Letter #3: March 31, 1889


One of the utter frustrations of genealogy is slamming into that brick wall, again, and deciphering the scanty, often hard-to-read records. But we all know the delightful, gut-giggling joy when a puzzle piece fits. Or several.

This letter, #3 in my INTO IRONWOOD series, has done it all. This is a new, short series I started due to finding more letters hidden in a notebook (in my house). The series based on my great grandma, The Malevolent Matriarch, will continue once I’ve tackled these letters, written by Orah’s father, Alfred “Josiah” Smith.

In Josiah’s 14 letters (spanning from January 1889 to mid-1892), he wrote about several people. Until I found the family tree chart, I had no idea who he was referring to (although I wondered at the names of Ida and Lew’s children; Ida was Josiah’s sister. This chart is posted in Letter #2, and lists Charlie, Annie, Daisy, Faith, Louis, Warren and Myron as their children).

As with the previous letters, I’ve rewritten them as Josiah wrote them, but I’ve left spaces between ideas due to run-on sentences. Highlighted in red are new or interesting pieces of our puzzle discussed below, and each paragraph corresponds to one page.

“Josiah    Mar 31  /89 

answered       May 11 th                                    1889

                            Ironwood City–Mar 31

              Dear Father and Mother, You see that we are a city now     we have our first city election this week on Tuesday     we had our town election on the first Tuesday in March a month before you have yours(1)    it has been cold here for the past week and today it is cloudy and cold    Charley, Myron and Annie S(2) are here today and Lew and Ida and Lewie(2) were here last Sunday    you talk about a baby down then 3 months old weighing 15 lbs(3)    what of that     we have one up here only 7 weeks old(3) that weighs 14   we feed her…(4)

Iron ore(4) and it aint much of a place for babys either    We were glad to hear from you    we have tomato seed sown and this week I intend to sow my cabbage     I had to stop writing this yesterday after Lew and children came there was so much noise here    we are having nasty weather here   rain and snow most of the time for the last 2 days    I bought a Bhl (bushel) of apples(5) yesterday for 50 cents that were rotting    we got about a  bushel and a half at good ones   and the balance we got a lot of good out of   Helen is making up a lot of mince meat(5) out of them     Ida sent over to day and I bought a…

…Bhl (bushel) and sent over to her    It is kind of a lotery buying them but we done first rate out of it     come in and we will treat you to some(6)   School is out for a vacation this week so the children are at home    Charley is over to Idas today    he is going to stay with the boys to night    it seems lonesome here without him for he isn’t still a minute when he is awake     he is learning real fast    His standard in school was 10 in spelling    10 in numbers    9 in reading and 8 in writing    he ain’t went he hasn’t been to school half of the turn(7)  I think that is pretty good…

…Forest grows fine and is as noisy as usual but he is a good boy    Orah is doing well     she is improving fast in her music    She takes a good deal more interest in it as she grows older(8)  I will write you when the ground is fit to set out any thing here   potatoes here are retailing at 35 and 40 cents     they never were so cheap here before     we think your hens do finely (?)   I wish we had half a dozen    Have you any you can spare and what will you charge me for them   I want 6 hens and a rooster–but I must close (up top, he closes the letter upside down above the words Forest grows: for this time    with love to you both    Si and Helen Smith”

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1. Ironwood became a city in March of 1889, but what peaked my interest was what he wrote next about “a month before you have yours” referring to the town election. This indicates his parents Charles E. Smith and Mariah Pollyann Smith probably lived in the US by this time.

2. BINGO! This is what I’d been looking for: names of family members. Based on the family tree, Josiah’s sentence “Charley, Myron and Annie S are here today and Lew and Ida and Lewie” refers to Ida’s family. “S” has to stand for Seeber. Both Ida and Josiah named their firstborn sons after their own father, Charles.

3. Josiah wrote about Ida’s baby girl (Faith Merel Fay Seeber) weighing 15 pounds at three months old, compared with his own seven week old daughter weighing 14 pounds. A seven week old baby indicates his daughter was born around the second week of February, maybe the 10th or 11th, in 1889. I find no evidence of a second baby girl born to Josiah and Helen, indicating this baby must have died shortly after Josiah wrote this letter. With the last name of Smith, this may never be found (and maybe was never recorded). Incidentally, according to the family tree chart in Letter #2, Faith died in the late 50s, the year I was born.

4. I love that Josiah joked about feeding his daughter iron ore. It’s incredibly difficult to get a sense of who the ancestors were; letters help enormously, with limits. Sadly, this is Josiah’s only reference to this baby.

5. That Helen made mince meat out of extra apples wasn’t a surprise, nor that they purchased by the bushel (and does a bushel equate with a tub?). That the tradition was passed down is a delight. I receive turned up noses at the mere mention; however, if mince meat is home made–store bought isn’t in the same league–it makes for one exquisitely fabulous pie. I found references to mince meat in great grandma Orah’s letters from the 40s and 50s (Josiah’s daughter), my grandma Lalla made it when I was a child (Orah’s daughter), and it was one of dad’s all time favorites. Both my husband and I love mince meat; thankfully none of our children do: we get the entire pie.

April 2016_baby Smith on tubs of crabapples_two men along sides

Denny Smith, the grandchild Josiah and Helen never met, atop tubs of crab apples.

6. This is another indication that Josiah’s parents lived close: “come in and we will treat you to some.”  We leave out the beef tongue–stew beef cooked to perfection is quite tasty–but it begs the question of how closely they followed the older recipes. All that work and the yield is only seven cups, barely two pies.

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7. The reference to Charley in school, the “standard in school,” and that he attended half the time makes me wonder why. Josiah was a carpenter, and this year Charley was  7. In the late 1880s did young boys stay home to help their mothers instead of attend school? 

8. Josiah mentions Orah improving with her music. When dad was a child he recalls his mother Lalla playing the piano, often, and anyone in the house joined in and sang along. The neighbors would hear the lively household and come over and join in. Both Orah and Lalla played when dad was a child; these were some of my father’s fondest memories of that time.

April 2016_baby Smith standing next to tubs of crabapples

Denny Smith ~ 1904

While it’s impossible to fully know how they lived on a daily basis, these letters give me a better idea. I am ever grateful I opened that notebook…

Next: Letter #4–The reason Josiah changed his name, the prominent structure in Hurley Josiah helped build, and how much weight Ida’s baby (Faith) gained.

  5 comments for “Letter #3: March 31, 1889

  1. Amy
    April 7, 2016 at 4:25 pm

    That’s so sad that you think that baby died. I hate those stories. I love these letters. They are so colorful and full of detail and give a sense of life in those times.

    Liked by 1 person

    • April 7, 2016 at 4:31 pm

      Thanks, Amy. I decided to enter any baby I find that has died, or any child that died young, into the family chart. I feel the same about the young man you researched. It’s my small way of honoring those people who have died far too early. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amy
        April 7, 2016 at 7:51 pm

        I’ve seen far too many deaths of children and young people in my research. Makes me not take for granted the advances in medicine.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. April 7, 2016 at 3:41 pm

    Karen, I enjoyed reading Josiah’s letter. I’m publishing letters exchanged between my 4th Great Grandmother and her daughters on my blog too. My Kimber letters regularly discussed gardens and the price of produce just like Josiah.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 22, 2018 at 1:44 pm

      Barbara, my sincere apologies for the delayed response, but just yesterday I learned WP was sending my messages to my trash file (without my permission). I am just now seeing many of my messages. But, I aim to fix this by going back to respond to the kind folks who wrote. So, thank you so much for the kind words about Josiah’s letters. It has been truly fascinating. I will definitely check your blog to see your Kimber letters. I first thought we only had copies as that is what I first found, but, we do have all of Josiah’s original letters. Amazing they have held up so well. I think I posted up through six or seven and we have 14 in all. So much fun. Happy researching! K.


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