Column: Worthington pioneer diary is eye-opening, precious journal

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Editor’s note: Former longtime Daily Globe Editor Ray Crippen died Dec. 27, 2015. We will continue to publish previously run “Isn’t That Something” columns on Saturdays, until further notice, as a tribute to Crippen and his knowledge of local and regional history. The following column first appeared July 29, 2006.

WORTHINGTON — People ask, “Is it hard, writing a column?” I say, “It’s different every time.” One column does not make the next one easier or harder.

I have been — oh, struggling — for a while with the greatest of subjects. Russ and Jan Rickers let me read their copy of E.F. Buchan’s diary. The diary is interesting for what is said and for who is saying it. Ed Buchan came to Worthington with his father in a covered wagon in 1872, Worthington’s first year. Ed Buchan opened a photography studio at Worthington in 1880. He is a Nobles County pioneer, a pioneer in photography, a remarkable man — one of those who keeps a diary.

I think the only way for someone to appreciate the Buchan diary is to read all of it. My problem has been attempting to do a “diary review,” as you might do a book review, picking out highlights. Trouble is, in this pioneer journal everything is a highlight of sorts.

We are focused lately on weather — hot days, talk of global warming, drought, climate change. These topics give Ed Buchan’s everyday talk of weather a new importance. His record of 1878, Worthington’s sixth year, is compelling.

Buchan never mentions a temperature. It is likely his family had no thermometer; there may have been no thermometer in all of Worthington. Now consider this winter of 128 years gone by:

“Jan. 18, Pleasant. … Jan. 19, A most beautiful day. As warm as June. Went out to the other farm and stacked hay in shirt sleeves. … Jan. 25, very warm and pleasant. … Jan. 26, Saturday, beautiful. Cleaned out the cattle well, husked a load of corn. Will cut grass on Kelsie’s farm …

“Feb. 2, Saturday, warm and pleasant. …Went and got a load of corn in the afternoon and Will mowed hay…”

For several February days Buchan says the weather is “cool.” Feb. 10, “Cold north wind.” Feb. 16, “Snowed the night before.”

“Feb. 27, Warm south wind. … Feb. 28, Very warm, and a south wind … went to work at ice on the east lake, quit about 10 o’clock, the ice got so soft …”

“March 8, warm south wind and smoky. … March 9, rained most all day. … March 14, Went fishing … Jonnie and I caught 14 muskrats, and I shot one prairie chicken. I speared one pickerel and Will caught a large one and Jonnie’s line two …

“March 16, harrowed in the afternoon. … March 18, commenced seeding, sowed Lost Nation wheat. … March 19, cross-dragged the field next to Donder’s. … March 21, harrowed and sowed oats …”

The cruel winter was ended — the cruel winter, such as it was. There were a couple of more nights when snow fell but by April 20, Ed Buchan notes, “Mosquitoes quite numerous.”

As spring dawned, “Prof. Carpenter gave his preliminary address to organizing a music class — sang ‘Mocking Bird', and ‘Darmont’s Dream.’” The music class, which Ed calls his “singing school,” began on March 19, “organized with 42 members, $2 a term. Lesson: Scale of D.”

Worthington was learning to sing. Class sessions were every evening:

“Commenced attending singing school in the evening, Key of E … went to singing school in the evening … did not attend singing school … went to singing school … Will and I attended singing school 9 to 11:30 a.m. and 2 to 5 p.m.”

Then, March 30: “Went and practiced for the concert, 10 to 12 a.m. … concert in the evening.”

Along the way, Buchan develops side themes. One is the scarlet fever epidemic that sweeps the pioneer city. Buchan reports no deaths, but Worthington is closed. No church services, “… no meetings of any kind.”

One of the important advances for Worthington — April 1 — is introduction of a daily train to St. Paul, which is named the “Worthington and St. Paul Accommodation.” The train departs the First Avenue depot every morning at 5:30 a.m. and returns each evening at 8 p.m. Worthington has a daily link with Minnesota’s emerging twin cities.

This is an introduction, the first three months of 1878. One other theme: the pious Buchans, at worship twice each week, regulars at Bible classes and prayer meetings as well, go sometimes to the Congregational church, sometimes to the Presbyterian church, sometimes to “union services.”

The Buchan diary probably should be put in print.