Monday, February 15, 2010

Mail From Haskins, 1883

This was an early article of mine in Bend of the River. I have a friend who spent part of his childhood in Haskins; maybe that's why I liked this essay.

Mail from Haskins, 1883 by Alan Borer

Some romance has been lost in the world of email. Emails seem to mostly consist of “Hi-How are you-I’m alright, how are you?” and go downhill from that inauspicious start. Of course, letters of the past often did not have said much more. But an old letter at least has the patina of venerability.

An old letter! A thing tangible, held in the hand. With a stamp and a postmark, possibly showing a faraway place, if only faraway in time. And of course, letters of the past sometimes do provide clues to a vanished way of life. I’m interested in the farming culture of a century ago. So when I saw the old letter dated Haskins I was tempted to look beyond the I-miss-you sentiments and see what it could tell me. And there are some nuggets of insight in the letter that I’ll try to share with you.

The Letter

The letter was addressed to Miss Nellie May Williams of Paines, Michigan. and written from Haskins, Ohio on September 30, 1883. The letter, which is signed “Mama,” appears to be a mother writing to her daughter, who is staying with relatives in Paines. The letter, four pages long and written in a mostly legible hand, is full of homesickness: how much Nellie is missed, when she will be home again, and so forth. Relatives are mentioned: Uncle Sauers, with whom Nellie was staying, Aunt Ethel, Aunt Addie, Nellie Feagler (a friend?).
Unfortunately, the family of Nellie Williams did not leave many tracks. The only Nellie Williams listed in the Census of 1880 in Haskins is a one year old girl. Census taker’s mistake or a different Nellie Williams? Or H. B. Sauers, her host in Michigan. Paines, Michigan was a logging and railway town just west of Saginaw. Many of the residents of Paines were listed as “rafters” (presumable logging raftsmen), but there was no Sauers among them. So Uncle Sauers must have arrived in Paines after 1880 and departed – when? The records of the Census of 1890 were destroyed in a fire; they might have told us, but we have lost the trail again.

So we are left without family details, but can recover some material about rural life in small-town Wood County. For example:


“We have nine little white chickens. They were two weeks old yesterday. Mrs. Cobly [?] says that I will have to knit stockings for them. Tell Grand-Pa that that old hen chick could fly out of the coop. Stole her nest in the barn on the hay and laid fourteen eggs before we found her nest. She hatched every one of them. But we had a hard storm and I think they got chilled and five of them died. The rest are as lively as crickets.”

Farmers in the preindustrial world had a constant battle with their chickens over where the chickens built their nests. The farming family generally preferred a nesting box of some sort, where temperature, humidity, and the portions of feed could be controlled. The chickens’ nature is to take a chance of a more secluded spot, and as Mrs. Williams letter showed, will gladly build their own nest in a haystack or a quiet barn. These out-of-the-way nests would be found later. But as Mrs. Williams discovered, a cold snap or bad weather could cause great mortality among chicks living without human supervision. The idea of chicken stockings is a nice touch in the telling of a poultry tragedy. The Mrs Cobly (the name is a bit hard to make out) referred to here may have been Frances Cobly the wife of a Haskins grocer in the Census of 1880.

Picture of a Cat

“So the other day when I was at Bowling Green I bought her a picture of a cat and after I got here (hers?) thought I must get one for you or there would be trouble when you came to see her. Yours sets on your little blue table in the front room and it is so large & looks so natural that sometimes when I go in there I think it must be a live cat.”

Mrs. Williams apparently was trying to improve her home decorating with a picture of a cat. Cat-haters out there will admit that the best kind of cat would be a picture of a cat, while cat-lovers would merely go to the barn and looked for the farm cats prowling for mice, milk, or both. Mrs. Williams thought the picture very life-like, and her text conjures up a Victorian print of a lively cat.

The Fair

“I have wished so many times this week you were here to go the Fair with me. I think you would have had lots of fun playing and would have enjoyed the good things to eat.”

Within Mrs. Williams letter is another, short letter, also addressed to Nellie Williams, from someone signing the name “Aunt Addie.” Aunt Addie is no more retrievable from the records than Mr. Sauers. From the letter we might surmise that she was a sister of “Mama’s.” But here we are more interested in her reference to the Fair. Which fair?

The Wood County Fair in 1883 was hosted by the village of Tontogany, not too far from Haskins. The first Wood County fair was in Bowling Green in 1856, sponsored by the Wood County Agricultural Society. It then spent several decades hopping around the county, being hosted by Bowling Green, Tontogany, Portage, and Perrysburg. A “Wood County Fair” sponsored by an independent Fair Board located a Wood County Fair in Bowling Green, even while the Agricultural Fair continued elsewhere. Thus, for a few years, there were two fairs. There were also independent fairs held in Pemberville and Portage.

It is not clear to which fair Aunt Addie was referring. But the odds are that the Tontogany-based Wood County Fair was the one. The letter to Nellie is dated September 30, 1883. The Tontogany fair closed September 28, corresponding with Nellie’s letter. Likely any fair in 1883 was warm and dusty, which may explain the writer’s next sentence.

Ice Cream

“They had splendid ice cream and I know you like that.”

Aunt Addie saw ice cream at the fair, undoubtedly enjoyed in the time before home refrigeration. Americans were developing a taste for ice cream in the post-Civil War years. But in 1883, most ice cream was still made with a hand cranked freezer. The marketing of ice cream was a different matter. Commercial ice cream parlors began to spring up, and street vendors hawked what was called “hokey-pokey,” a slang word for ice cream that has since fallen out of use in the English language. Aunt Addie relates that she saw (or maybe ate) ice cream at the fair. If so it may have come from one of the new, commercial vendors.

Mother Goose

“One night the little boys and girls played Mother Goose and it was good.”

This one is a puzzle. I haven’t been able to find out anything about a game called “Mother Goose.” There was a popular board game in the nineteenth century called “The Game of the Goose,” in which children (and adult) players rolled dice and marched along numbered squares. Players collected “stakes” and advanced toward squares with a goose, all the while avoiding such squares as The Inn, The Maze, The Prison, and Death (!). Movement in this game was fast-paced, and winning (and losing) came about in minutes. The Game of the Goose originated in Europe. We don’t know for sure if this is the game referred to, but in light of other information, this is a good guess.

Haskins today is (I fear) going to become part of the greater Toledo suburban sprawl that has swallowed Perrysburg, Waterville, and threatens Grand Rapids, Whitehouse, and Berkey. But it is still possible to see the same countryside that the Williams family wrote about to Nellie Mae in faraway Michigan. And this forgotten letter helps reinforce the scene, however impermanent, to those who read.

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