By Catherine Roberts
Life in the Wisconsin lumber camps in the 1920s, revealed through letters written to my Aunt Lois from 1924 – 1925, was not easy. The letters, preserved for nearly a century in a Milady of Quality Chocolate Covered Brazil Nuts box, tell a story about the everyday news and concerns of this long-ago way of life
Aunt Lois, of course, was young and pretty, but not all of the letters addressed to her are love letters. One letter, postmarked January 14, 1924, is from a lumber camp outside Hannibal, Wisconsin. My aunt must have had a date with the young writer, because he tells her that he is not sorry that they went out. But mostly he worries about his relationship with Vie: does she mean business or is she out make a fool of him; he would “give a quarter to find out,” but “I dont figer on asking.”
He thanks “Loace” for the “Xmuss” package, pointing out that it arrived late but tasted so good “out hear in the gungeles.” Treats might have been rare, but the camp was not without pleasures, since ”a happy-go-lucky guy just like myself haled in hear with a mouth organ he sure could play.”
“Last nite I put on a gig for the boys and they sure lafted. I giged till the sweat roled of me like rain drops.” A bit of a poet, he tells her if she visits his family she would be “welcome as the flowers in May.” He signs off without a name, so his identity remains unknown. Most certainly, he was not Clinton, who spelled less creatively and wrote the love letters.
The first letter from Clinton is postmarked November 13, 1924 from Menomonie, Wisconsin (which likely is where they met), to Lois in River Falls, Wisconsin. He hopes she can visit him since there is a wonderful vaudeville show at the Memorial Menomonie Theater. No further mention is made of this outing, however, which is too bad because I like to picture them together in this magnificent historical theater. The Mabel Tainter Memorial Theater, built in 1889, was designated by CNN as one of the 15 most spectacular theaters in the world.
He regrets their misunderstanding. “Look for me Friday. We will talk things over and get everything straight for once.” He expresses hope that he can get a job in the woods since he is tired of “laying about.”
And so he does. The next letter is postmarked November 21, 1924, from Phillips, WI. He writes from his camp, somewhere out in the woods, on the shore of a nice lake. The camp houses over 60 men, and he writes from his top bunk; they are built two deep all around the “shack.” The log structure in his photo, however, looks substantial.
“The guys in the bunk below us are lousy as a pet coon. This sure is a great life tho. The trees are so thick we hardly ever see the sun.” He thinks he will gain weight, since they “feed well.”
And he does; in February he tells her he weighed 143 when he arrived and now weighs 154, so she can see it’s a healthy place. He goes on to tell her they had French fried potatoes for supper. “You know we have a French cook and he can put on some great dishes, I’ll tell the cockeyed world.”
There was no wine with those French dinners, but alcohol appears in the letters in other contexts. Two men he knows drank “two gallons or more” (what? I wonder) on the way up here. In January, he writes that the barn boss was out to town and got drunk and came back with a bottle on his hip, and fell down, breaking the bottle and cutting himself.
This topped off a string of injuries in the camp: a young fellow unloading logs on the river bank was hit in the head by a rolling log; another guy had his foot crushed between two logs; yet another “fell a tree on himself”; and finally, a sawyer got his head cut open. Clinton never reports getting hurt, although his partner hurt his foot, so Clinton had to drive the team for a while.
Poker also was off limits. Some men were playing poker in the shack but when the bull cook showed up, “how they scattered. “ Clinton never plays since he has no money and his ma told him “not to get to playing poker.” I am guessing poker was not permitted since the men would gamble, cheat, and/or fight.
But they did have some fun. In one letter Clinton tells Lois that the orchestra is playing and he would rather hear music than eat, and that the boys had a good time performing feats of strength and doing stunts with a broom. Another day’s diversion was a tame deer in the shack. He guesses it came from the big summer resort down on Connors Lake (he hopes to take her there some summer) where they had many tame deer.
Let me pause here for a moment to honor the post office. How carefully each letter was stamped with the date and the 2-cent stamps canceled with a wave from the flag. Clinton explained how the mail arrived in the snowy woods. A truck from Phillips carried the mail and supplies partway; then a team of horses made the final delivery.
Mail service also could be arranged on an ad hoc basis. One time, an injured man needed to be taken to the doctor, so the mail went along with him. The system must have worked reasonably well; mail was expected in the Elmer Larson Camp every day or two.
Those important letters could travel the 170 miles that separated Clinton and Lois for months at a time with a frequency that they could not. So he reads them over and over before burning them, as she has requested. There is little for Clinton to do in his spare time but read and write his letters.
Aunt Lois must have been a tease – how could she write Clinton, stuck out in the woods, about being kissed? He “does not approve” but he can’t stop it if “she is a willing victim to his wiles.” And then he gives her his version of a naughty secret message that had been around for decades:
“When you and I my love shall part
Shall in sorrow break my tender heart
I to some unknown land shall fly
Lie down and die as some have done
All is said I have to say
Night is on I must away
With tender eyes protect these lines
You will in them a secret find.”
Lois may not have found the message, since he tells her the secret in a later letter. Dear Abby provides a Victorian version of the secret message in a column from 1994.
By February he is anxious to leave. He misses Lois, and also his Ford. He helps his boss start his car; the buzz of the roadster almost made him weep. He writes, “Pa had my Ford out and went to Menomonie. Isn’t that cold blooded nerve for you.”
His job has become harder; he’s up at five a.m. instead of that “easy job” where he only worked eight hours a day. He hasn’t fixed his teeth since they have no dentists, but he’s quit a pipe and now rolls his “cigarelles,” so at least he doesn’t stink of the pipe anymore. But he feels he is poor with no good luck and out of luck. He will be happy to come home and get the lice off him. She is not to write about candy or maple sugar again – it makes his mouth water.
It’s raining in February, so he may need to leave anyway, since the barns and camp drain into the lake water they use, which is not healthy. He would like to earn more money but how he misses his “little blue eyed sweetheart.” He wants to come home and hug her like nobody’s business. “I’ll kiss you and love you to a fare u-well.” He wants to be hers forever and ever and signs “a kiss for every word.”
He has had the sweetest dreams of her that he wishes were real. He wants to see her new hairdo. He remembers her hair and dress from a dance – does she remember the nice things he said to her? He now knows boys from Wisconsin, Michigan, and Minnesota; were it not for her he would “lite out for Dakota” this summer.
How he loved his “Dear Little Sweetie” – but they had no forever and ever. Aunt Lois left Wisconsin for California and did not marry until very late in life. She left a box of love letters that her sister, my mother, kept for years, and now I have shared with you.
Mabel Tainter Center for the Arts
Dear Abby. The Chicago Tribune, Aug. 3, 1994
Guest Writer Catherine (Kay) Roberts is a retired librarian. This continues and concludes the story Love Letters from Wisconsin.