May 22, 2018
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Students use teen’s diary from 1800s to study, illustrate history of Searsmont

By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff

SEARSMONT, Maine — When Josephine Knight was 16 or 17 — she was never quite sure the exact date of her birth — she began a diary.

The feisty Searsmont schoolteacher kept that diary from 1885 until 1888, writing just about every day in delicate, spidery handwriting about her home, her students, her community and beyond. Although Knight died in 1938, her words and adventures live on, thanks to the efforts of many in this small Waldo County town, including the third grade class.

On Tuesday, the excited pupils presented a hardcover book with excerpts from the diary that they carefully illustrated.

“Josephine would be so proud,” Amy Robbins-Wilson, Knight’s distant cousin, said of the children’s project at a ceremony held at the Searsmont Historical Society Museum. “She was a teacher. She’d be thrilled to know her words are still teaching, years and years after she passed away.”

Robbins-Wilson said that when her own grandmother died, the original diary came to her, and she laboriously transcribed all the entries over the course of a decade. Last summer, she self-published “The Diary of Josephine Knight, the life of a teenage girl in Maine” and got copies to the principal and third grade teacher of the Ames School in Searsmont.

Principal Laura Miller and teacher Karen Craig-Foley loved it and thought it was a natural fit for the third-grade curriculum.

“This really encompasses the history of the area,” Miller said.

Knight lived with her Civil War veteran father, mother and siblings at their Searsmont home and taught music all over the area. She went on sleigh rides to Rockland in the wintertime and took the stagecoach to Belfast to see the circus. She wrote of gypsies passing through town, deaths at sea and of the American Indians who sold their wares around the region. She also had a lot of fun in Searsmont, where people would gather for dancing school, musical evenings and all kinds of social events.

Knight stopped writing in her diary shortly after she took a ferry from Belfast to Boston, where she took in cultural highlights and came home feeling like she’d really seen something.

“I have traveled to Boston and back, so I will not die a fool,” she said.

On Tuesday at the museum, the 42 third graders held the original drawings they had done for their book and were happy to tell everyone what their scenes depicted.

Halle Tripp, 8, of Searsmont illustrated part of Knight’s diary where she described having a dream that she was being thrown out a window at school by two boys who were bigger than her.

“I think she had an amazing life, and I would want to be her,” Tripp said. “I really like history.”

Michael Ham, 10, of Morrill drew a picture that showed Knight at a bonfire on the ice in the wintertime. A 9-year-old boy from Belfast who gave his name only as Kayden drew Knight using a wheelbarrow to bring her books back home on the last day of school.

“I really liked her diary,” Kayden said, adding that he learned things about the past, such as how often people went to dancing school. “It was a very fun project to do.”

Craig-Foley said the students used the diary to study everything from geography to history to math. They connected Knight’s diary to all the subjects in the Common Core, she said, and even though she wrote it many years ago, it is still relevant to modern children, who could relate to her entries about having conflicts with her parents.

“Mostly I loved the energy that the children brought to the project and to making connections in their modern lives that helped them understand Josephine’s life,” she said.

The students worked on the project for two months, and so far, Craig-Foley has had a handful of copies of the 101-page illustrated diary published. They’ll go to the third grade classrooms, the school library and the town of Searsmont, which has seen many changes since the days when the teenaged Knight taught school. Back then, it was a town of 1,600 known for a proliferation of lumber mills and as a busy way station on the stagecoach route from Augusta to Belfast. By 1960, Craig-Foley said the population had dropped to 600.

Norman Withee of the Searsmont Historical Society said he appreciated the enthusiasm and care that the children had for the book project.

“They did a wonderful job,” he said.

For more information about Josephine Knight’s diary, visit

The students’ work is scheduled to be included there soon. The children’s book also can be checked out at the Searsmont town library, located in the town municipal building on Route 131.


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