Thursday, August 18, 2011

Words and Images from The Diary of James Peter McPherson, 1850-1878: Cradling Grain


Woodcut from painting by Ernst Henseler, (1852-1940), in public domain
Old J.P.'s 1850-1878 Dairy overwhelms my life.  I spend hours every day peering into the computer screen to transcribe his words and to determine if that florish is an S, or T or F . I wrestle with names as sometimes Mr. Donald  looks very much like McDonald, or for goodness sakes, D. Beat  looks very much like D. Beath., both of whom, I have found to be neighbors. These are minor little quirks that usually “shake out” over the course of time with the Diary --- just as J.P dinna have any problem knowing his intent, I find that over the course of my days and weeks I meld into his time frame of months and years --- and the words become clear.
The naughtier problems occur when I think I understand --- and all of a sudden, a word or phrase, sends my fingers flying to google.
And so it was with the day that J.P. went to the store in Mt. Vernon, some 8 miles around the way, to buy a cradle. I knew from the diary date and my internal family genealogy chart, that their second daughter was soon to be born. “How nice that they can buy a cradle for the new wee  babe,” I thought to myself. “And after only being in Wisconsin, but two years.”
Later, a couple of weeks of transcription passed and  two years of J.P.'s life and times, I again  came upon the phase, cradling. Dinna mean for a babe. What in the world does that mean? Late summer and early autumn and J.P. and his neighbors were cradling so the word must have something to do with harvest.  But I was obsessively transcribing and let it pass.
Words and time continued, until the next fall when harvest was upon the Springdale folks and they were again cradling. This time I had to find out just what this cradling business was about.
Google is my friend. And to my amazement, the wonderful woodcut, shown above,  from painting by the German artist, Ernst Henseler (1852-1940),  provided me with  an image of what harvest might have looked like in that Scotch hamlet of Springdale. Not only was there a clear image of the scythe with the long fingers of the cradle attached to the handle, but also stacks of bundled or bound grain stalks.

According to Wikipedia, the grain cradle, developed by a Scotsman in 1794, revolutionized harvesting of grain.  Now the sheaves of grain fell onto the cradle and out the bottom leaving rows of harvested wheat which could be easily bond and stacked.  Below is a picture of a  patent drawing for a grain cradle; some 50 American patents were approved for grain cradles between 1823 and 1924.

This last picture gives me the feel of watching J.P. and his friends David Beat and William Cairncross, cradling their way across their grain fields -- helping one another harvest that precious grain for the winter.

"Cradling Grain",  Digital ID:93371, NY Public Library
Aye, and I be a fortunate one, a Diary, Google, and pictures and descriptions galore.

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© Joan Hill, Roots'n'Leaves Publications


  1. So interesting!! And I learned a lot about cradling grain!

  2. Sounds like a great research/transcription week!

  3. Great post! I know exactly how you feel as you try to make sense of words as you transcribe them. When I read my grandmother's diary, I've faced similar challenges. And like you, I've been amazed how often I discover answers to my questions as I dig deeper into the diary.