The collection contains two diaries. The earliest diary (May 1888 - September 1889) begins with a sketch of Davis's early life and contains daily entries concerning his search for a calling in life. The diary narrates Davis's experimentation with marketing a patented butter churn, his activities as a student at Elizabeth City Academy, his pursuits in the teaching profession, and his decision to enroll in medical school. Almost all of the daily entries contain notes on the weather. Davis recorded much of his philosophy of life as he observed the behavior of those around him. He also entered poems that he had written under the penname of "Old Dave." Davis gave extensive attention to agricultural and aquacultural conditions and activities in all of the places he lived. Some of his remarks reveal that Davis occasionally came to the assistance of farmers in his communities of residence.
After an unsuccessful period of marketing butter churns, Davis moved to Roanoke Island in July, 1888, to open a school for children. The diary narrates the day-to-day operation of Davis's school, but other entries describe his solicitation of scholars, their coarse manners and behavior (July 10, 1888); the Republican and Methodist tendencies of islanders (September 20, 1888); the killing of wild geese; the visible outlines of the ruins of Fort Raleigh (July 29, 1888); a brief description of Manteo (August 25, 1888); a bone digging excursion in an Indian graveyard on the island (October 11, 1888); a trip to the Bodie Island Lighthouse and Lifesaving Station (December 2, 1888); and the effects on the island's economy of a shipwreck at Hatteras (October 16, 1888). Among the entries that deal with the fishing conditions at Roanoke Island are notes concerning the catching of seafood and the buying and selling practices of local fishermen. When Davis left Roanoke Island on December 15, 1888, he began another school at Okisko (Pasquotank County), N.C., and describes his day-to-day life in this community. While at Okisko, he joined the Farmers' Alliance and many entries concern Davis's initiation procedure into the organization (January, 1889) and the activities and goals of the Alliance. He also wrote about hog killings (January 10, 1889), a sugar boil (March 13, 1889), and the activities involved with truck farming (May, 1889).
While an educator, Davis made many notes in his diary that dealt with his efforts to open rural schoolhouses and the challenges involved in teaching the children. He comments on the difficulty of an examination he took from Dr. James Yadkin Joyner (July 19, 1889) for his "First Grade Certificate."
As early as April, 1889, Davis' interests began to turn toward medicine. Many of the entries for this month document conversations he had with Elizabeth City doctors about the proper course of action to take toward the study of medicine, including the purchase of medical books and enrollment in the University of Virginia's medical school.
The diary contains Davis's observations of the activities of certain religious groups. Most are the routine activities of Baptist and Methodist churches that Davis attended, but other entries reflect the activities of "fringe" groups that Davis had occasion to observe. These include Salvation Army meetings that occurred in Elizabeth City (July 3-5, 1888), laying of a cornerstone for a Negro church at Sayer's[Sawyer's] Creek (July 18, 1889) and a Negro meeting that Davis attended at least three times (August, 1889). Activities of mainline churches that are of particular interest include a Methodist camp meeting at Colington (July 15, 1888), a Baptist Union Meeting on Roanoke Island (July 29, 1888), various protracted meetings, building of the Baptist and Presbyterian churches in Elizabeth City (November 10, 1888), laying of a cornerstone at a church and a speech by the Odd Fellows and Masons (July 4, 1889), a sermon in a Baptist church that blamed present hard times on the liquor traffic (July 14, 1889), and a reaction to a Methodist minister's "one-sided" argument about infant baptism and open communion (March 24, 1889).
Social events are given wide consideration in the diary. Among these are Davis's observations of a "Mother Hubbard" dance at Nag's Head and his low regard for those who would participate in it (August 3, 1888), the popularity of baseball in Elizabeth City (May, 1889), an Elizabeth City Fourth of July Parade (July 4, 1889), and a reunion in Elizabeth City of Confederate veterans (July 31, 1889).
Davis also exhibited interest in the political situation of his time. Entries that deal with politics include a lecture that Davis gave to a Negro man on Roanoke Island about the need to vote Democratic in the upcoming election (November 3, 1888) and the attitudes of Negroes concerning a new North Carolina ballot box election law (March 21, 1888). One entry (September 29, 1888) describes Davis's observations of a debate in Manteo between Thomas Gregory Skinner and Elihu White, candidates for the First District Congressional seat in North Carolina, and the efforts of William Augustus Blount Branch to seek the Congressional nomination (July 30, 1890).
Other notable incidents and observations recorded in the diary include a brief description of a nighttime derailment and coal car accident near Elizabeth City (May 31, 1888); a conversation Davis had with former Confederate Colonel Granville Gratiott Luke about his drinking problem (June 4, 1888); a fire set at the Elizabeth City jail during the Superior Court session (June 11, 1888); his short stay at Wade's Point (Pasquotank River) Lighthouse (June 13, 1888); concerns about the evil of selling liquor and observations on bars between Coinjock and Elizabeth City (June 2-3, 1888); a speech by John Humphrey Small (June 14, 1888); and an outbreak of chicken pox (February 13, 1889). Also mentioned are the insurance on his uncle's house, barn, and stables (March 7, 1889); Indians that doctors supposedly brought to Elizabeth City to sell remedies (November 10, 1888); Davis' reaction to the election of Benjamin Harrison (December 6, 1888); the accidental mill death of a sixteen- year-old boy and the discovery of the body of a black man who had drowned earlier (April 26, 1889); the death of a person from an epileptic seizure (April 27, 1889); the death of a twenty-seven-year-old lawyer from typhoid fever and his Masonic funeral (September 8, 1889); the effects on Elizabeth City of a heavy storm in the Gulf Stream (September 9, 1889); the sentencing of a black man to be hanged for the rape of a white girl (September 20, 1889); and the prevalence of typhoid fever in Elizabeth City (July 16, 1890).
Davis's romantic interest in Maggie White is recorded throughout the diary. His notes on the interaction between them reveal details about courtship in the late nineteenth century. A series of entries (August, 1890) record an "infamous lie" that an acquaintance had told on Miss White, Davis's vindictive attitude toward the perpetrator of the story (August, 1890), and the settling of the matter by an out-of-court "trial."
The first few pages of the second volume of Davis' diary (July, 1890 - June, 1891) contain a list of Davis's students. These lists indicate students' attendance, their parents'payment records, the date they entered school, their ages, and their conduct in school. This section also contains a book list, a class schedule, a list of pounds and prices for fish, a diagram of a barn, guidelines for selecting a cow, an historical sketch of North Carolina, a list of Greek word roots, quotations of anecdotes, a list of the birthdays of some of Davis's friends and relatives, and an essay about Southern honor.
Davis arrived in Baltimore in September, 1890, to study medicine. Many of the entries written while in Baltimore deal with unsatisfactory boarding houses in which Davis lived; his unfavorable observations of the College of Physicians and Surgeons; his attendance at clinics; his assistance in delivering a child (November 13, 1890); his observations of various operations including eye operations, neck tumor extractions, and gunshot treatments; and his opinions of professors in comparison to those of the University of Virginia. Non-medical entries that reflect daily life in Baltimore include a comment on the efficiency of the Baltimore fire service (October 15, 1890); a football game between the University of Virginia and Princeton University (November 1, 1890); and the burning of the Masonic Temple (December 25, 1890). The collection also includes a notebook (1890-1891) that contains some of Davis's medical school notes that apparently deal with pharmacology.
Papers in the collection resume in 1921 when Davis was living in Carteret County, N.C. Among the items that deal with Davis's medical practice is a small book in which Davis recorded various treatments to patients (1921) while practicing in Carteret County. Conditions treated include broken hips, whooping cough, malaria, hookworm, tuberculosis, as well as the charges for these treatments. Some of the entries include the number of children living in the household and the occupations of the patients. The volume also contains addresses of other doctors, addresses of periodical publishers, and a list of books.
Davis kept a birth record of his own deliveries over the years 1924 to 1927. In it he recorded the township; town; gender of baby; date of birth; whether the birth was a live birth or a stillbirth; and the names, occupations, and marital status of the parents. Several patient account books list in a less specific manner the attention that Davis gave to his patients between 1921 and 1935 (non-inclusive) and the nature of the payments he received. The books record home visits, medicine, and medical attention to babies and adults in communities throughout eastern Carteret County.
Davis owned a dairy farm during part of his residence in Carteret County. Account books for the farm (1924-1926, 1934) reveal the purchases of a wide variety of farm supplies. The records further indicate the amount of milk distributed and the amount of money collected each day for milk. They also reflect the full range of expenses required for the operation of his farm. Davis noted in one account book that there were "no scallops due to fishermen dredging crabs out of scallop grounds" (August 1, 1925). Occasional notes appear in the account books that record extraordinary weather.
Loose material in the collection include a worksheet of algebraic problems (January 4, 1886), a tribute to George Washington (March 21, 1887), a set of opinions on Carteret County's local tax system (undated), notes on the treatment of pregnant women (undated), notes on astronomy (undated), a zoology quiz (undated), clippings containing essays and poems (undated), and a photograph of Davis's office in Smyrna. The collection also includes a memorial record of Davis's funeral in 1946.