Letter #2: February 10, 1889


I don’t know cold, or what it’s like to experience a truly, deep cold winter. I’ve been neatly tucked away somewhere in the Pacific Northwest most of my life. I haven’t experienced bitter, biting winters next to Lake Superior.

We are pretty spoiled in the garden department as well; what we plant grows by leaps and bounds–probably doesn’t hurt that I am married to a skilled nurseryman–and we enjoy a generous bounty most years.

I don’t know cold; seems, though, it was a way of life for Josiah and Helen. As mentioned in Letter #1, I will highlight in red interesting and/or new pieces of our puzzle, and discuss those below. Due to Josiah’s many run-on sentences, I’ve left spaces between ideas. What follows is what Josiah wrote; each paragraph corresponds to a page.


Feb /89


Ironwood Mich   1889

Dear Father and Mother,

This is Sunday morning here    it is very pleasant today but for the last 3 days it has been quite stormy here   the last 3 or 4 days in last month and the fore part of this it was very warm here    the snow most all went off    we hant had only about 2 feet this winter and the thermometer only went to 37 this winter(1)    everything is very lively around the mines     this spring the prospect is for the largest out put gross/gain (?) this year we have ever had     the machinery at some of the mines her would surprise you    I never saw as nice    Ironwood stands ahead in the mining business     the Nora and the Ashland mines are only about 1/2 mile from where we live(2) and they are two of the best on the range….

I hope it will be so you and ma can make us a visit this next summer    I think we could surprise you about this country(3)    this is no wilderness     there are lots of buildings here and in Hurley     that don’t take a back seat in any city    by the way    I don’t know but this is a city    by this time we have 5,000 inhabitants here and the mater is before the legislator now(4)    Bessemer is a city now     that passed this winter    I am building a small house here now  16 X 24    the snow is only about a foot deep so it don’t bother much   I think there will be a good deal of building done here this season    Lew is at work at the mine in H yet    Ida hasn’t been very well since the baby was born(5)    she has a nice baby.    what are potatoes worth with you    they are worth 50 cents here at retail     some difference from last winter    they were worth 100 and 125 bush then…

everything is getting cheaper here than it was when we came here    as for potatoes we can raise as good here as anywhere I ever lived and most everything but corn     I mean to put in a garden this spring and I want some strawberry plants and raspberries courants slips this spring if you can spare them(6)   this be a good place for berries    I think for the lower part of my lot is always wet    no dry weather ever dries it up(7) and I am going to try and raise some tomatoes and let them ripe if I can            we raised lots of grown ones last year but none got ripe    what kind do you think I had better put in   what are the earliest and what kind of cabbage would you put in   have you got lots of tomato seed    if so please send me a few….(6)

we are all quite well now but Helen    she is feeling quite poorly    her stomach troubles her a good deal    she can’t eat a meal but what she has pains in her stomach(8)   the rest of us have some cold but nothing serious    we haven’t had to colds this winter compared with last    We are doing the most of our groceries trading at chicago now   we can save most half on most stuff on the prices we pay here and we get things by the quantity(9) and it goes a good deal farther    we send there and get Ashkosh matches(10) at a cent a box here they ask us 5C for 2 boxes.   Well my paper is full and I must close for this time    with love to you both     Josiah and Helen

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1. I think Josiah was referring to a heat wave when he wrote that “the thermometer only went to 37 this winter.” I think he meant as a high reading, not a low, as he wrote “very warm here.” Odd since this 1911 image does not seem altogether abnormal for Ironwood (cowcard.com).

Boys in Skis, Winter Scene Ironwood, MI

2. This is one of the very best pieces of information I could hope for: a location. That the mines were close “the Nora and Ashland mines are only about 1/2 mile from where we live” is a juicy tidbit. I may be able to figure out within a few homes exactly where they lived.

I do not believe my direct ancestor Josiah worked in the mines; he was a carpenter; however, his brother-in-law, Louis Seeber or “Lew” (who was married to Josiah’s sister Ida), worked in the mines in Hurley, Wisc.

3. We know that Josiah’s father Charles E. Smith was born in England in about 1818 or 1819, and that he was a Reverend. We also know that Charles’s father Samuel Smith was a Methodist minister (and also born in England). I mention it now because I suspect this may have fanned the flames of the family feud. When Josiah wrote about this country, he may have been comparing Michigan to England vs. comparing Michigan to another part of the US.

4. Josiah wrote in this letter that Ironwood was soon to become a city. A search in the history of Ironwood corroborates his account; the year was 1889.

5. I’d been wondering about the family members of Ida and Lewis, if the names Josiah mentioned were part of Ida’s family. The chart tells me this and more. The children of Ida and Lew were: Charles, Myron, Anna, Louis, Daisy, Faith, and Warren. Ida’s baby was Faith Merel Fay Seeber.

April 2016_tree chart_family of Ida Smith and Lewis Seeber_7 children total

6. Josiah asked his father for some strawberry plants, if he could spare some. This indicates Charles and Maria live fairly close by, “so please send me a few.” It suggests that by this year, Charles and Maria lived in the U.S.

7. Gardening took real planning, and spaces were limited and often not overly suitable. Because part of the land was always wet, “the lower part of my lot is always wet    no dry weather ever dries it up,” food planning must have been a significant challenge. They used a cellar.

8. While we do know the death year for Helen (1902), it appears she dealt with significant health issues as well “she can’t eat a meal but what she has pains in her stomach.” The family would move fairly soon since her death took place in Minneapolis, three years after Josiah wrote this letter. I do not know the reason the family moved.

9. It sounds like food trading was common, that they had a system similar to our current Costco where we “can save most half on most stuff on the prices we pay here and we get things by the quantity.”

10. I wasn’t sure what I was reading until I searched for matches. It wasn’t Ashkosk as Josiah’s letter reads, it was Oshkosh. Turns out, the plant was in Oshkosh, Wisconsin. At the trading place, they sold for “a cent a box    here they ask us 5 c for 2 boxes.They were mindful of prices, watched sales, and bought in quantity–down to the last match.

April 2016_photo of 1880-Oshkosh-matches


Next: Letter #3–Ironwood City, a seven week old baby, and mincemeat.

  4 comments for “Letter #2: February 10, 1889

  1. Amy
    April 2, 2016 at 10:43 am

    I love how you mine these letters for every little clue!

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 2, 2016 at 10:49 am

      This is such a paradox. This woman, Helen, is THE brick wall in my search, and it’s her husband who wrote these letters. I am hungry for information–she is the mother of my Malevolent Matriarch–but even after reading these 14 letters, I have scant more information about her. Just gotta keep digging. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amy
        April 2, 2016 at 10:51 am

        Well, we know she had stomach issues. Getting a stomach ache every time you eat can’t make you very happy. Perhaps that’s a clue into her personality??


        • April 2, 2016 at 11:32 am

          That’s what I was thinking too, but this makes me wonder about infections, or ulcers. In an upcoming letter we learn about a home remedy. Interesting to say the least.

          Liked by 1 person

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