People Who Save Letters

People Who Save Letters Are My Heroes

Originally published in the “Let’s Talk about Laurie” blog June 11, 2008. Copyright 2008.

Are old letters headline news? Reno Gazette-Journal editors think so; the main story on page 1 Monday was “Brothers’ tragedy is history’s treasure.” The article is about letters written by Hosea and Ethan Allen Grosh, brothers credited with discovering the Comstock Lode in 1857. Charles Wegman has recently sold the collection, containing more than 80 letters, to the Nevada Historical Society.

Wegman, 47, a great-great-great grandson of the Groshes’ brother, Warren, stunned historians by disclosing the letters’ existence in 1997. In April, the Nevada Historical Society celebrated the end of a 10-year fundraising effort to purchase them, paying $210,000.

Wegman sold the letters below their appraised 1998 value of $228,000.

I agree with the importance given to the story, and I agree that old letters are a treasure. Letters are the second best way, next to diaries, to get to know people who died before we were born.

As a family historian, I don’t like to think about all the old letters people throw away. To some people they have no value because they never knew the writers. To me, letters, photos, clippings, and similar items are the only way I have to get to know family from the past. The loss of these items is tragic, and I mourn them.

I’ll never know what letters (as well as photos and related items) family members have “cleaned out” because they considered them worthless and because it never occurred to them they might have value to someone else. Or it was too much trouble to give them to someone who would cherish them. It’s too depressing to dwell on the losses, though. Instead, I appreciate what I do have.

I think my oldest letter (actually a photocopy) was written by my great-great-grandfather Valentine L. Spawr Sept. 6, 1858, from Cedar Falls, Iowa, to his friend back in McLean County, Illinois.

LetterfromVSpawr-top portion

About 30 miles above here on the west fork of Cedar there is plenty of good timber. There is no settlement there atall. We took Claims there and there is good chances yet for others.

I don’t know whether his friend joined them in Iowa. They didn’t stay there long; my great-grandmother Clara was born in Kansas a year later.

It must have been really hard for mothers in Europe to see their children leave for America. In most cases they never saw their children again, much less their grandchildren. I love this letter from my great-great-grandmother Mary Ann (White) Spencer in Stroud, Gloucestershire, England, to my grandfather (her grandson) in Athelstane, Wisconsin.

SPEMAletter-top portionSometimes old letters help us connect with historical events. My Norwegian great-grandmother dictated in Norwegian to a student who could write in English to my Aunt Florence in 1945–

According to your cards your family has taken great part in the war. But I hope they shall all return healthy and unhurt to their homes. (Today we got good news: Japan will give in!) And peace is not far away!

She writes later in the letter–

I have no economical troubles. The loneliness is worse than all. I wish that one of you could come to me here in Norway, and stand here until I am gone. Please, try to do that!

Florence, dear! Ask Elise [her daughter, my grandmother] whether she can’t write to me, and tell me how she is doing.

When my great-grandfather Seehawer’s brothers and sisters wrote to him from Germany in the early 1900s, they bragged about how prosperous they were and scolded him for borrowing money from their father and having legal problems in America. Here’s a sample from his brother in 1904:

I have received your letter, and I have not found anything positive in it. All the misfortune you have had is indeed terrible, but you receive [insurance] just like we do. . . . You will receive not 180 Dl but 200 Dl. But write first what you actually want to do with it. Every time when you received money you promised you would buy something. So far you have not bought anything. . . .

Well, you will receive the money. It is from your [share of the] inheritance that our parents have left in their will. The capital will not be paid to you until after father’s death.

And 1908:

I received your last letter and I understand that you are not doing too well, because I can imagine how one feels who does not earn enough to provide for his family. I have read in the newspapers that you have hard times. But that it is so bad, I would not have thought. . . .

Times here have changed considerably. Wages have increased much during the last years. We spend up to 80 Thaler per year for a maid. Many Russian workers are hired because of the labor shortage. Nowadays, people also use machines. Almost every owner has a reaping machine. I bought one this summer.

In 1915, from a sister:

Well, the whole world is at war. As you know, Germany is supposed to perish, but, so far, God has been on our side and will continue to help. Our dear Kaiser wanted to avoid great bloodshed, but our enemies thirst for blood. . . . Germany is able to take care of herself pretty good. That became clear with the war bonds. Against all expectations money accumulated, and if asked for more, we will manage that, too. . . . America has strongly supported our enemies, if not for that maybe it would be over. The enthusiasm was very great, everybody flocked to the flag, young and old.

Then in 1920:

We do live one day at a time because of the unknown. The word is going around that we this month become part of Poland. . . .

One thing is for sure, we’re going into a bad time–our money is almost worthless . . .

From then on, every letter contained a list of what various items cost. Another sister hinted in 1922–

You Americans are now the fine people in the world, and your dollars have great value here.  Many people here do get dollars and packages with great many useful things and do receive great help through this.

A niece wrote in 1923:

Write to us please soon from that happy dollar country.

From one of the sisters in 1923:

Dear Brother, I would like to ask you if you could help us out with a few dollars–there are many people here who do get some dollars from their relatives in America.

This is the last of the German letters. I have no idea whether my great-grandfather sent any money; perhaps the fact none of the letters said “thank you” is a clue.

My favorite ancestor writer (who beats out even Valentine Spawr, who kept a diary during the Civil War) is my Grandma Spencer. She wrote prolifically, including poems and essays, and had an irreverent sense of humor. Here’s an excerpt from a 1930 letter. A 32-year-old wife and mother of five on a farm in northern Wisconsin, she writes to her younger sisters “Jim” and Matilda in Chicago–

By the way, Jim, this is just a plain dun. If you can spare the cents will you please try and get Joe Joe a little sweater for age 2 yrs. And Mathilda you can please get him a pr. of soft soled shoes size 2 & a pr. of white stockings. And I suppose you have already got your new Easter bonnets so send me one of your old ones. I guess that will be all for this time. Just a few items eh!

Well, I suppose I have to tell you all the whoopee news around here. . . .

1st. C__ L__ goes with ___ ___, when she isn’t with ___ ___ or ___ ___ or any number of others. . . .

___ ___ and ___ ___ got under the weather the other night, run in to old John’s fence, knocked it down, of course that wasn’t much of a job!

A few weeks ago I opened an envelope from my cousin Kenda and found a letter my mom had written to her a few months before she died in 1979; in it she wrote all about how all of us kids were doing. It was a precious treat to bask in the glow of Mom’s positive (of course) report about  me 29 years after her death—thanks to someone who saved a letter and was thoughtful enough to share it.

I could go on and on with samples of letters, but you have indulged me by reading this far. Let me wrap this up by thanking all the thoughtful, generous people who save old letters and share them with those who will appreciate them. I owe the following individuals for the letters quoted here:

  • Verda Gerwick, descendant of Valentine Spawr’s friend, letter from Valentine Spawr
  • Aunt Elaine Olson and my cousin Mary, letter from Mary Ann Spencer to Ralph Spencer
  • Aunt Florence Diehl, letter from my great-grandmother Olea Næss
  • Debbie Unger, letters from Germany, and another cousin for translating them all
  • Debbie Unger, letter from Gertrude Spencer to “Jim” and Matilda Seehawer

I know how lucky I am to have these and other letters. I want to believe the people who save and share old letters outnumber the ones who toss them in the trash.