It’s really, really cold out there. Here in Morris, we’re deep in the deep freeze, in a place where exposed flesh only stings for a little while before the skin goes novocaine numb and you begin to worry that ice crystals are killing your dermis; where I live across the street from my office and I look out at the dead grey white world in the morning and wonder whether it’s worth it to hazard the walk. The only thing that gets me moving is that I’ve programmed our furnace to drop the temperature in the house during the day, when supposedly none of us are here anyway, as a cost-cutting measure — so I scuttle from a cold house through a brief bit of deadly freezing frigidity to reach a little oasis of warmth. And then I don’t want to come home again.
The house takes a while to warm up, usually not until it’s time for me to go to bed…and then my poor suffering wife has to deal with a body verging on hypothermia.
So anyway, to put it all in perspective, this morning I had to run some errands around town, and no way was I walking in this cold. I drove. Five blocks downtown, another five blocks to the edge of town and the local pharmacy, something I’d normally take care of on foot. While I was out, I happened to see our local free weekly for senior citizens (no, I don’t normally read it!) and I saw a front page story on a little local history that caught my eye: Emma’s tragic story. It’s about the only black person living in the area, over 140 years ago, a 12-year-old girl named Emma.
In its infancy, Glenwood was a village of homely wooden buildings scattered between mud paths near the east end of Lake Whipple (now called Lake Minnewaska) in the newly organized county of Pope. Census data reveals barely 200 people living in town when two men arrived from the south in 1870 – the affluent Mr. James B. Peabody and his associate, Mr. Robinson. They built a hotel called the Fountain House Hotel. By running a pipe from the town spring, Peabody and Robinson were able to erect a fountain in the front yard (thus the name Fountain House).
More interesting than the fountain, perhaps, was the fact that Peabody and his wife brought with them a child of about 12, referred to in documents at the Pope County Historical Society as “the little slave girl.” She was, the census declares, the only “colored” person in the county. Known as Emma Ferris (or Ross or Peabody), the youngster was “require to work very hard” for only room and board.
Very hard, and with little reward, only punishment: there was something called a “blacksnake whip” and stabbings in the palm with needles. Her only friend was another servant at the hotel, Ingeborg, who went home for Christmas in 1871.
Then, after a severe beating, Emma decided to run away and find Ingebord at her family farm, 5 miles away, on December 23, 1871.
Did I tell you how cold it gets around here in December? Like knives in the wind, with the ground sucking all the heat of your body and snow in wicked drifts.
Read the whole thing. But the word “tragic” in the title tells you it’s not going to have a happy ending.