#2: Building A Foundation on the Ashes
Updated: Jan 23, 2021
Monday, 3 January, 1904 - Went with Del Paquin. Went to his place.
Tuesday, 4 January, 1904 - Went to Hville. Had a letter from Em. G.
As she walks on the snow-covered road toward Hermansville, Minnie Gamache ponders the year ahead. At almost 20, she’s becoming an “old maid” by some standards. She has been out of school now for five years. The Hermansville School only goes to the ninth grade, and, well, girls don’t need to finish high school, do they? That’s what her parents said
Even the boys are expected to start working on the farm or in the woods as soon as they are old enough. Ed only finished the 4th grade, and Willie and Freddie got to 9th grade. Some families rent a room in Menominee so their children can finish high school there. But there’s work for young men in the lumber camps and saw mills — they need all the workers they can get — and the farm always needs extra hands. As for the girls, they can marry or work as a domestique. Only the rich or those working good jobs in the city can afford to send their children to high school.
Minnie sees how hard her mother works on the farm. Her hands are never idle. Baking, cooking, gardening, canning, sewing, quilting, washing. Ma says that’s just the way life is, but a girl can choose another life for herself, can’t she? This is the 20th Century, after all. “Isn’t there something more than the conventional life that’s been laid out for me?”
A Little Treasure
Minnie stops at the village library on her way to the post office. The library is tucked away in an upstairs room of the Opera House, a space used for traveling entertainers, school programs, dances and club meetings. The Opera House has hosted religious services, too, before the Methodists and Catholics built their own churches. Of course, the Methodist church burnt to the ground last November just before Thanksgiving, so the congregation is meeting in the Opera House temporarily while plans are made for building a new and bigger church building.
Like all the buildings in Hermansville, the Opera House was built by the Wisconsin Land & Lumber Company. The library inside is a little treasure, stocked with classic literature, reference books, children’s books and periodicals of the day. Staffed and maintained by The Company, it’s free to all residents.
A City in Mourning
Today Minnie picks up last Sunday’s Chicago Tribune to see what the whole town has been talking about. The Dec. 30 fire at the Iroquois Theater is front-page news. At least 587 people were killed — most of them women and children. Police have arrested the theater’s owner and manager as well as the city building commissioner, charging them all with manslaughter. Amid claims of corruption, Chicago’s mayor has closed all the city's theaters for a safety review. As the coroner struggles to identify the dead, the entire city is in mourning.
Minnie is appalled at the senseless, preventable loss of life. “How horrifying. To think of all those people, trapped inside a theater as it burns.” She silently says a Hail Mary for the repose of their souls.
Je vous salue, Marie pleine de grâce ;
le Seigneur est avec vous.
Vous êtes bénie entre toutes les femmes et Jésus,
le fruit de vos entrailles, est béni.
Sainte Marie, Mère de Dieu,
priez pour nous pauvres pécheurs,
maintenant et à l’heure de notre mort.
Building on the Ashes of Last Year's Worries
After reading about the tragic fire, Minnie needs an escape. She turns to the weekly astrology column written by Fadette, one of her guilty pleasures.
“Choose your sweetheart with your heart; make him your husband with your judgment,” Fadette writes.
And later on, Fadette suggests, “we all look for fresh joys with the fresh year and the surest way to have them is by a process of home manufacture — the ashes of your favorite worries being a capital foundation to work on.”
“Good advice,” thinks Minnie, hearkening back to her visit with Del Paquin yesterday. 17-year-old Del reminds Minnie of a big puppy. He’s friendly, kind and adoring. When he’s happy, you know it; when he’s sad, you know that, too. Del is fun to pass time with, though not the sharpest young man Minnie has ever met. Still... “perhaps I can find a sweetheart on the ashes of last year’s worries,” Minnie thinks.
As she’s about to leave the library, another section from the Tribune catches her eye. It’s from a few weeks back, but someone has left this section in the library’s magazine rack. “Richest American Woman Gives Her Views on Men and Money,” reads the headline from December 13, 1903. Hetty Howland Robinson Green is “without doubt the richest woman in the United States” and “whose income is roughly judged at $5 a minute.”
Minnie does the arithmetic and gasps. “Mon Dieu, that’s more than $2 million a year!”
"Invest It in Real Estate"
Mrs. Green has been “received at the courts of Europe, yet wearing a $2 bonnet that will last her a couple of years, a dingy, frowsy affair you would not give to a beggar; clinging so closely to a dollar that the eagle will squeak for mercy, yet paying $12,000 for a red automobile; full of energy, aggressive, grasping, epigrammatic, honest, fearless, clear headed, suspicious, relentless, yet an advocate of the gentler qualities in woman.”
“$12,000 for a motor car... she sounds like quite a woman!” Minnie thinks, struggling to think of any woman she knows who has one thing in common with Mrs. Green.
In response to a question from the reporter, Mrs. Green provides advice to women who have accumulated some savings.
“I would advise any woman with $500 at her command to invest it in real estate. … I regard real estate investment as the safest means of investing idle money. It doesn’t always bring a steady interest, but it is less likely to depreciate in value than stocks, which are always uncertain.”
-- "Richest American Woman Gives Her Views on Men and Money,"
The Sunday Chicago Tribune, 13 December, 1903
Real estate. Most of the real estate in this town is controlled by the Company, Minnie thinks.
A Letter from Em
It’s nearly noon and Minnie needs to make a few stops before she walks the three miles back home. She files away Mrs. Green’s advice in her brain and heads to the post office, where she finds Jenny Dehlem, the postmistress here since 1898.
“Any letters for our house, Jenny?”
“There are a few, including one for you from Emily Gagnon. Is she coming back to Hermansville to teach?”
“Oh, yes, of course. I’m hoping she’s coming a bit early so we can spend time together before school starts up again. She spent the holiday in Marinette with her family.”
Bonne Année! I’ve had a very nice holiday. Have you?
Pa’s masonry work has been busy of late, so our table was always full of food and sweets. Anna has been working very hard as a housekeeper. You can’t imagine the extra work she had before and after all the holiday parties. I helped her clean up after some of the bigger soirées.
I’ve seen many old friends from school. Nevertheless, I am looking forward to being back in quiet little Hermansville and teaching at the country school. I’ll write later to tell you when to expect me.
On her way home, Minnie stops to see her cousin, Mrs. Henry Raiche, who lives in town. Mrs. Raiche is also nicknamed Minnie; her baptismal name was Marie Emilie Arsenault. The two Minnies were young children together in Champion. Their mothers, Aurora and Victoria, are Dubé sisters who were raised in Rimouski in French Canada.
“Charlie is arriving here tomorrow,” Minnie Raiche tells her cousin. “He’s decided to come to Hermansville to work in the woods this winter. Mama’s sad to see him go.”
“I certainly don’t blame him,” Minnie Gamache says. “I imagine he’ll be happy to get away from Champion.”
The Sad Story of the Arsenaults
6 Jan - Chas. Arsenault arrived from Champion
Poor Charlie. He was just 10 years old when his papa, Majorique Arsenault, died in June 1895. Everyone adored Uncle Major, including Minnie and her brothers. He loved to tease the girls and wrestle with the boys. He was the life of any party. Everyone was in shock when Major died, since his work as a surveyor was less dangerous than working in the mines or lumber camps. While on a surveying job, Major fell into the Peshekee River. He must have taken too much water into his lungs. Once the pneumonia had a grip on his lungs, there was nothing the doctors could do.
Aunt Victoria was left with nine children, and another baby on the way. The oldest, 15-year-old Oscar, was already working in the mines to help feed the family. Charlie had to quit school to help out on the farm. Aunt Victoria began doing laundry for the boarding houses as well as other domestic chores to make ends meet. The oldest girls — Minnie and her sister Maggie — were just 13 and 12 when their father died. Aunt Victoria enlisted their help with the six youngest children. Life changed forever in that instant Uncle Major fell into the river.
“Charlie, it’s so good to see you.”
“Cousin Minnie, you’re a sight for sore eyes. Champion isn’t the same without the Gamache family there.”
“I’m sure it’s not the same without Uncle Major, either.”
“You have no idea, Min. It also hasn’t been the same since Mama married Mr. Duhame.”
In September 1898, Aunt Victoria had married Alexander Duhame, a Champion iron miner. Mr. Duhame’s wife died of tuberculosis in May 1898, leaving him in care of six children. The priest gave his blessing to Alexander and Victoria, suggesting that these two parishioners who had lost their spouses should marry.
“It was a marriage of convenience,” Minnie’s mother had told her daughter.
“How have things been with Mr. Duhame as your stepfather? We haven’t really had a chance to talk about it.”
“It’s overwhelming some days, Minnie. He works long hours in the mine, and Mama is left in charge of all the children from dawn until after dark. Although there’s little love between them, they did produce little Alex. You know how much Mama loves babies. Little Alex is much loved and the focus of all attention. But another mouth to feed when you already have 16 children? Some days in that first winter, we had almost nothing to eat.”
“Oh my. What ever did you do?”
“Mr. Duhame rented one of our bedrooms to two iron miners, leaving us with even less space. In the winter, we sleep three to a bed or on fold-up cots. In the summer, some of us sleep in the hayloft in the barn. We have a roof over our heads, but it doesn’t feel like home.”
Minnie’s heart aches for Charlie and her cousins. How hard it must be to lose your father and have your world turned upside down. And then to be thrust into a new home with six other children who had lost their mother.
In January 1901, tragedy struck the family again when Charlie’s younger sister, Flora, died at age 14 of a diabetic coma. Charlie’s two oldest sisters, Minnie and Maggie, both married and left home in October of that same year. Maggie married Henry Raiche and they now live in a Company-owned house in Hermansville, where Henry works as a saw filer at the lumber mill.
“Oh, Charlie. I’m glad you’ve come here for a while. I bet you’ll enjoy being with your sister again.”
“I sure will. I’ll be working at camp during the week and staying with Henry and Minnie on my days off. I’ll probably have more room to sleep in the lumber camp than I had in Champion!”
Another Letter from Em
8 Jan - Went to Hville. Had a letter from Em. G.
Just a short note to let you know I’ll be arriving on Sunday on the 3:00 train. I don’t have to go be back in the classroom until January 18, so we’ll have plenty time to catch up. Can’t wait to see you!
Notes & Further Reading
Disclaimer: While the diary entries above are real, the stories I've created to illustrate Minnie's life are fictional. They are based on my research into the history of the time and the characters, but should not be taken literally. I welcome your corrections and alternate interpretations.
Thank you to the reader who recommended adding a short biographical sketch of Minnie's family to this blog. You can find it by clicking "About Minnie's Diary" at the top of the page and this link.
Correction (1/10/2021): Since first publishing this on Jan. 9, I've learned that the U.S. Postal Service began offering free rural mail delivery throughout the country in 1902. Therefore, Minnie would not have had to make a trip to the Hermansville post office to get her letter from Em Gagnon. To learn more on the history of postal delivery, go to the U.S. Postal Service website at this link.
If you're interested in the history of Hermansville, Michigan, the IXL Historical Museum is the place to visit. They have several excellent publications that I've drawn from in creating this blog. Their website is not working, but you can find them on Facebook.
The Iroquois Theater Fire in Chicago was the deadliest single-building fire in U.S. history and led to many building safety reforms. The fire spread quickly, both because building codes had not been followed and because the existing codes were not strong enough. Some patrons could not escape because doors opened inward instead of outward. Others were trampled because there weren't enough exits. Learn more about the fire in this Smithsonian Magazine story.
Minnie's friend Emily Gagnon was the daughter of George Gagnon and Jane England, originally from Quebec, Canada. They immigrated to Oconto, Wisconsin, and later Marinette, where George worked as a mason. After completing her education, Emily taught school at Hermansville and in a town named Fox, where she met and married her husband, John Barstow. They had two sons and five daughters. Emily is shown below with a great look on her face.
I pieced together the story of Victoria and Alexander Duhame from records found in public family trees on ancestry.com. The 1900 census does show 21 people living in their house in Champion. The records include a biography completed by Alexander Duhame in 1921 for the Marquette County Historical Society (see below), in which he mentions his first wife and 10 children, but not his marriage to Victoria. A descendent on ancestry.com also relays a conversation with a relative who said theirs was a "marriage of convenience."
A granddaughter, Dorothy Swanson, in 1982 remembered her Grandpa Duhame's house as a "large two story house right downtown near the depot and really a very nice home in those days. We weren't allowed in the living room. Our step-grandma was afraid we'd touch something, I guess, and she could only speak French." That step-grandma was Minnie's Aunt Victoria.