In the days before industrialized agriculture, many families depended on what they could grow themselves to feed themselves. Many farmers kept -- and many do today -- diaries documenting the weather, planting schedules, and outcomes of their efforts across the seasons and years. One such diary is that of James Evans, a resident of Cumberland County who farmed in antebellum North Carolina. Below are excerpts of his diary ranging from 1851 to 1859.
We had a hard frost on Friday March 21 1851 ice a plenty, in fact the A sump is a hole or well built to collect water. Often the water that is collected in a sump is dirty and contains waste such as sewage. was froze hard we had to pour hot water in it to thaw it. Peach trees in full bloom. Friday night quite cloudy -- rained on Saturday & turned quite warm. We had a little frost on the 9 & 10 of Apr. 51 13 & 14 cool & cloudy -- on 15 we had considerable frost on the 22nd we had some frost, & on the 23rd we had a "Hoary frost" is a moist frost that leaves a residue of ice., weather quite dry, consequently Often a frost will damage fruits and vegetables that have yet to be harvested. Evans notes that the weather was dry, and so "there was no injury" refers to the fact that his crops were not damaged by this hoary frost. Since this entry is from April, the frost would have affected young plants or -- most likely -- the buds on fruit trees. When the weather is warm early in spring, fruit trees can put out buds, which can be destroyed by a late frost. (This has happened in recent years in North Carolina.) -- Aug 15 peaches & apples very plenty.
I gathered 2 Quarts Scuppernong grapes are native to central and western North Carolina and parts of Georgia. They are large white grapes and are often used for making wine. on Saturday the 23rd Aug 1851.
We had a real snow storm on the 5 March 1853 -- A very heavy frost on the 16 & considerable on the 24. Heavy Frost Apr. 8 some frost 27 Apr.
We planted Irish potatoes are white potatoes. Evans also grew sweet potatoes and thus needed to differentiate between the two in his diary. The term "Irish potatoes" was common in the nineteenth century -- even though potatoes are a crop native to America! -- because the Irish were known for surviving almost exclusively on potatoes. When Irish potato crops were hit by blight in the 1840s, famine resulted, and thousands of Irish emigrated to the United States. The term can still be heard in North Carolina today. on Good Friday the 25 of March 1853 -- June 15 complete failure, drought. We Sweet potatoes are not planted from seeds but from slips, small pieces of potato that have sprouted. To make a slip, you place a piece of a mature sweet potato in water, leaving about half of the potato above the water line. To sprout, a potato also needs heat and sunlight. After a couple of days, the piece of potato will have grown green leaves on top and roots on the bottom. Next, the green leaves and roots are separated into smaller pieces and planted. on the 30 of March, sprouted very well. First lit out 24 June. No rain in May till 24 June. Commenced planting corn Apr. 1 & finished on the 30 Apr. We planted New ground 12 & 13 May. Corn up awful bad, it being decidedly the drought & the coldest spring I ever saw -- Planted peas June 15 finished July 6. Abbreviation for "commenced," which means began. As corn grows, it needs additional dirt around the base of the plant to provide nutrients and to anchor the plant so it will not fall over as it grows. Using a corn hoe, a farmer drags dirt from either side of the corn plant to make a hill around the plant, a process called hilling. July 1 finished July 20 1853 -- Corn getting Fodder is food for cattle. Cattle will eat corn cobs as well as the husks and stalks.. Aug. 22 Finished. Sept 22 First Frost -- Sept 20 quite considerable.
We planted oats on the 13, 14, & 15 March. It being too wet to plant them sooner. We planted some 31 March. Corn cut July 4. Finish 7 1854. We planted Irish potatoes on the 14 Mar. June 20 very good! Dug them all July 27, Very good. We bedded slips on the 31 May -- Finished hilling July 15 -- Aug 1 They look very well Sept 1 -- proved good!
We com planting corn on the 1 day of April & finished on the 11 May -- It came up very badly & continued planting till June 8/54. Commenced planting peas June 12, Finished June 20, commenced hilling corn June 27, Finished July 26, 1854 -- Finished plowing 18, July -- Comm. Fodder Aug 21 -- Finished Sept 18, 1854. Entirely too wet till the 20 June -- corn suffered very much from July to 7, good season from 7 July to Sept.
Ellick died on the 8 of Dec 1856 -- 3 O’clock. A. M. Jan. 11, 12, 13,14, 15 & 16 clear & cold -- 17 Cloudy rainy -- 18 All powerful Snow Storm, wind high, desperate cold 19 & 20 clear & cold -- 21 very cloudy, snowed some 22, 23, & 24, clear & very cold, Snow hardly melted any -- 25, 26, 27 clear & cold -- 28 Cloudy, Drizzly, Snow melting very fast -- 29 Cloudy Drizzly, Snow nearly all gone. 20 quite cloudy but no rain, 31 Cloudy Rainy, some snow left yet -- Feb 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, & 8 clear, mild & perfectly Beautiful -- 9, 10, 11, & 12 quite cold 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20 & 21, very warm -- it rained a little on the 16 -- 22, 23, 24, 25 clear & pleasant we had a good shower on the night of 25 - 26, 27, 28 somewhat cloudy, but mild. March quite cool & very cold. 3 remarkably cold, ice thick -- 4 moderate -- 5 quite rainy -- 6 & 7 cold -- 8 very cold & cloudy, snowed a little & Sleeted -- 9, 10, cold & cloudy, 11 quite rainy -- 12 clear & cold -- 13 rainy & sleeted some.
It is the general belief that this had been by far the coldest, most disagreeable & backward spring we ever had. Mulberries are very Scarce, & have just commenced ripening -- my best corn is about 8 inches high -- generally about 4 --. I am not done seeding corn -- The weather is very dry & the corn is missing badly -- No potatoes set out, though the sprouts look well -- I have no oats -- but other peoples are about a foot high -- The prospect generally, is decidedly bad. But oh! The flower Garden is filled with the choicest roses, & all nature is perfumed with thin fragrance.
First killing frost Oct 12 -- Tremendous frost & ice a plenty on the 22 [to] 24 Cloudy, drizzly -- finished gathering corn Oct 28 -- Dug ground peas Nov. 2. Turned out very well, few faulty ones. Dug Potatoes Nov. 2, 3, 4, 5, & 6, The first set out were tolerable good -- The 7, Nov & night after was the warmest weather I ever saw in Nov -- on the 8 it rained, & the 11 was clear & very cold -- Miss Wheeler came here on 11 -- Turnips very good (excellent) Misses Wheeler staid 10 days. Paid her 1.50 -- It rained on the Evening of 19 Nov on the 20 icicles one foot long -- A black frost kills plants and often turns vegetables and fruit black. plenty. Freezing in the Sun all day -- awful cold for season.
We commenced hauling manure of the 18 Apr 1859 & Finished on the 28 -- We planted the Flat swamp piece on the 16 Apr & the New ground above it, on the 30 -- & The new ground on this, the ditch on the 3 May. 4 Planted first low land. 5 planted 2 low land & would have finished planting corn on the 7 but the ground was so dry & hard we had to stop -- we picked a qt of ripe Huckleberries on the 5 -- Corn plowing Corn on the 9 May -- We had a little Shower on the Evening of the 10 & I planted sugar corn, pop corn & water melon seed in the orchard on the 11 ---
Primary Source Citation:
Diary of James Evans, 1851-1859. James Evans Papers, Collection #248, Southern Historical Collection.