SHOHOLA, PA and BARRYVILLE, NY — The Shohola Railroad and Historical Society has just published a book of letters from a young Barryville soldier to the young woman whom he would eventually marry. The book, titled “Civil War Letters of Ira Austin to Minerva Drake of Barryville, New York,” reveals letters that are not love letters but rather the simple attempts by the unlettered youth to express his awakening interest in young Minerva, whom he calls Nervia.
“Many of us felt that there was local historical value in the letters that were written during the final year of the Civil War by a young Barryville Union soldier, Ira Austin, to a young local girl, Minerva Drake,” said Shohola Township historian George J. Fluhr. “It was agreed by the society, and a group of us began working on them.”
After beginning the task of reading through the handwritten letters, society members found the assignment daunting. “The language was very primitive and poorly written with misspellings and capitalization where you didn’t expect it,” Fluhr said. “There was often no consistency of thought and a handwriting style that offered many problems.”
Still the group pressed on since the writer and the woman he wrote to became the forebears of respected progeny in the two towns. “There has always been a strong connection between Barryville and Shohola that goes back many years with the building of the first bridge that brought them together in 1855,” Fluhr said.
The letter writer, Ira Austin, was born on November 7, 1842 in Lumberland Village, Sullivan County, NY. His father, Benjamin C. Austin, from whom he would learn his trade, was a blacksmith and wagon maker and was active in the movement that would lead to the creation of the towns of Highland and Tusten from Lumberland in 1853.
On January 9, 1861, Fort Sumter was attacked, beginning the Civil War, and on July 16, 1861, Ira enlisted at Newburgh, NY for three years in Company B of the 56th Infantry Regiment known as the “Tenth Legion.” He would reenlist in 1864 and continue to serve until he mustered out in October of 1865 at Charleston, SC.
The letters were written between 1864 and 1865. Unfortunately, none of Minerva’s letters have survived.
Even though they were married upon Ira’s return home, the letters of which there are 20 remaining, were in no sense love letters. “The letters displayed a very conservative moral propriety and even Victorian rigidity according to the times,” Fluhr said.
Each letter begins with the words “Friend Nervia”—Minerva’s nickname—after which begins a very newsy and pedestrian account of his day’s duties and other army camp routines. Each ends with the polite phrase, “I remain as ever your friend, Ira.” Only the final letter written in October 31, does he dare to end with “Yours affectionately, Ira.”
A few times, Ira playfully hints at what could be his unexpressed desire for her. When he mentioned that a friend was married, he says, “As for you, I think you are [in a] rather critical position as men are scarce and what few there is must be married or nearly so by this time. I guess you will halve to wait till the wares over or live and die an old maid.”
At another time, he expresses that he has developed household skills in the regiment and says, “You would like to see what a good housekeeper I have become. Be assured that I would make a good one if I had plenty to cook and someone to cook it for me.”
In another letter he says, “You seem to think that the southern girls have a different tune to there song, you could not think otherwise if you were to see some of them. They ware cloaks maid of soulders blankets there are very fashionable in the city.”
On May 10, 1866, Ira McBride Austin and Minerva Ann Drake were married. They had six children—Nellie, Mable, Frank, Lou, Ralph and Minnie. In 1877, they bought a house in Barryville, across from the shop were Ira worked as a blacksmith. In addition, Ira served as justice of the peace and town clerk in Highland, NY.
Ira died at the age of 76 in 1918 while Minerva lived to the age of 87 and died in 1932.They are both buried in Montoza Cemetery, Barryville. Mable Austin, daughter of the couple, married Edward Smith. They were the parents of Austin D. Smith, a highly respected resident of Barryville, who was a founding member of the Shohola Railroad and Historical Society in 1991.
For 52 years, Austin Smith was the historian for the Town of Highland. Austin preserved his grandfather’s letters, and after his death on February 15, 2002 at the age of 91, his son, Dale Smith, made them available to the historical society.
To obtain a copy call Martha Shadler, president of the Shohola Railroad and Historical Society, at 570/296-22304. Visit www.shoholahistorical.org  for more.