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.