to earn my living as a seamstress. We traveled by stage. There was a good pike but the journey took all day. We went through Taneytown, Westminster, Reisterstown and Pikesville. We had dinner and changed horses at Westminster. Our trunks were carried on the roof. The coach held six people and was drawn, I think by two horses. I earned on dollar a week as a seamstress in Baltimore and saved money. After spending a few years there I went to Philadelphia to sew.

When I was twenty-seven I married. My husband was John Barry a widower. He had thirteen children by his first wife. When the time came for him to marry again his relations proposed the names of several young ladies of his acquaintance but none of them suited him. At last my name was mentioned and he said, 'She's the one for me!' So he came to Philadelphia and proposed to me. I told him it was so sudden I would like to have a month to think it over. At the end of the month I accepted him and we were married at St. Vincent's in Baltimore by Father Hickey. My husband died - twenty-five years ago and I have been lonely ever since. We had but the one child. He has been a good and faithful son to me. He has been consecrated to the service of God for thirty years. You know of him as Father Barry.

"Several of my family have been dedicated to the Church. A granduncle, Father Ryan, founded St. Joseph's Church. One of my father's brothers, Nicholas Kearney, was the first pastor of St. Patrick's in Baltimore. Another brother, Martin Kearney died before he was ordained; he lies in St. Patrick's at the foot of the altar. One of my own brothers, also named Martin Kearney, studied for the priesthood but his spiritual director advised him to go into the world for a year before taking orders so that he might be sure he was making no mistake about his calling. Before the year was out he fell in love and married. He wrote many books, amongst them a Compendium of Church History which was widely used and translated into foreign languages. He 'taught school in Baltimore until his death."

"Mrs. Barry," said the reporter, "I suppose you do not remember anything about your father's woolen mill and how it was operated."

"Yes I do," she said. "I remember every step in the manufacture of broadcloth. The wagons would go about the country gathering up the wool from the farmers. It was taken to the second story of the mill and opened and put through a picking machine to pull the wool apart. Then the boys would pick it over, and get out the burrs and briars. Then it was run through the scouring machine and laid out on the grass to dry. It was next carded to make it soft and then put through the rolling machine. When it came out of this machine it was in rolls about the size of my thumb.

The boys then took these rolls and fed them into a billy or slubbing machine, which drew out the rolls and twisted them tight. Then the rolls. went into the jenny which spun them into fine yarn. The yarn was, warped and put, on the loom and woven into cloth. The cloth was scoured then dyed, sheared and pressed. This last operation was a very important one and my father always attended to it himself. Between the layers of cloth were placed pieces of pasteboard and sheets of iron-the pasteboard next to the cloth and the iron sheets on the pasteboard. The whole was then put into the press. Father had one loom for weaving broadcloth and three or four for other kinds of cloth. - He made cassinette which was a kind of cloth with a twilled surface; it was used for making men's clothes. He wove blankets, too. The mill, of course, was operated by water power."

"Mrs. Barry," said the reporter, "I must thank' you on behalf of the Chronicle and its readers for this very interesting interview and wish you a very happy New Year from us all." "Thank you, my dear," said she taking the reporter by the hand as he rose to go, "the same to you. And may I ask whether you are a member of our Church? No? Ah, well, we are all striving to the same end and we all hope to get to the same place. Goodbye, my dear, come and see me again."

Read other stories in this series of first hand accounts of
life in Emmitsburg in the 1800's

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