November 14, 2023 at 11:19 a.m.
When it comes to history, one thing follows another.
Fifteen years ago, friend Judy Sigmon agreed to help lead the 150th year celebration of First Presbyterian Church, Newton. In 1858, a handful of the faithful including a couple of local women: Harriett Berrier and Sarah Wilson. She and her husband Ezekiel lived on a farm near Startown—a considerable distance to travel in bad weather.
Harriett had things easier—her home, which still exists today, was the white frame house, directly across from the present-day fellowship hall on North Main Avenue. Her husband was a downtown merchant, and their front parlor was used for church services.
As our sesquicentennial drew near in 2007, Judy and I set about leading a year-long celebration. There was a special concert, a quilt wall hanging, history notes in the church newsletter, a talk by historians Gary Freeze and Sidney Halma and publication of a hard-bound book, Planting the Seeds of Faith, an extensive narrative about the 150-year history of the local church.
The anniversary observance would be far more than the obligatory churchwide Sunday dinner or special sermon delivered by a returning pastor. Judy and I collaborated to bring Mrs. Wilson and Mrs. Berrier.
The two of us donned hoop skirts and bonnets, to offer a glimpse of what life was like when First Pres was founded. Our characters—me as Sarah Wilson, and Judy as Harriett Berrier—used a rough script, adlibbing about the Newton we “knew,” a small burg with unpaved streets, population just shy of 300 souls. There was no train service. Stoneman’s Raid through town wouldn’t come until Spring 1865, near the close of the Civil War.
We would tell stories about how Ezekial and our family had driven a buggy from Startown and how Harriet had hosted Sunday preaching in her front parlor.
As Sarah Wilson, I wore a black wig and was spotted by one of the youngsters at church who claimed I might be fibbing about the buggy ride—he’d seen “that black-haired lady with the funny hat” driving a car down Main Avenue.
It was all in good fun.
By the time “Harriett” and I had ended our stint, we took our sister act to the annual fall festival at Hart Square each October—talking herbs this time.
For most of the past 15 years, we’ve served as docents in the Kahill House herb garden. For a few years, Judy brought her homemade cordials, special tinctures of herbs, used for medicinal purposes, of course. Think the Baldwin Sisters’ recipe on The Waltons.
Needless to say, the herb garden became rather popular among festival-goers for a couple of seasons—until the yellow jackets prompted us to regroup. Basil biscuits and lavender shortbreads attract far fewer bees.
The two of us and some other volunteers have enjoyed sharing the world of medicinal and culinary plants to festival visitors.
I thought we’d pretty much seen it all after all these years. And then last month at Hart Square, when Judy shared some amazing information. Seems her brother has been doing some genealogical research, and it turns out that their great-grandmother was a woman from Illinois named “Harriett Berry.”
Not Harriett Berrier, but pretty close.
---Tammy Wilson lives near Newton. Contact her at [email protected]
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