Letter #6: August 12, 1889


When I found Josiah’s letters, my work on everything else came to a screeching halt. My series The Malevolent Matriarch about my unkind great grandma took a back seatOur matriarch wrote hundreds of letters in the 40s and 50s. When I came across letters her father Josiah had written to his parents in the late 1880s, my focus shifted.

Seeing Josiah’s letters as the treasure they are, I knew I had to share. We have 14 letters in all, written from Ironwood, Michigan, beginning in January of 1889. Today I share Letter #6. As before, I type them here as written, with spaces between ideas, and each page as written appears as a paragraph here. I highlight in red interesting facts about their life, and I discuss these below.

In Letter #5 you may recall that after tearing out my hair, I found the street in Ironwood where the family lived, the home Josiah built. Icing on the cake is the hint Josiah’s wife Helen gave me about which house was theirs. Read on and enjoy!

It always helps when I can see the players. Seen in happier times, the woman on the left below is our malevolent matriarch, Orah Myrtle Smith Butterfield with her daughter, my grandma, Lalla Marie Butterfield ( pronounced LAY la).

Smith_Orah Myrtle and dau Lalla Marie Butterfield_likely in Tacoma

                        Josiah    Aug 12/89    answered Aug 16/89     Ironwood Mich     Aug 12, 1889

                                                         Dear Father    I have been looking for a letter from you but hant seen it yet   I have been at work the last 2 weeks on my house fixing it up for cold weather   I have been putting on my cornice and siding up   I want to have it warmer here than it was last winter    I have put about 75 dollars in lumber and work on our house(1)  this season   I have a good garden if you were here I could show you the largest potato tops you ever saw   they are

like punkin vines    I want to set out our strawberries now   I think it will be better to set out up here    in any (case?) send me what you think best  but I want a few Sharpless   what do you think about setting out any thing else now    if it will do to set anything else send it along   please send me two or three hundred plants(2) if you can spare them

Si has not told you about my house plants(3)   I have over 40 different kinds and they are awful nice   I sent to Vick and got 2 fuchsia’s champion of the world and Aurora Superba one Begonia Mrs Stuart 2 Geranium’s Cloth of Gold

& Mrs Pollock one Heliotrope Mrs Davis Wood   they looked splendid when they got here but the Geraniums are going to loose there leaves   I shall send in the spring and get a dollars worth of his monthly roses   I do wish you could see our plants   we have an awful nice place for them   we have a double window  in our front room facing the south(4) and they do splendid   how are all the folks down there   it seems an awful while since we have heard from any of you   well I must stop for Si is waiting to take this to the office  how was Nell and John(5) when last you

heard from them   do you hear from them often    with love to both   hoping to hear from you soon   we remain your children   Si and Helen

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In Letter #4, Josiah described the dimensions of the home he built. “I am building an addition to our house  12 by 18   that will make my house one part 16 by 24 and the other part 18 by 24     we have a front room 14 by 15 inside    a bedroom 10 by 12    a closet 4 by 10    in the wing we have a dining room 11 by 12(3)  a kitchen the same    2 bedrooms and a bullery (?)   so you see we will have room enough.”  In this letter, he writes he wants the house warmer here than it was last winter(1). The family lived in Ironwood at least from 1888 on. The house dimensions will come in handy later.

I searched for the meaning of bullery, and one internet definition was the following:

A memorable and versatile name that can relate to the mighty ‘bull’ or ‘bulle’, the French word for ‘bubble’.
Possible uses:
A body care brand. A stock market analyst. A comedy club. A beverage brand. A spa. A sports brand.

OK, then. It seems a bullery could have been a bath space. Am I correct?

It seems that this far north and with extreme cold, planting the garden presented quite a challenge. I love that he asked his father what he thought about which plants to set out now, and asked Charles to send two or three hundred plants(2) if he could spare them. Unsure at first where Josiah’s parents lived, I checked the census records and found that Charles E. Smith and wife Mariah P. Bixby lived in Stockton, Portage, WI in 1880 and at the time of Charles’s death in 1893, he and Mariah lived in Plover, Portage, WI.  Portage, WI is 226 miles due south of Ironwood, MI, a four and a half hour drive by today’s calculations.

I wonder how they packaged plants and/or vegetables for the mail back then. Burlap? Newspapers? Cloth? How long would that trip have taken, and how many plants likely survived the trip?

Paragraph three is written by Helen, my great, great grandma. When I realized I had a glimpse of not only Josiah but of Helen, I was overjoyed. It is nearly impossible to know who they were, what they liked, how they felt, and how they lived from what a record can reveal (my very goal with this blog is to bring them to life for my children). This again is icing on the cake. Helen was a busy woman and to keep over 40 different kinds of house plants(3) shows the determination to bring in some beauty.

Finally, I think I’ve got it. Helen drops a clue about their home: we have a double window in our front room facing the south” (4)  My jaw dropped open when I read her description of where the house plants do best. I rechecked the homes on the north side of North. Tell me what you think:

Smith_view of North Evans Street_IronwoodThe home Josiah built was probably one of the three center homes on this, now Evans Street (once named North Street; see Letter #5 for how this was determined).

Looking at windows, the two story home on the left might have a double. It’s difficult to be certain since each photo is blurry and there is some sort of lattice on the porch. Since Josiah did not mention a second floor in the home, my guess is the left home here was not theirs.

Smith home_possible_Evans St IronwoodHere are more views of the remaining home behind the red truck (in the home on the far right there is no double window; not only that, it appears to have an upstairs/attic).

Based on the 1892 Ironwood directory listing of the family’s residence (in Letter #5), Helen’s description of the south facing window, and Josiah’s dimensions of the home (above and in Letter #4), my guess is that this–the home with the lone bush in front, the one with the red truck–is the house my great, great grandfather built. (Of course, it’s entirely possible this could be the same location but with a different house, the original having been rebuilt. As of this writing, even though Google guesses, I was unable to read a house number and therefore determine the year this house was built. I’m not done yet; I’ll keep trying.)

Finally, I wasn’t sure about Nell and John(5) until I delved further into the family of Charles E. and Mariah Bixby Smith. Nell, or Nellie, is one of Josiah’s sisters who was married to John D. Lytle. Nellie’s sister Alice married John’s brother George Lytle. I recall my grandma Lalla and her sister Hazel mentioning the Lytle family in Tacoma, and they appear several times in Orah’s letters. I have photos of James Hamlin Lytle, wife Cora, and their daughters Frankie and Ida Lytle, descendants Alice Smith and George Lytle, in my large collection.

NEXT: Letter #7. Where Helen worked and how much she earned per week, who was living with the family that year, how they spent Christmas, what burned down after two fires, and a surprising skill of their daughter, Orah.

  6 comments for “Letter #6: August 12, 1889

  1. October 3, 2017 at 11:46 am

    Seems to me that you’re right about the house; but, then I wouldn’t dare argue with a combined genealogist, detective and researcher as you seem to be!

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 22, 2018 at 1:08 pm

      Janet, here is another that I retrieved from the trash. Again, my apologies. This made me laugh out loud. I work on family history, but “genealogist” may be too strong a word for me (my lack of organization alone would set the addicts apart from me). I do my share of digging (spying), and I like to think I would make a great detective…I’m guessing my “finds” may be better described as accidents. “Researcher” is one I’ll take, although if you ask my husband, he would tell you it’s more like, “she’s staring blankly at her computer, again” which can only mean I’ve hit another brick wall. This post was so much fun to work on, though. Thanks for the vote of confidence. 🙂


  2. Amy
    October 2, 2017 at 6:09 am

    It’s wonderful what you can mine from one letter! I think your guess as to the house sounds quite reasonable. And I also wonder how all those plants could be shipped that distance. And where was he planting them? Behind the house? Great post, Karen.

    Liked by 1 person

    • October 2, 2017 at 12:51 pm

      I hope I’m right on the house. It seems reasonable. I think if plants had to travel what we now drive as four hours but what would be much slower back then, I wonder how they survived. Two to three hundred plants? Amazing. I wonder if the area behind the house was the spot since there would be less room in front. He spoke of setting out 100 head of cabbage and I think, “What does one do with it all?” Gardening must have been a whole different game back then. Thanks for stopping by, Amy. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      • Amy
        October 2, 2017 at 12:55 pm

        I can’t imagine it was all for him and his family. I wonder whether he had more land and that some of those other houses were built later on.

        Liked by 1 person

        • October 2, 2017 at 1:13 pm

          And if conditions were that harsh, they had to plant mass amounts to have enough to live on. I have found no mention yet (maybe I forgot?) that they owned more land in this location. That does not mean they didn’t, though. My father talked about huge gardens when he was a kid, and they seemed to have everything in any given yard. Fruit trees, berries, all sorts of veggies, and rabbits and chickens, too. He also talked of sharing as did my mother (she was one of six kids while dad was an only; they all shared).

          Liked by 1 person

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