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Minnie's Diary #36: Threshing Time & Menominee Girls



Started to Trash Today


Wednesday, September 14 - Maggie went home and we started to trash today. Mrs. Dubey and Mrs. Paquin.

— Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Michigan, 1904

After watching Maggie’s early-morning train pull away from the Hermansville depot, Minnie turned toward home. Soon she saw the black smoke of the threshing machine engine as it chugged up the hill toward the Gamache farm. Following behind it, she saw neighboring farmers driving their horse-drawn wagons — Edward and Armelia Paquin with their son Del; their daughter Alida with her husband, Louis Dubey. Soon Joe Raiche would arrive from across the road.


Minnie waved to her neighbors as she drove the horse and buggy past the slow-moving threshing machine. She wanted to arrive at the farm before the crowd did.


Inside the house, Ma was pulling warm cinnamon rolls out of the oven. Coffee percolated on the wood-burning stove. Soon Armelia Paquin and her daughter, Alida, were helping Minnie carry the coffee and cinnamon rolls out to the crew as they started setting up the equipment.


“Good day for trashing, eh, Pierre?” said Mr. Paquin.

Oui,” said Pa. "C'est bonne.”


After the neighbors greeted each other warmly, Minnie joined her brother Freddie on one wagon and the other farmers and wagons followed them into the field, where the oat shocks had been ripening in the sun since harvest. Minnie drove the horses slowly while Freddie loaded shocks onto the wagon. Del helped his father load their wagon while Joe Raiche and Louis Dubey worked together on another, helped by Joe’s 12-year-old son, Aleck. Minnie’s oldest brothers, Edmond and Willie, were working a full day at the Wisconsin Land & Lumber Company mill, along with Joe’s sons Henry and Bert and Mr. Paquin’s eldest son, Ed Jr.


When they returned to the barnyard, the threshing machine’s steam engine poured black smoke into the air. The crew fed its hungry furnace with cut-up stumps and wood that Pa had been chopping all summer. In addition to paying the threshing machine owner and his crew, the farmer provided fuel for the steam engine — either coal or wood.


“My, that machine causes a racket,” Minnie said. “It’s rattling the entire barn.”


“Beautiful isn’t it?” shouted Freddie over the din of the engine.

Minnie wasn’t so sure about the beauty of the clanking, dirty engine, and her impressions dimmed as the day went on. Sure, it “trashed” a lot of oats in a short amount of time, but it drowned out all conversations and had the men working non-stop. They fed oat shocks into its huge mouth and carried away bags of oats and heaps of straw that came out the other end. Before noon, black smut covered the men and their eyes and throats had turned raw and itchy. The horses, who had previously worked quietly and diligently as the “engine” for threshing days, refused to get near the chugging, clanking, steaming machine. Minnie sought refuge in the kitchen with Ma and the neighbor women, missing the days when she could chat with the men while the horse-powered threshing machine did its job.


“The old-fashioned horse-killing and man-destroying threshing machine has given way to a modern invention run by steam, automatically fed, which stacks its own straw, and measures, weighs and loads the grain, while the farmer, seated in the comfortable shade, may watch the operation.”

— “The Modern Farmer: His Lot Is Improving Faster than That of Other Men,” The L’Anse Sentinel (L’Anse, Michigan), 16 October 1897, p. 9.

“Br-r-r-r-rrrr! What a hideous, noisy, filthy machine! One of the pleasures of farmwork is that you can talk was much as you like, but the din of this engine made conversation impossible and gave you a headache. We are rather proud of our barn and consider it a substantial edifice, for it is built of stone and measures 150 feet by 50, but this infernal machinery shook it from top to bottom like an aspen leaf.”

— “Man-Threshing Machines: The Modern Method of Getting Out the Grain Leaves Unpleasant Impressions,” Ironwood Times (Ironwood, Mich.), 22 October 1904, p. 3

Menominee Girls


Thursday, September 15 - Trash again. Mrs. Dishno came over. Wrote to Emily.

— Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Michigan, 1904


“In a large majority of the districts of the state the demand for teachers far exceeds the supply. Many schools have not yet started, and the school trustees are in a quandary as to where to look for schoolmarms.”

— “Teachers Are Scarce,” Menominee County Journal, Stephenson, Michigan; Sept. 24, 1904; p. 6

Minnie had a lot to say to her best friend, Emily Gagnon. Emily had taught at their community’s one-room country schoolhouse last year, but had moved back home to teach in Menominee. Minnie wondered how the new school was treating her friend. Were the children behaving? Did more of them arrive at school speaking English? Could Emily go dancing or laugh out loud with a group of friends without getting into trouble? Did they have enough teachers, given the state’s short supply? And what on Earth was going on with those Menominee girls and their “silk stocking club?” They were all over the news with their scheme to promote their town by wearing oxfords with black silk stockings and the words “Menominee is a good town” embroidered in white thread at the ankles. Some suggested they would get even greater attention if they wore shorter skirts.


“The Menominee girls will now be truly sorry. A verse writer in the Chicago Chronicle has dedicated a jingle to their silk stocking club, and such a jingle! It’s bad enough to make the dear lassies want to forget the whole business.”

— “Purely Personal Paragraphs,” Menominee County Journal, September 24, 1904, p. 1


Menominee, Menominee

How very, very shocking

To have in bold embroidery

Your name is very shocking

Menominee, Menominee

The very thought should ramble

Your name should never, never be

Upon a woman’s ankle.


Menominee, Menominee,

Your brain must be all blubber,

For every man in town you see

Will stop his work and rubber.

— Houghton Daily Mining Gazette


Minnie suspected that Emily was having a good laugh at the silk stocking girls. She also wanted to know about 19-year-old Gertrude Sawyer, the heroic Menominee girl who had saved a young woman and three children by guiding their wayward rowboat thirty miles across Green Bay in heavy seas.


“After compelling her companions, a young woman and three children, to lie down in the bottom of their rowboat, in which they were drifting across Green Bay, Gertrude Sawyer, 19 years old, of Menominee Mich., steered the helpless craft with an oar for nearly ten hours until she beached it on the opposite shore, thirty miles away from the place where the party embarked. The feat was accomplished in one of the heaviest seas ever witnessed on Green Bay, and while sailing and steam craft were searching for the party, whose failure to return to their point of embarking caused a general belief in this city and Menominee that they had perished.”

— Bureau County Tribune; Princeton, Illinois; September 2, 1904; p. 11

“How in the world did they survive? It’s a miracle,” Minnie wrote to Emily. “Do you know Miss Sawyer? She must be a very brave and strong young woman. I wonder what the farmer in Door County thought when he found them washed up on the Wisconsin shore. Maybe he checked their stockings to see if they were really from Menominee.”



-- Princeton Bureau County Tribune, 2 September 1904, p. 11


Trip to Hermansville


Friday, September 16 - Went to Hville with Ma & Joe. Had one of Joe’s pictures.

— Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Michigan, 1904


Horses and wagons filled the streets of Hermansville. Minnie could see the men connecting railcars loaded with maple flooring to the end of a Chicago & Northwestern train. The nationally-known IXL flooring might end up in a hotel in Chicago, a gymnasium in Milwaukee, an office building in St. Louis, or a national park in Arizona.


Minnie hadn’t seen her beau Joe Marcheterre in several weeks. He’d been busy helping his Pa on the farm. Ma watched with a wary eye as the two young people flirted with each other on the wagon, threatening to sit between them to preserve some decorum. In the general store, Minnie’s eyes met Joe’s over a display of Triscuits.

“Have you tried these new Triscuit crackers? I hear they’re good,” said Joe.


“Tried them? We never eat anything but what Ma bakes in our own oven.”


"Same at our house. Let’s buy a box.”

“Wouldn’t that be modern?” said Minnie, glancing over at her mother. “What would our mothers say?"

“They should love it,” Joe said. “Why should our mothers have to bake every bread and cracker we eat? Store-bought crackers are the future.”


-- Triscuit Advertisement, Menominee County Journal, Stephenson, Mich., 17 September 1904


A Comparison


Saturday, September 17 - Worked in the fields all day.

— Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Michigan, 1904


-- A Comparison, by James Whitcomb Riley, Sturgeon Bay Advocate, 17 September 1904

Troubles at School


Sunday, September 18 - Went to Perm’s with Joe. Met Misses Wayman and had a fine time.

— Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Michigan, 1904


Mademoiselle, won’t you accompany me to the Paquin house? I’ve brought along our finest box of Triscuits.”


Joe winked and smiled. He held out his right arm while displaying the Triscuit box in his left.


“Well, I was going to read a book this afternoon. I guess I’ll join you instead, but only because Triscuits are involved,” replied Minnie with her own wink.


When they arrived at the Paquin home, Perm introduced them to two new teachers in the Hermansville schools who were boarding at the Paquin house this school year.


“This is Mabel. She is teaching at the Camp 12 school this year,” said Perm. “And this is Maude. She’s teaching first and second grade in the village school.”


Perm brought out some blackberry jam and cheese and they snacked on Triscuits until the box was nearly gone.


“How is school going?” asked Minnie.


“Oh, it’s not easy,” said Mabel. “I was surprised how many first graders arrived at the school speaking no English. They only know French, and I know only a few words of their language. The older children have to translate for me.”

“I have the same problem,” said Maude, “only some of my students arrive speaking Polish, German, Italian and other languages, as well. And I don’t have older students to help with translation.”


“It was the same for my teachers when I started school,” Minnie said. “They’ll catch on quickly enough.”


“I sure hope so,” said Mabel. “One little girl is in tears every day. We thought it would be an adventure to get away from Papa’s farm and see the Upper Peninsula. Now I’m not so sure it was a good idea.”

“Why?”

“We didn’t expect the long walks to school, and it’s not even winter yet. And diphtheria is on the rise. We are constantly having to remind pupils not to share pencils or drinking cups.”


“And chewing gum,” said Maude with a sneer on her face.


“We also have to watch closely for signs of sickness," Mabel said. "I'm not a nurse. My Lord, their mothers shouldn’t send them to school when they’re not well.”

“I can’t even have a conversation or send a note to some of the mothers. They only speak their native tongue. They cannot read or write. It’s not like schools back home.”


Minnie glanced at Joe and Perm, knowing that their teachers faced the same situation when they started school. Their mothers and fathers couldn’t read or write, but they wanted a better life for their children. Wasn’t that was part of America’s expansion and its promise? Shining a beacon of light and hope to immigrant families from many countries? Providing a quality public education so the boys could become good factory workers and the girls well-educated mothers for the next generation of Americans? The conversation turned to lighter topics, but Minnie worried about the children and hoped for the best.


“The special attention of teachers, medical inspectors of schools, and others interested in the care and education of the young, is hereby directed to the present unusual necessity for careful observation of the youth under their charge, and, in case sore throat appears among the pupils, immediate action by the operation of the child so suffering from the rest of the pupils, and notifying the parents recommending the placing of the child under medical supervision. Pupils should be taught that it is dangerous to make common use of pencils, chewing gum, drinking cups, or other articles likely to be placed in the mouth.”

— “Diphtheria is Prevalent,” Menominee County Journal, 17 September 1904, p.8



More Field Work

Monday, September 19 - Worked in the field. Brought in some barley. Started to rain. Went to Hville with Mrs. Dishno. Tuesday, September 20 - Started to rain so stay home. Wednesday, September 21 - Worked in the fields. Thursday, September 22 - Worked the field.

— Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Michigan, 1904


After a rainy Tuesday, two clear days sent the Gamache family to the fields to gather more grain. Minnie enjoyed the fair weather — cool and crisp in the morning and warming under the early autumn sun later in the day. As the sun rose, it burned off the morning frost, creating a smoky mist rising from the ground into the air.


They worked to cut and gather the grain into shocks under the warm September sun and puffy clouds. Soon, hundreds of wild geese would be flying high overhead in V formations, heading south to winter feeding grounds. Already, Minnie noticed that some of her favorite songbirds had become scarce around the farm. Plenty of blackbirds and sparrows followed close behind them in the fields, swallowing stray grains of barley and oats for their southern journey ahead. The only thing Minnie knew about the South was what she’d read in books and newspapers.


“Imagine a place where snow never falls,” she thought. “Where the leaves don’t turn color and stay on the trees. Where tropical breezes blow year-round and ice never forms. Where you don’t have to cut wood and preserve vegetables to survive the winter. Imagine!”


The young maple trees on the Gamache farm had started to show the bright reds, yellows and oranges of fall. Soon, the branches would be bare. Though it was only the first days of autumn, winter would arrive soon in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.


A Fall Song

By Frank Walcott Hutt

They all take wing, —

Every beautiful thing,

Birds of the brake and the wood,

Leaving but half understood

Secrets of song and of climes

Whither they wander betimes.

Birds of the vales and the heights,

Donnas of desolate nights,

Priests of the morn and the day,

Foliage mottled and gay,

Shelter of home and of nest,

Leaves by the autumn caressed,—

Linger, and waver, and fall,

All but my love for them all;

All but my fear lest the leaf

Rendered its stay all too brief;

All but my fear lest the bird

Hastened the last song I heard.

Off, where palmetto-boughs swing,

They all take wing.

— Farm Journal, Wilmer Atkinson Company, Philadelphia, Pa., September 1904, p. 1


At day’s end, when it was time to return to the barn for milking and other chores, Minnie looked back at the silent rows of shocks, standing at attention. They waited to be separated into grain, straw and chaff on threshing day. The birds flew off to their nightly perches, calculating when they’d make their way south to warmer lands.

While Minnie helped Pa and Freddie in the fields, Ma had been peeling and coring apples. She baked them into pies or simmered them slowly on the wood stove until they had transformed into sweet-tart apple sauce. Her table would be filled with delicious and hearty food when the threshing crews returned.


Conclusion



Friday, September 23 - Thrashed.

— Minnie Gamache Diary, Hermansville, Michigan, 1904


Minnie and her mother agreed: they didn’t welcome the loud threshing machine and its black smoke, nor the look of the men at the end of the day — covered from head to toe in sweat, soot and chaff. The “beast,” as they called it, may have been fast, but they questioned whether the steam machine truly brought farming prosperity or made farm life just another industrial nightmare.

“Our men are a strong, strapping lot, but they had to work much too fast to feed the black brute, and the ‘pace that kills,’ of which we are all so proud, was too much for them, and so was the horrid noise and dust. We threshed (or ‘thrashed,’ as the native dialect as it) for three days, but when it was all over, on the fourth day, the men looked as if they had been thrashed instead of the oats and three were actually invalided, and the full force did not report again for duty for two or three days.


“But apart from these highly practical results of steam farming, it was the ugliness of it which impressed me. Ugh! The memory of it has half spoiled the barn. It is as if we had called the evil one from Sheol to do our work and had somehow sold our souls in the bargain. From the bottom of my soul I hate machinery.”

— “Man-Threshing Machines: The Modern Method of Getting Out the Grain Leaves Unpleasant Impressions,” Ironwood Times, Ironwood, Mich., October 22, 1904, p. 3


Notes and Further Reading

Greetings: Since I haven’t posted anything new since August 9, I feel like I’m neglecting Minnie’s Diary and my readers. As I write this, I’m in New Mexico. Later today I’ll be traveling to Ghost Ranch in Abiquiu, NM, for a five-day women’s writing retreat hosted by Women Writing for (a) Change. I’m looking forward to spending time on the land where Georgia O’Keefe painted and finding inspiration for my writing among other women writers. I hope you are also able to enjoy a beautiful fall adventure, even if it’s enjoying the trees and migrating birds in your own backyard.


With Gratitude: Thanks to the Menominee County Library and Northern Michigan University’s UPLINK project for inviting me to speak in August. I had a great time talking about Perras family history and meeting with old friends and new. A special shout-out to my cousins Mary, Evie and Karen, Minnie's granddaughters, who were in the audience, and cousins Doug and Karen Benson for hosting Joe and me. And also to my friends Mark and Rosemary, who interrupted their northern Wisconsin vacation to attend. UPLINK is a digital network maintained by NMU to share free digital history resources from across the Upper Peninsula. Some of the historical resources they collected in Stephenson in August are available now on their website. I'm working through some historic Perras and Benson family memories to add there. If you have photos and documents to share, please consider donating a digital version to UPLINK so many people can access it.


About Minnie’s Diary: Minnie's Diary is part history and part fiction, based on notes written in a 1904 daybook by 20-year-old Minnie Gamache. While my great-grandmother's diary entries and the news clippings are real, the rest comes from my imagination and research into life in Hermansville, a company-owned lumber town in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. For more about Minnie and her family, read this introduction elsewhere on this website.


Characters: The only new characters Minnie mentions in this part of her diary are “Misses Wayman.” After searching through census records and newspaper accounts, I was not able to find any young women named Wayman in Hermansville, Champion or surrounding areas. I did find Maude and Mabel Wyman living downstate in St. Joseph, Michigan in 1910, where 30-year-old Maude was a schoolteacher and 26-year-old Mabel was a housekeeper. In 1900, they’d been living with their parents on a farm, but both parents died in 1905. Taking some creative license, I decided they were both schoolteachers in Hermansville for a year, boarding at the Paquin house.

Threshing Time: In Upper Peninsula dialect, threshing time becomes “trashing” time. But the idea was anything but trashy: you cooperate with your neighboring farmers to hire a threshing machine and work together until everyone’s grain is harvested and in the granary. It seems folks didn't always agree that the new steam-powered threshing machines were better than the horse-powered threshers. Isn't that always the case when it comes to new technology? Below are some links and clippings that tell the story of threshing in the old days. More than the machines, it's the connection among families that seems to have made the most treasured memories:

  • Threshing time memories: A four-minute video from Iowa PBS showing farmers working together in the old-fashioned way and memories of threshing from a farmer.

  • Threshing meals: An essay by Connie Russell, who remembers how hard her mother worked to serve the best meals to the threshing crews.

  • History of Threshing: This article from the Farmington Historical Society in Washington County, Wisconsin, covers some of the history of threshing time, from the 1800s to the 1970s.

  • Photos of Threshing Equipment: Living History Farms illustrates some of the grain harvesting equipment, tying bundles of grain into shocks, and threshing machines.


-- “Man-Threshing Machines: The Modern Method of Getting Out the Grain Leaves Unpleasant Impressions,” Ironwood Times (Ironwood, Mich.), 22 October 1904, p. 3

Menominee Stocking Club: I found stories about the “Menominee Stocking Club” in newspapers from Boston to California. The city got plenty of publicity that year, with the girls wearing promotions on their stockings and Gertrude Sawyer commanding a boat across a stormy Green Bay. Women were still wearing their skirts at floor length, so the idea of reading a message on a girl’s ankle must have been quite titillating for those mostly male newspaper editors. “The day of the ankle has arrived,” crowed the Baltimore Sun. Was this just the start of freeing women from oppressive clothing?


-- "Booming Their Town," Baltimore Sun, October 30, 1904, p. 11


Heroic Boater: Menominee’s 1904 boating heroine, Gertrude Sawyer, seemed to love an adventure. She received many gifts and accolades in 1904 after saving her boat excursion companions. Newspapers reported in April 1906 that she had eloped with bank clerk Frank Flood, against her father’s wishes. Gertrude sent a note to her father by hackman, and they headed off on a honeymoon to Milwaukee and Chicago. She and her husband made their home in Wisconsin and had one son, John, in 1909. Frank Flood died soon after, but Gertrude married a civil engineer, Trigg Tuttle, in 1916 and lived in Sarasota, on Florida’s Gulf Coast. They were active in Sarasota, with Trigg serving for a time as public works commissioner and also served as foreman for a state road to Orlando. Gertrude was active in the parent-teacher association, women’s club and Order of the Eastern Star. Newspaper reports indicate Gertrude was elected as a park commissioner in Mount Dora, Florida, in 1927. By 1940, Trigg had passed away, but 55-year-old Gertrude owned a cafe in Florida and was sharing an apartment with two other widows. Minnie gave her third daughter (my grandmother) the middle name Gertrude. I don't know if Gertrude Sawyer was her inspiration, but now I have a better appreciation for that old-fashioned name.


Triscuit: I love Triscuit crackers, and have found it amusing to see Triscuit advertising in many 1904 newspapers. A typical ad might feature both Triscuit and Shredded Wheat, both made by the same New York Company. Those first Triscuit crackers that were introduced to the public by the Shredded Wheat Company in 1903 and advertised across the nation. The original cracker measured 2.25 by 4 inches and they weren’t salted, so they would have tasted different than today’s version, which measures 1.75 inches square.



-- Triscuit box art: By Uncredited for The Natural Food Co., Niagara Falls, U.S.A. - 1903 ad via Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=28635051




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