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April 28, 2024 45 mins

My guest today is Sue Burns, author of the book A Common Life, A Voice from the Progressive Era where she published her great-great grandmother Mary's diary from the late 19th century Iowa farm life.

We talk about the demographics of Iowa in the late 19th century., Her great great grandmother, Mary, managed to raise six children without losing any, although there might have been unrecorded miscarriages or infant deaths. Sue highlights that Mary's diary, like many others from the time, did not extensively cover topics like pregnancy or childbirth, reflecting a cultural silence around such matters.

Sue discusses Mary's diary entries regarding deaths in the community, which were frequent and treated as a natural part of life. Mary herself experienced grief after her husband's death, which followed a period of illness and medical procedures documented in the diary.

Describing Mary's farm, Sue mentions its size (about 240 acres), the crops grown, and the various buildings on the property, including a windmill, barn, and corn crib. She details Mary's involvement in farm management, including decisions about planting, harvesting, and eventually renting out the land for income.

Sue reflects on Mary's accounts of butchering chickens and a pig, speculating about her involvement in these tasks and the practicalities of farm life. She also discusses the layout of Mary's house, including a main living room with a coal-burning stove and a separate "summer kitchen" building.

She recounts the process of preserving Mary's diary, which was written on fragile paper found in an attic. Sue and her mother collaborated to transcribe and digitize the diary, eventually donating a copy to the Iowa Women's Archive.

Sue emphasizes the importance of preserving family histories like Mary's diary, which offers unique insights into past lives and experiences. She notes the limitations of relying solely on written records and highlights the value of oral history and personal connections in understanding the past.

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