Letter #5: June 2, 1889


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.

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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.

Rita Franzoi

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.

Smith_map of Ironwood_shows likely area of home site on Norrie not NorthNow what? When in doubt and if Google is no help, it’s best to ask someone in the know:

                             14 June, 2016

                             Dear Karen,

Thank you for your email. At the last Historical Society meeting we discussed your question and came to the conclusion that there was no North Street in Ironwood.
There was a Northside School on Lawrence St.
You may want to pursue this using Sanborn Fire Insurance Maps now available online.
Thank you for your email
Sandy Sharp
Ironwood Area Historical Society

My confusion grew after receiving Sandy’s email. I’d sent her the 1892 city directory above showing the Smith family in Ironwood. It appears there was a North Street, but where? The clue she provided may have been the best of all. Below is Ironwood in 1888 on a Sanborn Fire Insurance map:
When the map is turned clockwise as one would normally read it, a North Street is shown just north of Norrie. Some may read this as directional; however, directions do not usually appear where street names are written (note that West Street was not renamed). I’m guessing this one-and-a-half block long street was once called North. On a current map, North now reads as Evans Street:
Smith_map of Ironwood_shows Evans street betw Albany and Lawrence_what may have been North St
My guess is that North Street was too similar to Norrie Street, and too close, therefore was renamed. The family likely lived on North Street which was later renamed to Evans.
With a little help from my friend Google, I found one of three houses where the family likely lived. Below is a string of homes on the north side of Evans Street. The two houses on the far left do not face Evans, and to the right, where Evans turns into Lawrence, all of those houses are very large. My guess is the family lived in one of the three center houses below:
Smith_view of North Evans Street_Ironwood

Courtesy: Google maps

With dimensions provided by Josiah, and with an aerial view of these homes, it may be possible to nail it down further. On a very rainy day, I may do just that.
Another reason I wanted to find a photo is that Josiah mentioned sidewalks and that the road was added in front of their home. Imagine the excitement to be able to avoid muddy boots (a little more anyway. I’m a farmer’s wife; this matters).
It’s tempting to think their home was the one on the right “we built on a back street right among the timber,but back then, it’s likely all these homes were among the timber.
This one was long; thank you for your patience.
Up next, Letter #6: stomach cramps, great great grandpa’s lameness, recommendations for Rheumatism, and what Orah got for her birthday.

  5 comments for “Letter #5: June 2, 1889

  1. September 29, 2017 at 6:46 am

    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!

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 29, 2017 at 3:52 pm

      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. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Amy
    September 29, 2017 at 4:55 am

    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?

    Liked by 1 person

    • September 29, 2017 at 3:47 pm

      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. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

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