I found myself giggling like a kid when researching this one, had to force my eyebrows down. It was an “Oh, goodie!” moment, and I thought, “this is too much fun.”
Today I share #5 of 14, letters written by my great, great grandfather Si Smith from Ironwood, Michigan beginning in 1889. The reason he changed his name and my mistake (anyone catch it?) can be found in Letter #4. Onward.
I decided to backtrack a bit when I discovered these letters (in my very own house). I’d already started a series about Josiah’s daughter Orah called The Malevolent Matriarch, largely because I discovered she was unkind, but also for the gift they contain. Orah wrote hundreds of letters in the 40s and 50s–unwittingly preserving our family history and gifting us with a glimpse of my father’s childhood–for which I am grateful, but I’ll get back to great grandma.
For now, I am stepping back a generation to share Josiah’s letters as he wrote them, leaving spaces between ideas. I am highlighting in red new or interesting facts which I discuss below, and each paragraph is a page. I had a lot of fun with this one; enjoy!
“June 1889 Josiah June 2/89 to be addressed to Helen
answered June 18 Ironwood Mich June 2 1889
Dear Father and Mother, Yours of the 11th of May I rec’d about the time I mailed one to you. Your letter found us usualy well with the exceptance of Orah she had a bad time with her throat her toncils were so swelled that you could not hardly understand her the doctor said that an ulcer formed on her toncil but she is all right again now we have been having very cold weather here for the last 10 days and it aint over yet the ground has frozen here(1) 2 or 3 nights we have over 100 cabbage set out but I am afraid I will have to sit out the most of them
again they look yellow my beets have stood the cold pretty well I have peas that stand 4 inches high they look well in spite of cold weather. I am glad you did not send those plants this spring If I had been ankious about them I should have written for them but I found when I began to dig up our garden that there was to many roots and stones in it to do much with it till fall I think I should set things out here in Sept so they could get a start in the fall our ground here never freezes in the winter(1) the snow comes before it has a chance so you can have your vegetables in the ground all winter and they will be better than they would be in the cellar. I am at work in Hurley(2) and probily will for the next 6 weeks we are
a theatre there 110 by 50 we have it nearly enclosed but there will be a good deal of nice work to be done inside and will take a good deal of time(2) we were sorry to hear that ma had been sick but glad to hear she was better Lew’s folks were here last Sunday they are all well but Ida’s hands are fearful sore she is taking hoods sarsparoula and so am I(3) I have not been feeling well all the spring but I think the medicine is going to help me Ida has taken one bottle and she says she feels better than she has for 2 years. I came near forgetting to tell you what we are the most interested in just now they are making a road in front of our house(4) they have never done anything to it since we built here we built on a back
street right among the timber but now there ant any timber within 80 rods (?) of us we are going to have sidewalks(4) so it will be nice. There is a good deal of building being done in Hurley now there was a good deal done here early in the season but it is a little dull now but I must close for tonight it is bedtime love to all I close for this time write soon J A Smith and Helen Direct your letter to Helen Smith your last letter we got from had been opened before we got it.
1. Josiah writes on page one the ground has frozen here, but says on page two it never freezes in the winter. Living this close to Lake superior presented significant gardening challenges; he was right, however, that the snow acts as a protective cover. Folks in the nursery business in the Pacific Northwest–prior to times of bitter cold–water plants sitting outside to form an ice layer for protection. I wonder how many winters they endured losing plants before the ancestors learned that one. No wonder people were skinny.
2. Josiah once again mentions the theatre in Hurley, with dimensions of 110 by 50. The theater that came up in my search was the Mabel Tainter in Menomonie, WI. I assumed this was the theater Josiah helped build. I guessed Menomonie and Hurley were close by. I was wrong; they are not. Josiah’s comment a good deal of nice work to be done inside made me smile. Hoping to find photos of the inside, I searched further and, not only is the inside quite ornate, the place is haunted. What a great blog post this will make, I thought. Oh, my.
As I dug a little deeper I could not get the Menomonie theater out of my mind (and while I’d like to think that’s the good researcher in me, maybe it’s more a matter of following my gut). I learned that the theater in Menomonie was too far away for Josiah to have as a steady job. After a quick message to Rita, the Chamber of Commerce event coordinator in Hurley, I learned there had been a fire in a theater in Hurley and one was rebuilt in 1889. Bingo!
11 April, 2016
Thank you for the email.
We have a history book here titled “ Early Hurley “, which tells of the great fire of 1887 in which the Alcazar Theatre burned down. It was reopened in 1889. Maybe that is what you are looking for? Hope this information helps.
Marketing & Events Coordinator Hurley Chamber of Commerce
Josiah had likely worked on the Alcazar Theater which was rebuilt in 1889. The distance between where my ancestors lived in Ironwood and Hurley proper was less than a mile.
The Alcazar Theater became the Klondike Theater but burned down again in 1901: http://www3.gendisasters.com/wisconsin/16978/hurley-wi-klondike-theatre-fire-nov-1901
More on the Klondike fire: http://www3.gendisasters.com/wisconsin/16978/hurley-wi-klondike-theatre-fire-nov-1901
3. As mentioned in previous letters, Ida was Josiah’s sister, and she was married to Lew Seeber. The two families lived close enough to share meals and for the cousins to spend time together. Lewis Seeber and wife Ida Smith Seeber:
I found it quite interesting that both Josiah and Ida used sarsaparilla tonic as a medicine given that today, it appears there are many benefits. What do you think they knew back then about this product? One purported benefit was to help arthritis, I’m guessing the reason for Ida’s fearful sore hands. It is interesting that both siblings were helped by this product. I wonder how it helped Josiah. The link below is a current overview of this product.
4. As you may have noticed, geography for me ties together visually the what, when, and where of my ancestors’ activities. When Josiah wrote about building their home, I had to see if I could find the where.
Shouldn’t be too much of a problem, I reasoned, to find where they once lived since the family appeared with an address in the Ironwood city directory for 1892 (see Smith, J A…carpenter, res n s North bet Lawrence and Albany).
Turns out, this became a sharp thorn in my side: I was unable to find North Street. At first I thought it was a printing error, that the family lived on Norrie St, not North, since Norrie crosses between Lawrence and Albany (the red arrow below points to Albany). I also found a Northland Avenue and my excitement grew until I saw that Northland does not cross between Lawrence and Albany; the red dotted line shows no cross street.
Now what? When in doubt and if Google is no help, it’s best to ask someone in the know:
14 June, 2016
What a treasure those letters are! It’s always interesting to get a first person account of the past, but even more so when it’s coming from your own relatives!
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They are, Ann. At first I thought we only had the copies, but later mom found the originals in a file in her apartment. I was overjoyed. We don’t have envelopes. The very last letter I’m going to post–last because it wasn’t dated–reveals a family feud of some sort. Sad, but I doubt I’ll ever find out what happened. Amazing. I want to bring these people to life as best as I can for my children–the reason I started blogging in the first place–and this may be one way to encourage them to read it later. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
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What a fun post, Karen! I loved following your trail with you, and I admire your persistence on finding North Street. I know how questions like that can drive one crazy until you find an answer, and I am glad you found yours!
So why do you think Josiah first said the ground was frozen and then said it never freezes? Did he mean something different by the first statement—like the surface was frozen whereas the second meant a freeze deeper than that?
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Thanks, Amy. It WAS fun to follow this to the end. Someone commented on Genealogy Bloggers about using the Sanborn maps of the buildings to see if a match can be found with the house. I will do that, for sure. With the dimensions Josiah gave in a previous letter, I may be able to find their home. I don’t know what Josiah meant about the frozen ground; I had your same thought, that he was referring to various layers of the ground. ?? I really feel his pain over the garden issue and having to live off the land. It was so much harder back then. Thanks for stopping by. 🙂
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Always a pleasure! Thanks, Karen.
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