Pandemic Projects: Half a million words from Frank Hadsell

The intention is sincere enough: I think I’ll keep a diary.

Many of us abandoned the practice as soon as we began, but what if we’d stuck with it? What if we managed to record over 80 years of history with our pen? What if our musings became a first hand account of life during our time, a prism that future readers could access?

That’s exactly what happened with Frank Hadsell’s diaries. Beginning in 1859 (with summary writings that go back to 1834), Frank diligently records daily life in Avon, Connecticut, through 1942, detailing his expenses, political views, and musings on modern inventions. He “bought a diary from Mr. Kellogg for 35 cents, made my first entry for Jan 23rd”. Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, one of our history room volunteers has diligently transcribed these diaries, which total 864 pages, or 580,594 words, completely filling four 3" binders in our history room.

Frank is stubbornly affixed to life before the Progressive Era: he allows “pipe water” in his kitchen, but never embraces indoor toilets; he hates automobiles and regularly complains about parking on Main Street (Route 44), while simultaneously embracing each and every road trip his family invites him on. He never adapts to sewn-in shirt collars, preferring to cut out and reattach them, and he thinks silent movies are far superior to “the talkies”. He putters in his vegetable garden, prefers wood and coal as heating sources, and is perpetually repairing household items to increase their longevity. Frank owns a shop in town that’s rarely open, fueling his love-hate relationship with money.

His writings include the American Civil War, skip the 1918 Pandemic, and never mention Votes for Women. They reflect his attitude and reluctance to change, clinging to the “old ways” as things were “before the War”, (meaning World War I). As the Great Depression hits, Frank spends pages lambasting FDR and his policies. This myopic views grows tiresome, and Frank grows increasingly critical as the years unfold. His judgmental attitude can’t be summarized in one word: he’s an alchemy of introverted orneriness; a curmudgeon whose narration includes elements of traditional gender roles, prejudice, and racism. Frank is unlikely to make one of those “people from the past I’d like to have dinner with” guest lists.

Despite the discursive complaining, there are nuggets: nearly 29 pages of local history about Climax Fuse Company can be found within his writings. He reports the comings and goings of well known residents: Chidsey, Kellogg, Woodruff, Woodford. If he likes you, you’re referred to by name; if he doesn’t, you’re relegated to initials or referenced as “the wife” or ”the husband”. He witnesses the arrival of new technologies, orders books for the Avon Library, and fastidiously totals his expenses at the end of each month. The months with medical bills for his mother’s care are astounding when compared to his usual accounting.

Hadsell Family Photo/Frank Hadsell’s siblings: Clinton, Eva, and Hattie. Jane Hadsell, mother, at right.

Hadsell genealogy populates these diaries, and Frank’s mother, Jane, occupies many of those entries. Each illness, each preference, each mannerism. Long after she passes on, she continues to fill these pages. He speaks often of his sister Hattie and his brother Clinton, although the stories are more transactional than personal; there are no tales of childhood adventures or mischief; it’s a reporting of where they went, what they saw, and what it cost. His brother Wyllis “Will” isn’t mentioned that often.

Frank Hadsell’s mother, Jane. 1921
Frank’s mother Jane, 1921. Photo by Frank Hadsell.

Solitary as he is, Frank does marry, but his wife, Miss M. E. Bowen of Nashua, (referred to as “Mate”) soon returns to New Hampshire. She didn’t take to Avon, and prefers to be close to her family. She dies shortly after their marriage, and Frank doesn’t record another romance. Close friends and confidantes are curiously absent from his entries, and loneliness peppers his repetitive tangents.

All of these tangents have been preserved. Now that they’re transcribed and available on CTDA, Avon can reintroduce itself to Frank Hadsell.

Connecticut Digital Archive Connect is the publication of the Connecticut Digital Archive, a program of the UConn Library.

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Tina Panik

Tina Panik

Tina Panik is the Reference and Adult Services Manager at the Avon Free Public Library in Avon, CT.