Martha Jane Varner did not start any wars. She lived a quiet life in Pennsylvania and in West Virginia. Far from unimportant to history, though, her story can tell us what life was like for many people in the country at this time. And what a time it was! Martha Jane must have been a witness to the major transitions America was undergoing, and it appears she was directly effected by much of these transitions. She isn’t mentioned, by name, in any history books and most of what we know about Martha Jane comes from census records. However, as we use those records in the context of the changes facing America, we see a larger picture of the life of Martha Jane Varner.
Our Story Starts …
Martha Jane was born on the 30th of June, 1847, in Gilmore, Greene County, Pennsylvania. She was the daughter of Hiland (or Highland, or Hilent) Pilot Varner and Catherine “Kath” Varner. The first we see of Martha Jane is in the 1850 U. S. Federal Census. Martha Varner, 7, is listed as the daughter of Highland Varner. Highland was a farmer, who owned, at this time, real estate worth $700. He was 39 when she was born, her mother was 34, according to her birth records (40, according to the Federal Census that year). Martha also attended school in 1850.
Then we find Martha Jane listed again in the 1860 U. S. Federal Census. Martha was listed as 15 in 1860. Wait… if she was 7 in 1850, how could she only be 15 in 1860? Well, census takers had to do this all by hand, and foot, at this time. This means walking across West Virginia.
until the mid-twentieth century. Primarily, farming in West Virginia during this period was a family affair, involving a segregation of labor among the various family members. A successful farm operation required women to assume numerous roles ranging from full partner to manual laborer and performer of the most menial tasks. The evolution of women’s roles on the farm, the everyday work, and the technological advances that impacted women’s lives are the subjects of this essay, which attempts to develop a portrait of a woman’s work, surroundings, feelings, and her typical day on West Virginia farms in the 1880s and 1920s.
Farms of the 1880s were predominately independent or subsistent entities where everything needed by the family was raised or manufactured. An examination of three 1880s diaries documents the self-sufficiency and frugality of West Virginia farm women. Extended family and close neighbors provided the bulk of the basic needs of the farm family. Because cash was not readily available on the subsistence farm, barter was an important element of the agricultural economy.
In the 1870 U. S. Federal Census, Martha Jane is married to J. W. Price, and living in Walker Township, Wood County, West Virginia. Their Post Office was in Parkersburg. Martha Jane was also living with her one-month-old baby, and three other adults. These three other adults do not seem to be related to Martha Jane, or James W., but they are all working, and contributing to a single household, of which James W. was named head. James W. and one of the men living with them were working together, but the other man was working as a laborer, and the single woman living with them was keeping house with Martha Jane.
We see get more information about Martha Jane in the 1880 U. S. Federal Census. Martha Jane and James W. Price were living in Sheridan, Calhoun, West Virginia. James W. was farming, and Martha Jane was keeping house and having babies. The baby girl we met ten years ago was followed by a son, John H. in 1872, two girls in 1873 and in 1875, a boy in 1876, and another girl in 1878. Additionally, Martha Jane is listed in this census, taken June 25th, 1880, as “… sick or temporarily disabled, so as to be unable to attend to ordinary
business or duties” by reason of “lying in”. What in the world is that? Turns out, it is an old way of saying Martha Jane was on bed rest, which was the normal course of childbirth either right before or after the birth. Normally, a woman was advised to lie in for two weeks, to two months, and receive visitors and generally care for themselves and the newborn. We still have remains of this tradition: plenty of modern women wait for a couple of weeks before bringing out their newborns. However, in the case of Martha Jane, her youngest child was listed as being two-years-old. This means she was either about to have another baby, or she may have had a miscarriage. She was only 34 years old, but she had spent ten years having six babies, and all in the mid-nineteenth century!
Martha Jane was truly a hearty broad! By 1900, James W. had died, leaving Martha Jane as the head of the household. She was 55 years old, according to the U. S. Federal Census that year. She had born ten children, of whom nine were living. She wasn’t any helpless old widow, though, she was listed as the Head of the household, and the farmer of her own farm – a farm she owned free of a mortgage. Another special thing about Martha Jane: she could read and write, and so could all of her children. This may not seem so great to us, but Martha Jane lived in a time when women, especially farmers’ wives in wild West Virginia, had no need for education. She must have seen a need for some education, and she passed it along to all of her kids. Good thing she did, too. Even though so many farmers could not read or write then, as a woman farmer, and head of a household, she had a leg up on these guys.
Another thing to note in this census: Martha Jane was the head and owner of the farm, despite having a 31-year-old son living with her. The farm did not pass from James W. to his adult son, but to his wife. Their eldest son, John H., was living at home, with his mom, unmarried in 1900. Maybe being unmarried is why James W. left his farm to his wife. Men were thought to be “untamed” before taking a wife, and his father may have wanted the stability provided by his more-than-capable wife. Also living with Martha Jane were her younger son, 16, and her daughter, Effie Price, who was 14. Effie only attended school for four months in 1900, but could read and write like all of her family.
Martha Jane was also listed as having given birth to nine or ten children, with seven living. It is very possible at least one of these children had smallpox. Calhoun had a massive outbreak in 1900. The county was under quarantine:
Order of Board of Health
At a meeting of the County Board of Health of Calhoun county, held at the court house on Saturday, January 27, 1900, the following order was adopted:
WHEREAS, this board has reason to believe and does believe that many of the citizens and residents of this county have been recently exposed to the contagion of smallpox, which has been prevalent in adjacent counties and perhaps is now in existence in this county, and the board believes that extreme precautionary measures should be adopted to prevent its spread.
IT IS THEREFORE ORDERED, That until the further order of the board all public assemblies, such as churches, common schools, Sunday schools, literary societies, and all other meetings or societies and gatherings where the people are in the habit of assembling together be dispensed with in the districts of Sheridan, Center and Sherman, and as to the districts of Washington and Lee it is recommended that the boards of Education and trustees of the several sub districts confer together, and it is deemed advisable for the public safety, discontinue the schools for such time as they may think proper, and it is recommended that all the citizens of the county take such precautionary measures as may in their own judgment assist in preventing the spread of the contagion, and it is especially recommended that all people whether in the quarantine districts or not keep as close to their homes as possible during the prevalence of the disease, avoiding mingling with miscellaneous crowds and traveling in other district or section unless they are convinced that no contagion exists there.
People are also recommended to be vaccinated, if they can do so without too great inconvenience.
James F. McDonald,
Life wasn’t all that bad in West Virginia at the turn of the century. At least they had gas! According to the Calhoun Chronicle in 1898, gas lights and heat were coming to Grantsville, West Virginia, and the surrounding areas, including where Martha Jane and her family lived:
The newspaper announces the coming of gas lights and heat to the Town of Grantsville.
“We are authorized to state positively that, barring accidents, this town will be abundantly supplied with gas by next Tuesday.”
“A plumber will follow immediately after the laying of the line and by the time the December snow begins to fly, some of our citizens, at least, can roast their feet by a red-hot gas fire.”
“R.N. Miles has all the material for piping gas to this town now on the way, and as soon as it reaches here, work will be commence and pushed to an early completion.”
“He has bought the very best material; so no uneasiness on account of explosions need be felt.”
It will furnish the cheapest fuel this town has ever been blessed with, to say nothing about the convenience.” “May the Lord give his servant, Miles, more power to hurry the matter up.”
A few weeks later, the paper reported:
“Look at our beautiful gas lights. Grantsville is now illuminated by the use of natural gas. The town is now wanting a bridge across the river at that point and is reaching out eagerly for a railroad.”
“Grantsville is an enterprising little town.” – Ritchie Standard.
The official first day use of using natural gas as fuel in the town of Grantsville was Feb. 14, 1899, replacing oil lamps and wood stove heat.
More changes came in 1909. John H. finally found himself a wife. She was 17-years-old when they married. Maybe it was this marriage, or maybe because Martha Jane was now in her mid-sixties, or another reason, we don’t know, but in the 1910 U. S. Federal Census John H. had now taken over the farm. For the first time since she was a teen, Martha Jane was not listed as working. Since she is not listed as disabled, she likely retired and was just enjoying being taken care of by her son and new daughter-in-law.
What exactly was life like for women in West Virginia, at the turn of the century? The Calhoun Chronicle gives us a hint in the “Friendly Household Hints” article, dated October 31st, 1911:
When pin-feathers come out with difficulty, wrap a piece of muslin around your finger to pull against.
If you would have light dumplings, leave the cover off for about ten minutes after you have put them in.
‘People who do not like the country because there is so little going on, are those in whose heads there is less going on than even in the country.’
Mix your griddle-cakes, waffles, fritters, etc., in the upper part of a double boiler instead of in an ordinary mixing bowl, and you will find the handle very useful to hold it by when frying them.
When you buy the children’s drawers for the winter, sew a piece of tape, about three inches long, across the bottom of the legs. This will prevent the drawers from wrinkling up when the stockings are put on.
Do not forget to give the baby plenty of water. Milk is a food, and does not take the place of water as a drink. Plenty of water between feedings, taken either warm or cool, is a great aid to the bowels and kidneys.
Nut butter is a pretty good substitute for meat now that the latter brings such high prices. Run walnuts or shellbarks through a food-chopper, and rub into them about one-third as much good fresh butter. Spread on crackers or bread.
One housekeeper has prevented many a burned roast or overbaked cake by setting the alarm clock to the proper time to open the oven door. Then she goes about her work in the other part of the house, knowing that she will hear the imperative call at the right time.
The right way to cook oatmeal: Put a teaspoonful of salt in a quart of water over the fire, in the upper part of a double boiler. As soon as it boils, briskly sprinkle the oatmeal in slowly. Do not stir, but let it boil briskly for a few minutes, then set it in the lower half of the boiler, which should contain hot water; cover it and let it bubble slowly, without stirring, for four or five hours at the least. If wanted for breakfast they should be cooked the day before, and then finished with as much time as you can allow in the morning. – From November Farm Journal.
I am sure Martha Jane used at least some of this advice. After all, it is pretty practical. My favorite piece of advice: “Milk is food, and does not take the place of water”. I like to think Martha Jane read this, like we are reading it today. Martha Jane Varner Price was a fascinating woman – strong and self-sufficient. No wonder her granddaughter, Zella, named her daughter after this unique woman.