Historical society digs up teen’s 162-year-old diary for display

04/21/2016 6:00 AM |

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In May 1854, Congress passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing both states to choose if they wanted to allow slavery within their borders. This measure allowed for the growth of the Know-Nothing Party, or the American Party, throughout the country.

The party was strongly pro-slavery and against immigration, Roman Catholics and the Irish. By the time of the 1856 presidential election, however, it had lost a majority of its support.

The Know-Nothings’ popularity seemed to fade even sooner in Wading River. In 1854, a meeting of the party’s local chapter was attended by only eight members, but nine were needed to call the meeting to order.

At least, that’s what happened according to Kate Dayton, a 15-year-old who chronicled daily life in the small hamlet in a diary she kept from June to October 1854.

“She lived a very ordinary life,” said Sid Bail, president of the Wading River Historical Society. “But the thing that’s interesting about the diary is you kind of get a feel for what it was like to live at that time in eastern Long Island.”

Mr. Bail’s wife, Stephanie, who presided over the historical society for 11 years before he took over, discovered the diary hidden in its archives in 2006, while researching another diary — that of village blacksmith Alonzo Woodhull.

She spent the next decade trying to determine the year Kate’s diary was written, as only months and days were recorded, researching names she mentioned frequently and digging for information about her later life. Ms. Bail even transcribed and annotated the entire 105-page document to make it easier for others to read and understand, her husband said.

The results of this effort will be shared in a slideshow presentation at the Wading River Historical Society at 7:30 p.m. tonight, Thursday, April 21.

In the months Kate kept the diary — a collection of pages without a cover, sewn together with thick thread — she was both a seamstress and a student at the one-room schoolhouse that stood near what’s now a former law office at the corner of North Country and North Wading River roads.

R0421_diary2_BE_C.jpgAt the time, Mr. Bail said, life in the hamlet centered on the Congregational church, schoolhouse and postmaster’s office. The latter was operated from Sylvester Miller’s house, across the street from the church. Mr. Miller was one of Wading River’s first postmasters and the longest-serving supervisor of Riverhead Town, Mr. Bail said. Most townspeople resided near this area, now called the Duck Ponds, and toward the beach on Sound Road.

Kate wrote about sweeping her school’s floor and taking summer classes in order to accommodate her teacher, Ms. Skidmore, who was sometimes away visiting Miler’s Place — now Miller Place.

“School was not as set back then as it is today,” said Mr. Bail, a former social studies teacher and president of the local civic association. “It sometimes extended into summer. It depended on the agricultural season. Sometimes there was no school if the teacher left to take care of something.”

Kate often wrote about missing school due to a debilitating toothache. In fact, she complained on the diary’s first page that her “teeth ached and [I] did not go to the other meeting.”

Health issues are a theme throughout the diary, as Kate and her family feared contracting diseases — especially cholera. They had reason to worry: A contemporary New York Times article reported 269 cases of cholera in the city by July 1854. Of those afflicted, 139 died.

The diary isn’t all distress and worry, however. Kate, who is believed to have lived on or near Wading River Manor Road, often wrote about visiting the beach. There, Mr. Bail said, she picked beach plums and berries and pressed flowers.

“She went to the beach a lot, but not to swim,” Mr. Bail said, adding that the summer of 1854 was incredibly hot. Kate touched upon this frequently, with one entry simply stating: “Not as hot today.” In others, she complained of the intense heat, writing, “Very warm today. I think the warmest day we had this season.”

The beach played a pivotal role in Wading River’s development and dietary habits, Mr. Bail said. Its proximity to Long Island Sound allowed residents to make their living as mariners. Kate also wrote about eating vegetables, especially lima beans, corn and peas. She seems to have eaten very little meat, though Mr. Bail said she often mentioned goose giblets.

Wading River’s unique location also permitted Kate and her mother to travel by sloop to New Haven, Conn., to see a doctor about her chronic toothache.

“She had two badly infected teeth pulled, and when they were coming back to Wading River the weather was bad, so they had to divert to Port Jeff,” Mr. Bail said. “They spent time in what is Belle Terre now.”

It was there that Kate married Isaiah Lincoln on Oct. 22, 1873, at the age of 34. According to a contemporary County Review article, Kate’s husband died in June 1923. Kate, who was blind by the time of her death, died two years later. The couple had no children, Mr. Bail said, and Kate is buried at Cedar Hill, near Port Jefferson High School.

Over the past decade, Ms. Bail received support in her research from two of Kate’s distant relatives — Renee Friedel of Florida and Kristine Schramel of Massachusetts. They were even able to find pictures of Kate and her relatives.

“It’s just from June to October,” Mr. Bail said of the diary, adding that Kate is also believed to have kept a diary from 1850 to 1854.

“We don’t know if there was any more of the diary after … It’s just a fragment of the past. Maybe sometime in the future, miraculously, someone will find it in their attic.”

Photos: Top: Wading River Civic Association president Sid Bail in the tiny room where the diary was found 10 years ago; it holds Wading River Historical Society’s archives. Left: Kate Dayton’s diary which she wrote in 1854, when she was 15.

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