By guest writer Catherine Roberts
What is the interest in a small box of letters written to my Aunt Lois about 90 years ago? I find history, a big mystery, and stories that connect me to my family and Wisconsin.
As I get older I become more curious about the early lives of my mother and her five sisters. Genealogy interests me not at all, but I love the stories, and now it is too late to ask. I have nothing like these letters. What happened to this serious romance? Why did my aunt, and then my mother, end up keeping these old letters from a long lost boyfriend? Was my mother also fond of her sister’s boyfriends?
I grew up in Cumberland, Wisconsin, about 70 miles from the farm near Ono, Wisconsin where the girls grew up, so these letters bring me back to Wisconsin and the old farm house I visited as a child. I also visited Uncle Roy and Aunt Pearl’s farm. Pearl was the oldest of the six girls. The first letter is from a young farm hand who describes a run-away team when he was alone on the farm. He was tossed out of the wagon that then ran over his leg. That story brought back memories of when I was visiting this farm about 30 years later and the tractor I was just learning to drive got away from me. I was luckier and it didn’t run over me.
Then there is the language of these young men. It takes you to quite another time – something actually was the “cat’s meow.” Effort went into all the letters: searching for an interesting story, apologizing for not having news, and worrying about penmanship. But the writing is lively. One young man has atrocious spelling (“Dear Loace,”) but he writes a story the way he would have told it to you almost a hundred years ago.
The letters are mostly penciled, no elegant papers for these lads, a lined scrap or maybe a whole page written on every available space. There must have been a standard envelope, however, since all were folded into 3 1/2 by 5 1/2 inch envelopes, stamped with a 2-cent stamp, mostly the red Washington stamp, but on one from 1923, the black Harding commemorative.
And I am nosy about what sex and romance were for these girls. It felt like voyeurism, poking my nose into Aunt Lois’s love letters, but I didn’t dig up a lot of dirt. Most of the letters are from a young man named Clinton, off lumbering in the Wisconsin woods, who assures her that he has burned her letters as she told him to, even though he treasured those letters. He tells her each was read and read before he finally burned it. How sorry I am not to have those letters and more details of what her life was like.
I know she was teaching school at the time. Growing up, the girls had to pitch in and help on the farm since their father had no boys to help with chores. Doing boys’ work, they all had boys’ nicknames like Billy and Pete. When they were a little older they would go off to a year or two of teacher’s college and then off to work in in one-room country schoolhouses, where they boarded with strangers. Then they could help the family, send the next girl to school, and she in turn would teach to help the family.
Even the candy box that holds the letters interests me. As children, the girls would have had few treats like Milady of Quality Chocolate Covered Brazil Nuts, so even as a young working woman, this was a special box to keep her letters in.
Thanks to the Internet, I discovered American Candy dated back to 1884, and the Chudnow Museum of Yesteryear in Milwaukee has a Milady box dated 1911. The company moved to Selma, Alabama in 1939 and now there are new lofts in the old candy factory building on Broadway Street in Milwaukee. From a factory to lofts; how representative of the history of our cities.
I have discovered history in the letters, especially about life lumbering in the ‘20s in the Wisconsin woods, but the Internet cannot help me with the biggest mystery the letters present. Clinton’s letters date from November 1924 to February 1925. Most of that time he is lumbering in Phillips, Wisconsin, only about 170 miles from Aunt Lois in River Falls, but not a trip he was able to take in 1924-25.
He is a catch; I was half smitten with him myself by the time I finished his letters. He does not drink, gamble or play poker; he is no whiner and works hard; he loves music and when finally, at the end of the letters, I find a photo, I can see that he’s a handsome young man – a keeper, in my book.
My mother always thought Lois was the pretty one with all the boy friends. Yet she did not marry until very late in life. How did she lose Clinton? A logging accident, not uncommon then, or something less dramatic, such as finding out they were better pen pals than lovers? I have only Clinton’s first name, so even the Internet cannot solve this mystery.
Catherine (Kay) Roberts is a retired librarian who lives in San Francisco. Although we may never know why Clinton and Lois never married, we may learn more about them in future posts.