Letter #1: January 27, 1889


Some of you are familiar with my series about my great grandma, Orah Myrtle Butterfield (the link takes you to the first entry titled Cherry Season). I stared a series about her for several reasons. At first it was to preserve our family history, but also because her letters were shocking. Hundreds of letters, that is. Orah wrote and wrote, often more than once a day. Frankly, she was not kind, hence the series name The Malevolent Matriarch.

I recall dad talking about her on many occasions, but it wasn’t until many years after he passed–and after I found and began to read Orah’s letters–that I started  to appreciate dad’s words.

Geier_Rodney and Orah his grammy_dad was about 14 here

Rodney (dad) with Orah, his grammy

That’s dad at right with Orah, his “grammy,” in about 1944. Dad was 15.

In the process of writing about and piecing together my father’s childhood–with “help” from the malevolent one–I started thinking more about Orah and her background. She was a piece of work, and my questions began to outnumber the answers.

Then, both the unthinkable and the fabulous occurred: we found more letters. Unbelievably, they are 127 years old, and written by none other than Orah’s father and mother, Josiah and Helen Smith. The recipients? Orah’s grandfather, Charles Smith and his wife, Maria Pollyann Smith, my great, great, great grandparents.

While I do not have photos of Charles and Maria, I start below with photos of Alfred and Helen*, followed by Orah and her daughter, Lalla. At bottom is my father with his two daughters.


Not only do we have letters written about my father’s childhood, we have letters about his grandmother’s childhood. My head began to spin.

There are 14 letters in this “new” collection, ranging from January of 1889 to mid 1892. I decided that rather than “ooh” and “ah” and put them away, I’d best share.

While I will continue with The Malevolent Matriarch–I will not abandon our “grammy”–I will first back up a step and try to plug in a few more pieces of the puzzle.

I’ve typed Josiah’s letters as he wrote them, but I’ve left spaces between ideas to help the reader follow along. There are many run-on sentences.

At the time of this writing, Orah was 13, and her brothers Charley and Forrest were 7 and 5, respectively. I’ve highlighted in red interesting or new pieces of our puzzle. They are discussed below, following the letter.

“answered Jan  31/89

Ironwood, Mich

Jan 27 1889

Dear Father and Mother,

I have been intending to write you for some time but I havt got any excuses to make only I am careless about it   I write so little that it is hard for me to set about it   this is the first letter I have written this year    Well we are all as well as usual and able to eat all we can get to eat.  We are having a nice winter here    snow here has not been over about 2 feet deep at the most and I don’t think it has been over 15 below zero here this winter    there is one thing peculiar here about the cold weather   it can be below zero and it…

…can work outdoors at my work and not feel it as much as I used to 15 down there.   I have been at work at my trade all winter so far with the exceptance of a few days   I am building a house now out on Sec 33 in Wis for a mining captain by the name of Webb(1) and expect  to build another for his son in law as soon as we complete this which we will do this week   the house we are at work on is 20 X 26 with a lean to 12 X 18  16 foot posts   I built one almost like it here in Ironwood for a lawyer here by the name of Basseth(2) only that was larger   it was 26 X 28 with a lean to 30 X 14  the main part    we put a square roof on the main building    I am working with one of my neighbors by the name of Monroe   an old man but a good carpenter and I don’t…

…claim to take a back seat to any thing around here   Charley is talking to me half the time   he says tell grandpa and grandma he is coming down when he is ten years old   he has been to school part of the time this winter and he learns very fast    Forest grows very fast and he and Charley can repeat a dozen or more pieces out of Orah reader   She is about as tall as Helen and she wears larger shoes than her mother   She has gone to Hurley today over to Idas   Ida(3) is miserable   had to have the doctor 3 or 4 times this last week   Lew still works at the mines in H.(3)  I go away from home on Monday morning and don’t get back till….

…Saturday night   Helen tends to every thing and does better I guess than I do when I am at home    no one could do better   Her father was with us all the fore part of the winter but he has gone to Dacota now and I don’t suppose he will ever be out here again     they have always been discontented since they sold out at Pine River(4)   The children have got some scrap books we got them on Christmas and they wanted me to ask grandpa if he old catalogues with colord pictures of flowers or vegetables    they would like it if he would send them some   (above and to the side: vegetables more especially for they want a vegetable page)   Well I must close with love to you both for it is bed time     Helen joins me in this hoping to hear from you sometime   I know we don’t deserve an answer immediately.   Your son and daughter   Josiah and Helen

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This is a very welcome find and a fascinating read. It adds to my confusion by raising more questions, but it answers others. If nothing, it gives me a sense of time and place.

  1. I am building a house now out on Sec 33 in Wis for a mining captain by the name of Webb(1) This is fascinating. I may not be able to find the actual home Alfred built, but I found a listing for the mining captain S H Webb in the Hurley directory:

March 2016_1888 directory transcribed_Hurley Wisc_mining capt S H Webb


       2. I built one almost like it here in Ironwood for a lawyer here by the name of Basseth(2)

From the 1888 Ironwood classified business directory:

Bassett, J A … Suffolk st
Hammond, A A … Suffolk st
Hanscom, C A … Suffolk st
Jones, C W … Suffolk st
Monroe, Jas S … Suffolk st

And, from the 1892 directory:

Basset, I A … lawyer, office over Bank of Ironwood,

res w s Mansfield between E Aurora & E Vaughn



The X on the map shows roughly where my great great grandfather lived, and the W shows the neighborhood on Mansfield where he built lawyer Bassett’s home. The photo shows Aurora Street three years earlier, in 1886.

From Alfred’s description of the size of the homes, and what I found using Google Earth, one of these may very well be a home my ancestor built. Notice the narrow size that correspond with Alfred’s notes: “it was 26 X 28 with a lean to 30 X 14.”

The homes below are on the west side of Mansfield (and between Aurora and Vaughn). Note from the listing that Bassett’s home was on the west side. Not sure about you, but this gives me the chills (and I can’t stop smiling).

March 2016_E Mansfield St Ironwood MI_street where Josiah built house for lawyer J A Bassett_Untitled

3. Ida(3) is miserable   had to have the doctor 3 or 4 times this last week   Lew still works at the mines in H.(3)

It wasn’t until I found Alfred’s parents in computer data bases did I realize the size of the Smith family. Alfred’s siblings in order of birth were: Henry, Alfred, Albert, Alice, Ida, Mary, Sylvia, Sarah, Nellie, and Annie.

Ida must be Alfred’s sister, and Lew her husband. I was able to verify that Ida married a Louis Edwin Seeber (and later a John Humphrey). H must refer to Hurley, Wisconsin, just across the state line from Michigan.

4. Her father was with us all the fore part of the winter but he has gone to Dacota now and I don’t suppose he will ever be out here again     they have always been discontented since they sold out at Pine River(4)

Sadly, this is THE branch of the family with the least amount of information. I have come to a screeching halt with Helen–Orah’s mother–and Helen’s parents. Alfred’s letter provides several pieces of information, however. That Helen’s father stayed with them indicates maybe by 1889, Helen’s mother had passed away. It also tells me if I learn the names of her parents, I may be able to search the Dakotas and Pine River, Wisconsin (where Alfred and  Helen were married). The discontent about selling out in Pine River may also fill in a few questions. They indicates more than one person sold out; but if her father visited for a few months alone, this begs another question.

 Next: Letter #2–Proximity to the “Nora” and Ashland mines, and the price of Oshkosh matches (and more).

 *One of our many unsolved mysteries is why this photo was labelled by my grandmother as “Charley, my grandma Smith, my mother’s mother” when we know Orah’s mother was Helen. More on this later.

  7 comments for “Letter #1: January 27, 1889

  1. Amy
    March 31, 2016 at 6:33 pm

    I cannot believe you have these letters! Where were they? Who was keeping them all these years!? I am so excited for you and yes, quite envious also! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 31, 2016 at 6:39 pm

      You are going to laugh at me. I had them.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amy
        March 31, 2016 at 6:48 pm

        NOOOO! All that time? I’d love to know how they managed to survive so long. Someone must have preceded you as the family historian and archivist.


        • March 31, 2016 at 9:52 pm

          I’ve had them for about two years, unaware what that notebook contained. My mom told me she’d started a Butterfield notebook, but she’d also forgotten those letters were there until I told her what I’d found. She had been the historian before my dad got sick. He passed several years ago, and she never really got back into it. I love it, thankfully. I have no clue where the letters were before mom copied them…and neither of us knows the whereabouts of the originals.

          Liked by 1 person

          • Amy
            April 1, 2016 at 4:51 am

            How blessed you are that someone preserved them. And that now you will do so as well.

            Liked by 1 person

            • April 1, 2016 at 9:40 am

              For sure, Amy. I think they had been in my grandma’s possession in the years preceding her death; once that happened, they came to my parents’ house and stayed there until mom discovered them many years ago. I asked mom yesterday if she recalls the letters having envelopes with them, and she thought not. It still begs the question of where are the originals. I hope one of us has them tucked away. 🙂

              Liked by 1 person

  2. March 31, 2016 at 3:59 pm

    I can’t WAIT to read this! Hope to after supper! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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