July 6 – 12, 2018 Vol. 20, No. 5


Summertime in the Belgrades

July 6 – 12

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A Midwife's Tale

by Martha F. Barkley

A Midwife's Tale: The Life of Martha Ballard, Based on Her Diary, 1785-1812, by Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, makes a clear cover explanation of this very splendid Pulitzer Prize in history for 1991. You may have seen the fine American Experience adaptation of this biography in 1997.

Ballard was portrayed by film actress Kaiulani Sewell Lee, who also portrayed Rachel Carson in A Sense of Wonder, a documentary that debuted at the Waterville Opera House. We loved the Q&A with actress Lee and Roger Christy, Carson's nephew, following the showing of this DVD film with scenery (Maine and Maryland) and music. Lee has spent her career playing Rachel Carson in A Sense of Wonder, a one-woman play on which the documentary was based.

More than half a dozen other prizes (Bancroft, Kelly and Dunning Prizes, etc.) were earned by Ulrich in this local Hallowell story about a woman who delivered 816 babies over 27 years and recorded every event in her hand-sewn diary. Just like the hand-sewn books that Benjamin Franklin's sister recorded in her Book of Ages as author Jill Lepore explores in her unique history as well. Benjamin wrote more letters to his younger sister than anyone else! Read that story, too…

I hold my 1991 Vintage paperback about Ballard in my hand as I pull it off the shelf in our lakeside camp and recall in vivid detail my original reading about this extraordinary woman. My husband Frank and I drive the Augusta Road often passing the Ballard Horse Stables on the right, then we bear left at the light on the Old Belgrade Road where you can still find Ballard Road on the right.

The big Ballard barn is there on that short road and can be more easily seen from the Augusta Mall just above Sam's Club on the hill. Jonathan Ballard's home has a plaque near the front door commemorating his mother Martha where she lived her last years and died. It is along the Old Belgrade Road to the right just across from the bank. That triangle area was the third Ephraim Ballard Farm. Many maps in A Midwife's Tale will help you find their first and second farm locales, as well.

The historic cemetery was preserved when the Augusta Mall was built. You can find it easily as you go to the movie theatre and note the black fence around the high corner lot: many Ballard headstones are within, but no one knows where Martha is buried…

Her one trip to testify at the Pownalboro Courthouse gave my husband and me another short field trip from Belgrade. Days and days of testimony were required, so Ballard and her husband Ephraim were there for quite a spell. That well preserved courthouse is wonderful to visit. The winter ice cutting industry has a beautiful model to view. Also, John Adams, our second President, managed to trek to that courthouse via horseback one time. The long difficult trip by land was enough for his impatient lawyering practice according to David McCullough in his Pulitzer history of John Adams.

I understand that there was a Manchester Ballard meat business that I had not visited yet…always another historic connection.

Back to the detailed diary: "When it opened in 1785, she knew how to manufacture salves, syrups, pills, teas, and ointments, how to prepare an oil emulsion (she called it an 'oil a mulge'), how to poultice wounds, dress burns, treat dysentery, sore throat, frostbite, measles, colic, 'hooping Cough,' 'Chin cough,' 'St. Vitas dance,' …as well as deliver babies.". Her deep and thorough knowledge was probably gained from her physician uncle Abijah Moore, Yale graduate in 1726, and her younger brother Jonathan, Harvard graduate in 1761. "By Oxford standards, the Moores were well educated and ambitious." Martha persisted in a life long correspondence with her brother Jonathan.

The list of maps and the abundance of charts within the diary story will help the casual reader to grasp how astounding Martha Ballard's daily diary is. Her records of crossing the frozen Kennebec River to attend a healthy baby delivery are numerous.

Sounds like Topsy, doesn't it? The statistics of her 27 years are compared to London births and many other cities. She truly outdid the male physicians of the day. Read A Midwife's Tale and find out that I am not exaggerating her accomplishments one iota…also visit some of the local Martha Ballard sites. Old Fort Western even has a special Martha Ballard tour.