2007-07-08Introduction by Beatrice Strait Lines
From the pen of JD Strait. (1988)
Written a century and a quarter ago, these letters of a young man, who was my grandfather, have so fascinated his descendants that we wish to preserve them for the enjoyment of our children and their children's children. I looked forward eagerly to his visits. There was always a twinkle in his eye, and a mint for me in his pocket, a treat for me but a necessity for him because of the dyspepsia engendered by months of confinement in Confederate prisons during the Civil War.

Justus Daniel Strait, an only son, was born June 22, 1839, in Freeman, Steuben County, N.Y., to his parents Ethan Strait (1816-1876) and Julania Wright (1820-1887), pioneer settlers on Elk Run, Gaines Twp., Tioga County, Pa. In 1840 the family moved from Freeman to Wellsboro, Pennsylvania, and a few years later further west into Gaines Twp., a heavily forested wilderness teeming with fish and game, a young boy's paradise. There were no roads, only Indian trails. There, about two miles south of present Marshlands, his grandfather Daniel (1794-1877) had earlier selected a fifty acre homestead claim available for fifty cents an acre. On this he had built a one room log cabin and begun to clear the land of its virgin timber. After the arrival of Ethan and his family, Daniel decided he preferred Steuben County, and returned to New York State.

Living was difficult and primitive for Justus and his parents. Marshlands was then but a cluster of log cabins with a postal address. The first year Ethan cut down only five of the giant trees, enough for a small clearing in which to plant a few hills of corn. The deer destroyed it all. For meat they had plenty of deer and partridge, and there were abundant fish to be caught in Elk Run, about half a mile below the cabin. This was a mountain stream of clear running water, a tributary of Pine Creek which flows into the Susquehanna River near Jersey Shore on its way to Chesapeake Bay at Tidewater, Virginia. There was plenty of timber, in fact too much, for there was no market and no way to transport it had there been one. The virgin timber was cut to clear the land, stacked in piles, top to butt, and burned for the ashes from which potash was made, the only saleable product in that remote area. Despite its remoteness the area was attractive to land hungry pioneers, especially when the land agent, a man named Raddy, offered purchasers an additional 25 acres as a bonus.

After the Civil War Justus added,50 acres to his grandfather Daniel's original holding. Eventually the family owned a 250 acre hilltop farm, on which J.D., as Justus was known, built up the first herd of thoroughbred Jersey cattle in north central Pennsylvania, and where he also planted the first orchard of fruit trees, named hybrids of every variety that would grow in that climate. For years, around the turn of the century, apples and pears, individually hand wrapped in tissue, were shipped each fall in railroad car lots to New York City markets.

It was from this cabin on Elk Run on September 21, 1861, that Justus 'enlisted, first for four months, then for the duration, in Company I, 45th Regiment Pennsylvania Volunteer Infantry of the 9th Division of the Union Forces, which, on June 23, 1863, became the First Brigade, First Division. Justus was in more than 30 engagements before being taken prisoner at the Battle of Poplar Spring Church, September 9, 1864. Throughout the years of the war, J.D. never lost touch with his family and friends, writing almost weekly to his parents and replying promptly to his friends. He described events as they were, or at least as he saw them, and his insight was to prove amazingly accurate. Imprisoned first in Petersburg and Richmond (Libby), Virginia, and later in Salisbury, North Carolina, J.D.'s survival was a miracle, In Salisbury the prisoners chewed the leather of their boots and boot laces and ate the bark on roots and stems of plants to stave off starvation. Guards relieved them of their blankets and most of their clothing. The prisoners dug burrows in the ground and slept in them for warmth. Many became ill and died. That Justus survived is remarkable, but the greater miracle is the manner of his release. In the Confederate South food and supplies were so scarce that periodically some prisoners were allowed to draw lots for release to reduce the number to be fed. The lots were often twigs, and on one such occasion an Elk Run soldier, Jehiel Wood, drew a twig entitling him to be released, while his friend J.D., then desperately ill, did not. Since I.D. was near death, Jehiel, not wishing to leave his friend to be buried in the prison yard, slung him over his shoulder "like a sack of meal". They were challenged because the "lot" was for one only. The guard, informed by Jehiel that he would not leave without his friend, lifted J.D.'s head by a lock of haft, then ordered them on, saying "You'll be burying him soon enough". Miraculously, Jehiel got J.D. from North Carolina to his mountain home on Elk Run.

Much of the money J.D. sent to his family during the war went towards the construction of a ten bedroom farmhouse erected about two miles south of the present Marshlands. From the plan, it would appear that the log cabin boy had been inspired by the palatial homes he had seen in the south. This house, overlooking a spectacularly beautiful valley to the northeast, still stands today, with the original parquet floor in the dining room still in good condition. It was built by master craftsmen, John H. and Daniel Kase Barnhart, who came to the Gaines area in 1847 from Northumberland County. Here, the first churn was operated by dog power, using a pulley and 16 foot wheel set on a slant. J.D. had the first electric light system in the area, operated with its own charging system. The house is now owned by a group of Lancaster County sportsmen.

On April 5, 1865, J.D. married Anna, daughter of John H. Barnhart. Many happy and successful years followed the close of the war. They came to the farm as bride and groom and lived there until 1880, when ill health forced J.D. to leave. Jehiel, too, returned to Elk Run after the war, and on January 1, 1866, married Jayne (Jennie) Watrous, sister of William Henry Watrous, my mother's father and my other beloved grandfather, who had also served in Company "I". Jehiel built a house which can still be seen on the hill between Marshlands and Watrous. Nine children were born to .I.D. and Anna, of whom eight attained adulthood. All received education beyond that of the common school. Through good management J.D. realized some profit from the farm and the sale of timber. The tall, straight trees, which grew after the years of the first clearance, were rafted to Tidewater on Chesapeake Bay, where they were in great demand for ships' masts and brought premium prices. In 1889 J.D. went west to establish ownership of a timber claim near Forest Grove, Oregon, given him by the government in lieu of cash for military service during the Civil War. Here he had hoped to live, but his wife preferred the known comforts and friends in the east. So he returned to Pennsylvania and eventually sold his claim at a considerable loss.

The south boasted that prison killed more Yankees than did bullets. J.D. was a case in point. By 1890, plagued by the dysentery from which he had suffered since his confinement in Confederate prisons, he was forced by ill health to leave altogether the 250 acre farm which had taken so many years and such hard labor to develop. He moved to Wellsboro where he died 17 May, 1912. Anna died there in 1928.

Beatrice Strait Lines

Granddaughter of Justus

10 September 1986