A Steadfast Lady’s Last Diary

From the White County Historical Society

Pearl Elliott of Fox, Arkansas, grew up so close to Ellis Chapel Methodist Church near Walker she could hear the church bell ring on Sunday mornings. Learning of the White County Historical Society’s cemetery update project during the spring of 2000, she came forward and volunteered to return to Ellis Chapel to help, completing a survey of Goodwin Cemetery. There, she found the grave of a remarkable lady named Jane M. Conant who died in 1904. Because Jane kept a diary during the last two years of her life, we have an intimate look at life in White County a century ago.

Conant was the name for a settlement on the railroad that served the needs of the rural and small town population between Searcy and Des Arc and some points south. It was named for the Conant family that bought land and set up a sawmill operation before 1900. Pearl says "There’s absolutely nothing left" at Conant. From childhood memories of older inhabitants of this area, the sawmill apparently was located east of the Rock Island railroad and south of the road connecting the Walker community area and West Point. There are memories of neat homes built on each tract of the Ralph W. Conant land. The train picked up passengers at Conant, which became a popular station because it cost less to ride to Searcy from there than if the ticket was bought at Griffithsville.

Jane Marilla Collins Conant and her husband Henry arrived in Beebe in November of 1894. With them were their children Ralph, Etna, Wayne and Ross. Henry subsequently operated the Conant sawmill near Walker until his death in 1899. The diary, which is now in the possession of descendent Judy Hoffer of Dartmouth, Nova Scotia, was begun November 1, 1902. On the flyleaf of the 7 ¾" x 12 ¼" hardcover journal Jane wrote, "I gave this book to Ralph 10 years ago. I wish he had written it full. I would have told yet more of the busy faithful life he led. [Ralph died at age 34 in 1901.] I think I will write in it now some of the work I do. It may serve some good purpose, some day maybe if only to kindle a fire on some rainy day." Jane subsequently recorded activities of homemaking, love of her family and friends, and an optimism toward life, despite losses and loneliness, that seemed to be provided by a strong spiritual steadfast faith that better life was ahead.

After living in Michigan with another son for awhile, she returned to Conant in June 1903, writing "I got pretty tired and lonesome although the waiting room was full of women all day, but all were strange faces to me. I arrived at St. Louis 9 A.M. the 17th found the Iron Mountain train gone. Had to remain until 10:30 P.M. So invested 10 cents for a book and 10 cents for a cup of coffee and went to the waiting room and read and waited till night. I certainly looked on a gloomy picture of real life in East St. Louis and we passed over a piece of road which was very dangerous … I arrived at Higginson 8 A.M. Took the train to Searcy a few minutes after… I came to Conant on the 1 o’clock train. Mrs. Jim Walden was visiting Mrs. Frank Carter and was the first to bid me welcome. I found all who had lived at Conant while Ralph and I kept house there had moved away and others had taken their places. What a world of changes. I came home to find Munroe Carter and his wife keeping house here. House neat and clean but yard growing up to weeds and fences around the garden neglected, gates open and I soon made a difference in the appearance of things. Have the yard pretty well cleaned now and flower seeds sown. Crops are looking quit good but late and grassy but the Draper boys are hard workers. Munroe works at the mill, it only runs about 1/3 of the time. I am to pay $8 per month for my board, to be counted by the meals for a month. It is to come out of the rent. I rented Robert Draper the homeplace for $50 and $25 to be taken in board. I board with Munroe and Lena. I commenced boarding with them at supper 18th of June."

Wednesday, July 1st, 1903 – "I have put in a rather busy day. I hoed in the yard, trimmed out the Lilac and Rose bush, trimmed the Bridal Wreath and fixed a frame around it. Fixed the flower beds, carried a lot of dirt into the path from the front door to the gate. Went to Mr. Nuckolls for the posthole digger. Took dinner with them…"

Friday, July 3rd, 1903 – "At ½ 7 Mr. N. drove up with Mrs. N., Albert and Dophus N., their grandson, going to Barber Lake. I was ready. We went near West Point, a long drive of 14 miles; but the roads were so good, and so shady that we thoroughly enjoyed the ride. We caught only small fish, but with rowing on the lake, & fishing with hook & line & cooking & walking on the bluff area near the lake we passed the time very pleasantly. The mosquitoes kept us awake all night."

Saturday, July 4, 1903 – " It rained a smart shower at noon but we all went to a dwelling nearby & did not get much wet. At 1 started home. A lovely trip home, about 5 miles from the lake it had rained only enough to lay the dust in the road. I was quite tired & glad to get home. It brought some very sad thoughts as it was the first time I had been fishing since I went to Baily Lake with Henry and rowed… But, oh: Why mourn when we know it must all be borne. This better to laugh and work & play than to sit and mourn the time away. Better to cheerfully sing & pray…"

Monday, July 6, 1903 – "Sixty years old today. I have spent a busy day. I did not think once about it being my birthday until I came to write the date… I cut down weeds around the grapes. The ragweed and coltstail were higher than the grapes. Then cut weeds in the lane & inside the garden fence. Burnt a lot of weeds … burnt a brushpile near the plum trees. Has been a hot day."

Friday, July 10, 1903 – "I went to Mrs. N. this morning, brought home my pail & I forgot 1 gallon of molasses of Mrs. N., did not pay her. Price 35 cents. Then I bound my fan with black net & aired my bed. Made me a pair of slippers. I burnt all the down dock & cut a few. Lena cut some and Munroe cut some. Supper ½ 8. Made up our mind to go to the squirrel stew tomorrow. Monroe put some wire hoops on my pail. I killed a small pilot snake in the yard. Burnt two stumps in the road."

Saturday, July 11, 1903 – " I got ready and walked to Mr. N.’s and rode with them to Glade Creek to the Squirrel Stew (against my better judgement as it was almost certainly going to rain and it surely did rain.) It was a warm but pleasant trip there, found a Negro barbecuing mutton & a large iron kettle waiting to receive squirrels, chickens, potatoes, onions, tomatoes, green corn, string beans, pepper, salt & I do not know what more. All very neatly prepared & by white women & then left to the care of a very neat looking old Negress to finish cooking. Then all gathered around on a large knoll & listened to a Graphophone talk & sing and patronized the Lemonade & Ice Cream stands & eat candy & drink Pop & visit & etc. A goodly crowd, nicely dressed all enjoying themselves when a thunder shower baptised all in fine shape. Such a bedraggled company, oh oh one hour of Ark. Rain, warm & copious, everybody laughed & crawled under umbrellas & got wet just the same. But the crops were needing rain badly and everyone was pleased to see it rain. But it rained the fire out before the soup was done & we came home hungry. I think that will end my picknicking for awhile. It did not hurt me though.

Wednesday, August 15, 1903 – "I have not felt so brisk today. The fleas kept me awake nearly all night for two nights. I finished the dock cutting. I have got to make a stir about the stock going thru the yard. The horse has been on my flowers, oh dear, what a way."

During the next few months Jane wrote of the death of a neighbor’s young daughter ("this is the fourth child they have buried and have only one left"), rubbing down another sick child with quinine and whiskey, Austin Bailey stabbing and cutting Ed Ramsey because of a quarrel between their wives, ordering an iron fence for her family plot at the cemetery, and myriad chores of autumn in the country. The last writing of her 70 pages of biography was dated Friday, November 4, 1903 – " I thought that I would not remain here alone all day, so I went & spent the day with Mrs. Taylor’s family. Had a pleasant visit, but I have a feeling tonight that I have done no good to any one today…"

A more complete version of Jane Conant’s diary was published in the 1992 White County Heritage.