Isaac Phillips Roberts
(Part 1)
Recollecting his Mother

Dateline: 2 November 2015

Isaac Phillips Roberts

"I was born In the Roberts' farmhouse, on the west bank of Cayuga Lake, July 24, 1833, at sunrise of a fine harvest morning."

Thus begins, Autobiography of a Farm Boy, by Isaac Phillips Roberts. The book was written in 1916, when Roberts was 83 years old. You can read it online At This Link.

Roberts is pretty much a forgotten figure in history, but he played an important role as an agricultural educator at Cornell university for thirty years. The college even named one of their new (in 1906) agricultural buildings in his honor. But Roberts Hall was demolished in the 1980s. 

Roberts achieved a great measure of success as a professor even though he never attended college and had no educational degrees. 

A NY State historical marker (click the link for a concise biography) is at Roberts' birthplace in East Varick, NY. It states that he was "representative extra-ordinary of the American farmer." 

As Isaac Roberts states in his book, East Varick is on the western shore of Cayuga Lake, directly across from the village of Aurora. Well, if you look on a map and track about 20 miles due east of Aurora you will find my house. The professor practically grew up in my neighborhood... 182 years ago.

This area of central New York state was largely unsettled back in those days. It was a land rich in resources, and well suited for an agrarian society.

Autobiography of a Farm Boy is a historical gem for modern-day agrarians looking to better understand what life was once like in the agrarian nation America once was. 

For example, the following description by Roberts of his mother gives us a glimpse into the role of women in the agrarian culture of early 1800's America. She was not highly educated, but she was highly literate. She did not seek to have a career and be an income earner outside her home. Instead, she was a helpmeet to her husband, performing the important tasks of managing her home economy; providing for and nurturing her children. Her life energy was focused on being a mother, as well as a friend and caregiver in her immediate community. In other words, she did not endeavor to be a leader in the society of her day, but to raise sons that would one day be responsible leaders. 

This is an old concept that is clearly biblical. But, of course, in the industrialized world, motherhood is not the high moral and social calling it was once universally considered to be. Managing a home and being a mother are, at best, now a part time task in the industrial order. 


"My mother, Elizabeth Burroughs, was also born near Harbortown, New Jersey, August 16, 1800, and came to East Varick with her parents when they settled there in 1812. It was she who stood at the center of the household. It was she who made It possible for me to go forth strong in body and of purpose, to work patiently and bravely for the farmers—for science, for justice and for truth. 

As I look upon the picture of her strong, rugged, placid face, I recall her self-sacrificing life for the good of everyone within the sphere of her influence; and I know that she was a Christian, although she belonged to no church and seldom attended one.

Soon after marriage at twenty years of age, her toils began, and as the years passed, griefs and burdens followed on one another's trail; but she bore them all quietly, lovingly, even smilingly. 

I see her now, the central figure in that numerous, growing family —commanding, handsome, but not beautiful, with that large benignity which comes to middle-life and age, from a well-spent, unselfish life. From the youngest to the oldest child, we all looked to her for comfort in trouble, for instruction and advice in all our undertakings, and for appreciation in our successes. 

After all these years I cannot forgive myself for having wantonly disobeyed her when she forbade me to attend a dance at a tavern of doubtful reputation. This was the more inexcusable since I was allowed to do almost anything that was not positively bad.

Such education as she had she received In the schools of Harbortown, but she never went to school after she was twelve years of age. She was, however, a great reader—considering her cares and opportunities—had a remarkable memory and was clever at mathematics. She could figure a problem "in her head " more quickly and accurately than any of her sons. She was particularly fond of Rasselas, Aesop's Fables in Rhyme, Thompson's Seasons and Scott's Lady of the Lake, the greater part of which she was still able to quote In her old age. She could not sing at all nor could any of her generation of the Burroughs family; but she had an unusual love of poetry and occasionally wrote letters In verse to her children.

My mother died at the ripe age of seventy-nine years In the house where she had lived for more than fifty years and In the midst of loving children and grandchildren. She had been"Aunt Betsy" to the whole neighborhood and a friend to everyone who needed anything she could give or could do for them."


YAHFS (YoungAtHeartFemaleScientist) said...

I can't let this comment from the email slide: Managing a home and being a mother are, at best, now a part time task in the industrial order.

That statement is offensive to any woman who has had a family and had to work. Women in today's society may not have the opportunity to be at home at all times but that doesn't mean that when they are home their focus isn't solely on their children and the family. Too much so in some cases (helicopter parents). To imply that they care less is missing reality. In the agrarian society there was little time to spend on the children, there was cooking, sewing, helping with the chores, fetching water, being a doctor, you name it. Those women weren't all perfect mothers. More is expected of women today and they spend so much time trying to be a breadwinner and a mother that their health suffers. The home life may be part time but it is not somehow then a poor step-child to taking care of the family.

Herrick Kimball said...


What a great comment.

I think that sometimes the historical example, and basic historical truth, can be offensive to modern sensibilities.

I'm sorry to say that you are putting words in my mouth, so to speak. I did not say or imply in any way that women of today care less about their children, or do not focus on their children and family, when they are home with them.

As for mothers having less time to spend with children in an agrarian society, that is a conclusion on your part that has no historical merit. Children, from a young age, were incorporated into the work of the family economy. Entire families worked TOGETHER to help provide for the needs of the family. Parents taught their children how to cook, sew, help with the chores, fetch water, be a doctor, and a myriad of other useful and important tasks within the family.

I didn't say they were all perfect mothers—only that motherhood was different and more highly valued in those days than it is today.

Of course much more is expected of women today. To be a breadwinner AND raise children properly is the industrial-world expectation. It puts a burden on women that pre-industrial women rarely had to deal with. Modern women who are forced by the culture to comply with such expectations suffer as a result.

And, that being the case, modern women who deliberately choose to mother their families apart from the industrial-world expectations are doing something pretty special. I had a full-time mother and my children had a full-time mother. It wasn't easy living on a single income (in both instances) but some people place a higher value on full-time motherhood than others.

You're taking offense at me pointing out an example of motherhood in an agrarian civilization, when you should be blaming modern, industrialized culture for putting burdens on women that they have never traditionally had to deal with. As a result, the women suffer, children suffer, and civilization suffers.

Thanks again for the comment.

Everett R Littlefield said...

And what a great comment on the previous comment!
I was raised here on the old homestead from the late 30's to the middle 50's by a mother who was everything to her three offspring. She, like yours and Mr Roberts,was the glue that held us all together and instructed us daily on the mores of being a good Christian. She was raised a Catholic but didn't attend church either. We were given the option to go on our own and two out of the three of us did just that. A wife living out here during that time period had to be virtually self-sufficient as the community was very small and isolated from the real world.

I didn't think you denigrated working mothers at all! They all worked, just in different ways! God loves them all!!

Elizabeth L. Johnson said...

Here! Here!, Herrick. Well done. Glad to have been a stay-at-home mom, and housewife(36 yrs), and home educator to-boot(22 yrs); all full time, to three children and a good husband. It's an honor!

CLL said...

What a wonderful tribute to a mother. I pray my sons will rise up and called me blessed as this son did. As a stay-at-home, homeschooling Christian agrarian mother, I am very blessed...very blessed indeed.

Viidad said...

@YAHFS (YoungAtHeartFemaleScientist)

Does your conscience hurt? You get one chance to raise children. The petri dishes will always be there. It's not Herrick's fault that you care less than the woman in today's post. Put down the twinkies and rethink your life.