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Minnie's Diary #11: Farm Wife, Hard Life



Monday, 7 March 1904 - Went to Hville with Mrs. Chenard George

-- Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Mich., 1904


Don’t Marry a Farmer


A woman’s work never ended on the farm. She got out of bed at 4 a.m. to start the fire in the kitchen stove and sweep the floor. If her husband wasn’t in the lumber camps, he milked the cows while she made breakfast. Otherwise, she did the milking, or sent one of her children to the barn to relieve the cows of their burden. Cows needed to be milked twice a day, no matter what.


Hanna Benson, early 1900s Nadeau Twp. farm

After breakfast, while her husband headed off to the fields, woods or tool shed, she fed and watered the animals, got the children dressed, and separated the cream for the creamery to pick up. During the day, she tended the garden, cooked dinner, mended and sewed clothes, made rag carpets, and kept busy with cleaning and other housework. When her husband needed her help in the fields, she went. Her day might end at 10 p.m., when she finished preparations for the next morning’s breakfast.

Hanna & child in garden, early 1900s

“The addition of two children to our family never altered or interfered with the established order of things.… I still hoed and tended the truck patches and garden, still watered the stock and put out feed for them, still went to the hay field and helped harvest and house the bounteous crops; still helped harvest the golden grain later on when the cereals ripened; often took one team and dragged ground to prepare the seed bed for wheat for weeks at the time, while my husband was using the other team on another farm which he owns several miles away.”

— One Farmer’s Wife, Independent, LVIII (Feb. 9, 1905), from University of Houston Digital History website.


“I don’t see how you do it,” Minnie told Delia Chenard as she drove them to Hermansville in their small horse-drawn sled.

“We do the best we can. But if you don’t want to be a farm wife, don’t marry a farmer,” Mrs. Chenard advised.

Missing French Canada

In Hermansville, Minnie served as Delia’s translator at the general store. Without an interpreter, immigrants had to pantomime what they wanted from the store clerk — sometimes with comical results. One year, Delia wanted to buy two oranges for the children’s Christmas stockings, but the clerk kept showing her corsets.

Though she’d lived in the United States since 1880, Delia couldn’t speak English, and she didn’t read or write. While Delia's 12-year-old daughter, Jennie, watched 5-year-old George and 2-year-old Freddie, she and Minnie rode to Hermansville to shop.

Grocery Ad, Escanaba, Michigan, March 1904

Like several other neighbors, Delia came from Rimouski in French Canada, where Minnie was born. Minnie didn’t remember the parish along La Rivière Ste. Laurence, since she was a baby when they moved away in 1884.

“Do you miss Rimouski?” Minnie asked. “Mama doesn’t like to talk about it. She gets misty-eyed whenever I bring it up.”

“I miss the water. I miss our culture française, but I don’t miss being poor. There’s work here for the men. We can have our own farm. And I’m blessed to have many family here in Hermansville.”


Minnie didn’t know exactly how her mother’s Dubé family was related to Delia Duby and her family. She just knew they were cousins somehow. Four of Delia’s siblings lived on nearby farms. Brothers Louis, 44, and Joseph, 39, had their own farms. Her father John, 68, and brother Alfred, 24, a millworker, were living with her sister, Mrs. Leo (Mary) Raiche.



"Dubey" farmland near Hermansville in 1912. Joe Duby lived in a rented home in town.

“We should call it Dubyville,” Minnie thought.


Aurora Gamache’s sister, Victoria Dubé Arsenault Duhame, lived in Champion, Mich., but the Gamaches had no other family nearby. Instead, their neighbors had become family, from the day they arrived to clear the stump-filled land on their farm. Minnie recalled how, at age 11, she and her younger brothers helped clear the land, though her parents did most of the work and their new neighbors helped as much as they could.


“[T]here was a large family of us; and the four oldest being girls, we had to take the place of boys in the work in the new home. Father felled the large trees and then we would help him split them up into logs, and then we would take the team to draw them up into large heaps to burn them to ashes. … After the land was cleared of the wood there were the fences to be built around the fields. We laid the rails as father split them from the logs into fences. Then the land had to be got ready for crops to be planted, and it then had to be hoed and cared for, and there was the harvesting of all the crops and so it went from one year to another, but we did not get weary of it, for the little word of love was in all we did.”


— A Michigan Farmer’s Wife, 1905, from University of Houston Digital History website, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/voices/social_history/7women_farm.cfm


C’est la vie


Tuesday, 8 March, 1904 - sewed rag carpet. went to Mrs. Desjardines
Wednesday, 9 March, 1904 - Went to Mrs. Paquin. Emily walked as far as the hill with me.

-- Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Mich., 1904



“Hard work? C’est la vie,” said Mrs. Desjardines, when Minnie asked her about the difficulties of farm life.


“That’s life?” Minnie replied.


“Yes, hard work is just part of life, whether you live on a farm, in town or in the city.”

“Yes, but you can live in town, make a good living at the mill and have more time for leisure. And they have electricity in town.”


“Leisure? What would I do with leisure?” said Mrs. Desjardines. “There’s fresh air and food here on the farm. You don’t hear the factory whistles, trains and machines all day long. And tramps aren’t coming off the trains and knocking on your door, looking for handouts.”



“Yah, we just have lumberjacks instead, looking for beer,” Minnie said with a smile.


Minnie loved the fresh air and good food, but she was drawn to village life. She knew how hard a farmer’s wife worked to survive. Pa was gone for hours in the fields, or for days in the winter, when he worked at the lumber camp to pay off their mortgage. She didn't know if she could find contentment in farm life.


“I have never feared that I should rust out. I am busy, busy, and must be quick and methodical or be swamped. But when I am woefully tired from the dairy work, the pickling, the canning, etc., cannot you see that it is some compensation to know that my husband and babies will have pure cream and butter, that my pickles are not crisp because of the use of alum, that boric acid does not enter into my chicken salad and boned turkey, and that the latter are really chicken and turkey?”


-- Mrs. F. A. Nisewanger, Blenco, Iowa, from from University of Houston Digital History website, https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/voices/social_history/7women_farm.cfm



Blizzards Sweep West



Thursday, 10 March, 1904 - had a storm. sewed at carpet all day

-- Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Mich., 1904


Will this horrible winter never end? Minnie took shelter at home, sitting close to the kitchen stove and sewing rags into carpets.




-- "By Fierce Storm," The Detroit Free Press, March 11, 1904


Men Have a Hard Time, Too



Friday, 11 March, 1904 - scrubbed floor and worked for Mrs. Paquin in P.M.

-- Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Mich., 1904


Minnie was helping Mrs. Paquin with spring cleaning and other chores when they learned that the Shingle Manufacturers’ Association had met in Escanaba on Tuesday, and issued a statement aimed at organized labor. The companies promised fair treatment but also opposed “restriction of output, sympathetic strikes, lockouts and boycott.”


“While disavowing any intention to interfere with proper functions of labor organizations, we will not admit of any interference with the management of our business. It is the privilege of any employee to leave our employ when he so desires, and it is our privilege to discharge any employee when we see fit.”

—Shingle Manufacturers' statement, The Iron Port, Escanaba, Mich., March 12, 1904


“What will the men think when they get back from the woods?” Minnie asked.

“Looks like the company is scared,” said Mrs. Paquin. “Hermansville is a good town, but men working in the mill face danger every day. On Wednesday, two railroad cars filled with logs got away from the crews. They’re lucky no one was killed.”

“What about the pay? Don’t workers get paid more in Escanaba?”


Oui. It’s difficult to get by. Before the men get their pay, the company takes out our rent or mortgage payment, our bill at the company store, and fees for ice and kerosene. They own nearly all the property in town — almost every cottage, every boarding house, the store, the opera house.”

“And my brother says they take 2 percent of his paycheck for the company doctor.”

Oui. Out here, at least we have a chance to own our own farm some day, when the mortgage is paid off.”

“Wouldn’t it be better if the children didn’t quit school to help out on the farm? If they’re not educated, their life will be just the same.”


“Perhaps, but some families need their help on the farm. But compared to where we came from, we have a good life. It could be worse.”


“The luxuries of the rich we do not ask; we do want butter for our bread and meat for our soup. We do not want silk and laces for our wives and daughters. But we want to earn enough to buy them a clean calico once in a while. Our boys are not expecting automobiles and membership cards in clubs of every city, but they want their fathers to earn enough to keep them at school until they have a reasonably fair education.”

— Pennsylvania coal miner, The Independent, LIV (June 12, 1902)

https://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/voices/social_history/14miner.cfm



Celebrating Mid-Lent, French Style


Saturday, 12 March, 1904 - went to Mrs. Paquin and had a good time. Em walk up hill with me.

-- Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Mich., 1904


“Halfway through Lent,” Del Paquin said. “Thank God.”


“Oh, I remember how we used to have a carnival to celebrate Mi-Carême,” said Mrs. Paquin, looking wistfully into the distance. “We had a masquarade. We danced. Ate crepes. Paris and some Canadien towns still have a big Carnaval.”

“What does the church say to that?” Emily asked.

“Oh, they try to ignore it. Everyone wears masks and baggy clothing to ‘fool’ the priest. Those were fun times.”





Father Glaser Is Not Happy


Sunday, 13 March, 1904 - went to mass AM. went to call on Em & Perl with Del. had circus. entertained Del in eve.

-- Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Mich., 1904


After Mass, Minnie and Del visited Mrs. Archie Wallette at her home in Hermansville. Archie was away working as an engineer for the company railroad, getting the last logs from the far-flung camps. Emily had become friends with his 21-year-old wife, Pearl.

“Sounds like Father Glaser is not happy about our Sunday soirees,” Del said, standing up to imitate the priest with the heavy German accent, using his best authoritative voice.


“ ‘I am disappointed to learn that some parishioners are drinking beer together on Sunday during Lent. The Lord’s Day is not for parties. The church expects that you will use it as a day of rest. I suggest you spend the day in joyful prayer.’ ”

The women laughed at Del’s imitation.


“I’m glad Ma couldn’t understand what Father Glaser said, but I think Papa picked up his meaning,” Minnie said. “No party at our house today.”

“Well, let’s have one here, instead,” said Pearl.

They spent the afternoon playing cards and playfully arguing about who had the tougher job: a farm wife or her husband. In this argument, Del found himself outnumbered by the three women.


“A farmer has long days with hard, physical labor.”

“And his wife doesn’t?”


“Yes, but .…”


“When a man takes a rest, he puts his feet up and pretty soon he’s napping. When his wife sits down, her hands are still busy — with knitting, crocheting, mending, sewing,” Pearl pointed out.

“Look at your ma!” Minnie said. “She never gets a rest.”


“Women just need to learn how to rest!” Del said.


Minnie glared at Del as though that was the dumbest thing she'd ever heard.


"Il a du front tout let tour de la tete," she said.


Notes & Further Reading


Disclaimer: These diary entries above are real, but the stories I've created to illustrate Minnie's life are fictional. While I've tried to research the history of the time and the characters, any account of actions or dialogue comes from my imagination. I welcome your corrections and alternate interpretations.

-- Jodi Perras, Minnie's Great-Granddaughter


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New Characters


Delia (Duby) Chenard appears for the first time in Minnie’s Diary this week. As I’ve researched the families in Minnie’s community, I’ve been struck by how many have connections to Rimouski or share my great-great grandmother’s last name, Dubé (anglicized as Duby). I haven’t yet unraveled how all these people knew each other in Rimouski or how they might be related. Of the 10 children of Jean Baptiste (John) and Delina Dubé found in Rimouski in the 1881 census (shown below), at least five were living in Hermansville in 1900: Louis, Joseph, Delia (Chenard), Marie (Raiche), and Alfred (Fred.)



Jean Baptiste Dubé family in 1881 Canadian Census, Rimouski (Source: Familysearch.org)

Pearl Wallette: “Perl” is likely Pearl Ruehl Wallette, 21, wife of Arthur "Archie" Wallette, 41. A native of French Canada, Archie was a locomotive engineer in Hermansville in the 1910 census. Twenty years younger than her husband, Pearl was born in Germany. In 1900 and 1910, they were renting one of the company houses in Hermansville and Archie likely operated one of the company's logging trains. In 1920, they were living in Manistique, Mich., where Archie worked as a machinist in a locomotive roundhouse.


Marie Anastasie (Mary) Desjardines, 55, appeared previously in Minnie’s diary in January. Based on my research, she and her husband, Eli, apparently had no living sons in 1904. Eli Jr. died at age 20 in 1902 of “Bright’s Disease,” a historic term for kidney disease that might have been diabetes or nephritis. Their son Arthur, born in 1888, doesn’t show up in the 1900 census. It’s possible he was sent off to work at age 12, but doesn't seem likely. I haven’t had any luck in determining whether Arthur survived to adulthood. Daughters Jennie, 19, and Rosa, 15, were probably still at home in 1904. Both married in 1909. Daughter Mary married Joseph Alore in June 1902. Their farm was just south of the J.F. Nieman property and school on the map above.

Other Notes

Francophone Sayings: Thanks to Paul LeBon of the French Canadian Descendants Facebook page for teaching me a new phrase this week. "Il a du front tout let tour de la tete" translates literally to "his forehead is all around his head." Francophones from Canada use the phrase to mean, "he has a lot of nerve." You won't find that phrase in your French textbooks.


Farm Life: Since I don't have photographs of the Gamache farm, this week I used photos from the Andrew Benson farm in Nadeau Township in the early 1900s. Andrew and Hanna Benson were my grandparents on my mother's side and about 10 years younger than Minnie. I also found several first-hand stories of early 20th century farm life on this University of Houston website. Another great resource is the oral history archive at Northern Michigan University. This 1983 interview with Theresa Whitens and Mary Ann Campbell describes Hermansville life in the early 1900s. Theresa and Mary Ann came from an Italian family.

Company Towns: Company towns were common in the U.P. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Initially, the Wisconsin Land & Lumber Company had to provide housing, goods and other living necessities to attract workers to remote Hermansville. In his book, Company Towns of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Christian Holmes says that the company store in Hermansville offered groceries, hardware, firearms and farm equipment. He also notes that Hermansville typically had both a company store and one not affiliated with the company.


The Wisconsin Land & Lumber Company Store, Hermansville

Having ownership of the entire town gave the company immense power. Because the company was the only taxpayer in the community, company officials held prominent positions on county, township and school district boards. When the Spaulding School Board refused to build a new school for Hermansville children, the company built its own schools, which later became Meyer Township Schools. With no law enforcement officials in town, company management took action to enforce the law.


The company hired spies, disguised as laborers, to report on union activity or improper behavior in the mill. “Consensus seems to have been that owners were, at best, respected or tolerated. Acceptance of the disparity in wealth between the Earles and townsfolk grew thin over the years,” Holmes writes. In 1920, workers went on strike seeking higher wages. At the time, they were making $2.50 an hour, while the I. Stephenson Company in Escanaba was paying $4.00. The company eventually agreed to $3 an hour and a nine-hour day. Workers had been working 10 hours a day, six days a week.

Mid-Lent: Mi-Carême is a French mid-Lent celebration dating to Medieval times, and still celebrated in parts of Quebec and Acadia. I don’t know if any of the French Canadians in Hermansville had ever celebrated Mi-Carême back in Canada or in the states, but have no doubt they were counting the days until the end of Lent. Here’s an article from 1901 of the Mi-Carême festival in Paris:


LaFarge Enterprise (La Farge, Wisconsin) · 5 Apr 1901, Fri

RFD: In a previous post, I mentioned the beginning of rural free mail delivery in 1902-04. Since then, I’ve found this article that describes the work of a rural mail carrier in the early 1900s.



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