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.

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).

Smith Josiah Alfred_1892 Ironwood MI city directory_residence noth side of North betw Lawrence and Albany
Courtesy: http://mattsonworks.com/

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.

Letter #4: May 15, 1889


I think he wanted me to know. Why else would I find this exact tidbit of information among the piles of documentation, 127 years later?  Sometimes, you gotta shake your head.

While researching my great grandma Orah, the subject of my series The Malevolent Matriarch, I discovered letters written in the 1880s by her father, my great, great grandfather, Alfred Josiah Smith. He wrote from Ironwood, Michigan, and in all, I have 14 letters spanning from January 1889 to mid-1892. I’ve been (thankfully) overwhelmed.

As with Orah’s letters, I’d rather read and share than tuck them away, again. Some of you may recall the fuel for my fire when I started the Malevolent series; we are in the possession of hundreds of letters Orah wrote in the 40s and 50s in Tacoma. Gotta share.

I’ve written Josiah’s letters here as he wrote them, with spaces between ideas due to run-on sentences. I’ve highlighted in red new or interesting pieces of our puzzle which I discuss below. Each paragraph corresponds with a page. Enjoy!

“Josiah     May 15    /89

answered                   Ironwood Mich              May 15 1889

Dear Father and Mother    I wrote you about a month ago but have not heard a word from you     we have had letters taken out of the office here      there is another man here with the same name as my self  A. J. Smith    after this write my name J. A. and I will be more sure to get them(1)     I am going to get me a box and then I will have the number of Box put on    we are all well at present    I have been at work most all the spring    I was sick one week so I did not

try to do anything    work here is good this spring or has been good   I am going to work on a new theatre building in Hurley(2) in the morning     it is to be 113 feet long by 50 feet wide     there is a good deal of building in H this season and also here    the mines here are working heavier this season than ever before    they are putting in very expensive machinery in all the mines     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     I wrote you about sending me some fruit(4)  I think it has got so late now that I won’t try to put out any thing till this fall    I will set us out a strawberry bed in Sept so they will get soaked this fall    they do well here   I have got some garden in and it looks like well.    got peas    are up about 2 inches high   we have lettuce potatoes radish turnips and cucumber up    we had a nice snow storm here last night and part of today   but it is all off tonight   it snowed about 2 inches.  Lew’s folks are usualy well    charley

was under the weather last Sunday but he is all right now    I think he was over here yesterday    Truman Sears from Pine River(5) stayed with us last night    He is up here at Kimballs mill(5) at work   he is talking about coming here and going to wok at carpenters work    he will work with us(5)    well it is most 10 oclock and I must close    Ida’s baby weighed 19 lbs at 3 months(6) old     love to all”   

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1. Yeah, he wanted me to know, since this one piece of information IS HUGE in research. That Alfred Josiah changed his name to Josiah Alfred makes perfect sense, the reason, though, something I had missed. Since another man with the same name lived in the area, their mail was mixed up or lost. When I search, I pull up information for both Alfred Josiah and Josiah Alfred. It’s been baffling why he was listed both ways. Yet, if not for this one letter….

2. Josiah was a carpenter having worked on many structures, including improving upon his own home. Historical accounts of most structures I’ve researched name owners, managers, and architects, but usually not builders. Still, I like to think my ancestor helped build the following, given his mention of this “new theatre building in Hurley” (built in 1889):

April 2016_Tainter theater_Hurley_ WI_mableold
Mabel Tainter theater, Hurley, WI

The dimensions Josiah wrote don’t seem to match with the photos I found; however, it may have been added to through the years. I found no other theater in Hurley built that year.

April 2016_Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater_Hurley WIMore of a close up of the theater, one can see the amount of work involved in this enormous project. If you look closely, above and to the right of the arched entry, you can see the year: ’89.

3. At the time of these letters, Josiah and Helen had three children; still, the size of the rooms caught my attention. When our three children were young and we were in the process of moving, we rented a small house for a short time. The bedrooms in the rental were the same size as Josiah’s, 10 by 12. I could hardly breathe with barely walking room around the beds. Although 127 years later, I’m amazed how people, expectations, and generally how life is perceived has changed.

4. “…sending me some fruit” once again indicates Josiah’s parents may have lived fairly close. My gut tells me this may take a good deal of digging before I locate his parents’ home during this time.

5. Josiah mentions a Truman Sears from Pine River–age 56 at this writing–and, while then working at Kimball’s Mill, was to join Josiah’s team as a carpenter. I did indeed find a Truman Sears from Pine River.

April 2016_death record_Truman Baldwin Sears_Pine River WI_1907_co worker of Josiah

It was difficult to find this particular mill in Kimball; for one thing, there were many, and Josiah wasn’t specific which type of mill. I presume lumber, but cannot be certain. Josiah mentions several times the rate of building in Ironwood and Hurley at this time. I am happy to know demands of the time provided work for his growing family.

6. It looks like baby Faith, Ida and Lew’s daughter, continued to grow like a weed. As of this writing, she was now a whopping 19 pounds at five months old, having gained four pounds since March. There was no mention of Josiah’s baby daughter in this letter. Faith was the sixth child (of seven) of Ida and Lewis Seeber (family chart is in Letter #2).

While learning the reason for Josiah’s name change, it helps and hinders. I know the reason, but with double the research hits, at times it’s more confusing. I may also never know which exact buildings Josiah worked on, I do know the area, and possibly some of the houses. I am grateful he wrote down some of the dimensions. That helps match possible sites.

Next: Letter #5–The remedy for “fearful sore hands,” adding roads and sidewalks, and…..did you say haunted?

Photo courtesy: mabel-tainter-memorial-theater_hurley-wi.png, and tainter-theater_hurley_-wi_mableold.gif

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.

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.

Letter #1: January 27, 1889


Some of you are familiar with my series about my great grandma, Orah Myrtle Butterfield (the link takes you to the first entry titled Cherry Season). I stared a series about her for several reasons. At first it was to preserve our family history, but also because her letters were shocking. Hundreds of letters, that is. Orah wrote and wrote, often more than once a day. Frankly, she was not kind, hence the series name The Malevolent Matriarch.

I recall dad talking about her on many occasions, but it wasn’t until many years after he passed–and after I found and began to read Orah’s letters–that I started  to appreciate dad’s words.

Geier_Rodney and Orah his grammy_dad was about 14 here
Rodney (dad) with Orah, his grammy

That’s dad at right with Orah, his “grammy,” in about 1944. Dad was 15.

In the process of writing about and piecing together my father’s childhood–with “help” from the malevolent one–I started thinking more about Orah and her background. She was a piece of work, and my questions began to outnumber the answers.

Then, both the unthinkable and the fabulous occurred: we found more letters. Unbelievably, they are 127 years old, and written by none other than Orah’s father and mother, Josiah and Helen Smith. The recipients? Orah’s grandfather, Charles Smith and his wife, Maria Pollyann Smith, my great, great, great grandparents.

While I do not have photos of Charles and Maria, I start below with photos of Alfred and Helen*, followed by Orah and her daughter, Lalla. At bottom is my father with his two daughters.


Not only do we have letters written about my father’s childhood, we have letters about his grandmother’s childhood. My head began to spin.

There are 14 letters in this “new” collection, ranging from January of 1889 to mid 1892. I decided that rather than “ooh” and “ah” and put them away, I’d best share.

While I will continue with The Malevolent Matriarch–I will not abandon our “grammy”–I will first back up a step and try to plug in a few more pieces of the puzzle.

I’ve typed Josiah’s letters as he wrote them, but I’ve left spaces between ideas to help the reader follow along. There are many run-on sentences.

At the time of this writing, Orah was 13, and her brothers Charley and Forrest were 7 and 5, respectively. I’ve highlighted in red interesting or new pieces of our puzzle. They are discussed below, following the letter.

“answered Jan  31/89

Ironwood, Mich

Jan 27 1889

Dear Father and Mother,

I have been intending to write you for some time but I havt got any excuses to make only I am careless about it   I write so little that it is hard for me to set about it   this is the first letter I have written this year    Well we are all as well as usual and able to eat all we can get to eat.  We are having a nice winter here    snow here has not been over about 2 feet deep at the most and I don’t think it has been over 15 below zero here this winter    there is one thing peculiar here about the cold weather   it can be below zero and it…

…can work outdoors at my work and not feel it as much as I used to 15 down there.   I have been at work at my trade all winter so far with the exceptance of a few days   I am building a house now out on Sec 33 in Wis for a mining captain by the name of Webb(1) and expect  to build another for his son in law as soon as we complete this which we will do this week   the house we are at work on is 20 X 26 with a lean to 12 X 18  16 foot posts   I built one almost like it here in Ironwood for a lawyer here by the name of Basseth(2) only that was larger   it was 26 X 28 with a lean to 30 X 14  the main part    we put a square roof on the main building    I am working with one of my neighbors by the name of Monroe   an old man but a good carpenter and I don’t…

…claim to take a back seat to any thing around here   Charley is talking to me half the time   he says tell grandpa and grandma he is coming down when he is ten years old   he has been to school part of the time this winter and he learns very fast    Forest grows very fast and he and Charley can repeat a dozen or more pieces out of Orah reader   She is about as tall as Helen and she wears larger shoes than her mother   She has gone to Hurley today over to Idas   Ida(3) is miserable   had to have the doctor 3 or 4 times this last week   Lew still works at the mines in H.(3)  I go away from home on Monday morning and don’t get back till….

…Saturday night   Helen tends to every thing and does better I guess than I do when I am at home    no one could do better   Her father was with us all the fore part of the winter but he has gone to Dacota now and I don’t suppose he will ever be out here again     they have always been discontented since they sold out at Pine River(4)   The children have got some scrap books we got them on Christmas and they wanted me to ask grandpa if he old catalogues with colord pictures of flowers or vegetables    they would like it if he would send them some   (above and to the side: vegetables more especially for they want a vegetable page)   Well I must close with love to you both for it is bed time     Helen joins me in this hoping to hear from you sometime   I know we don’t deserve an answer immediately.   Your son and daughter   Josiah and Helen

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This is a very welcome find and a fascinating read. It adds to my confusion by raising more questions, but it answers others. If nothing, it gives me a sense of time and place.

  1. I am building a house now out on Sec 33 in Wis for a mining captain by the name of Webb(1) This is fascinating. I may not be able to find the actual home Alfred built, but I found a listing for the mining captain S H Webb in the Hurley directory:

March 2016_1888 directory transcribed_Hurley Wisc_mining capt S H Webb


       2. I built one almost like it here in Ironwood for a lawyer here by the name of Basseth(2)

From the 1888 Ironwood classified business directory:

Bassett, J A … Suffolk st
Hammond, A A … Suffolk st
Hanscom, C A … Suffolk st
Jones, C W … Suffolk st
Monroe, Jas S … Suffolk st

And, from the 1892 directory:

Basset, I A … lawyer, office over Bank of Ironwood,

res w s Mansfield between E Aurora & E Vaughn



The X on the map shows roughly where my great great grandfather lived, and the W shows the neighborhood on Mansfield where he built lawyer Bassett’s home. The photo shows Aurora Street three years earlier, in 1886.

From Alfred’s description of the size of the homes, and what I found using Google Earth, one of these may very well be a home my ancestor built. Notice the narrow size that correspond with Alfred’s notes: “it was 26 X 28 with a lean to 30 X 14.”

The homes below are on the west side of Mansfield (and between Aurora and Vaughn). Note from the listing that Bassett’s home was on the west side. Not sure about you, but this gives me the chills (and I can’t stop smiling).

March 2016_E Mansfield St Ironwood MI_street where Josiah built house for lawyer J A Bassett_Untitled

3. Ida(3) is miserable   had to have the doctor 3 or 4 times this last week   Lew still works at the mines in H.(3)

It wasn’t until I found Alfred’s parents in computer data bases did I realize the size of the Smith family. Alfred’s siblings in order of birth were: Henry, Alfred, Albert, Alice, Ida, Mary, Sylvia, Sarah, Nellie, and Annie.

Ida must be Alfred’s sister, and Lew her husband. I was able to verify that Ida married a Louis Edwin Seeber (and later a John Humphrey). H must refer to Hurley, Wisconsin, just across the state line from Michigan.

4. Her father was with us all the fore part of the winter but he has gone to Dacota now and I don’t suppose he will ever be out here again     they have always been discontented since they sold out at Pine River(4)

Sadly, this is THE branch of the family with the least amount of information. I have come to a screeching halt with Helen–Orah’s mother–and Helen’s parents. Alfred’s letter provides several pieces of information, however. That Helen’s father stayed with them indicates maybe by 1889, Helen’s mother had passed away. It also tells me if I learn the names of her parents, I may be able to search the Dakotas and Pine River, Wisconsin (where Alfred and  Helen were married). The discontent about selling out in Pine River may also fill in a few questions. They indicates more than one person sold out; but if her father visited for a few months alone, this begs another question.

 Next: Letter #2–Proximity to the “Nora” and Ashland mines, and the price of Oshkosh matches (and more).

 *One of our many unsolved mysteries is why this photo was labelled by my grandmother as “Charley, my grandma Smith, my mother’s mother” when we know Orah’s mother was Helen. More on this later.