Minnie's Diary #4 - Winter Quilting & Girl Time
Monday, 18 January - worked at a quilt
-- Minnie Gamache Diary, 1904
In the quiet of the winter, with a cold wind blowing outside and snow covering the frozen ground, Minnie stays indoors to piece together quilt squares. Her friend Emily is teaching again this morning at the one-room schoolhouse down the road. Most of the men are off to the lumber camp. Mama is working at mending and crocheting. And Minnie is salvaging some old dresses that no longer fit, combining them with blue and red daisy flannel fabric she purchased on sale at the general store for 8 1/2 cents per yard.
Years ago, when Mama first taught Minnie to sew, they pieced together quilt blocks by hand, using needle and thread to join the bits of fabric, piece by piece. But after a productive year on the farm, Papa bought Mama a treadle sewing machine from I.M. Singer & Co. for Christmas. How Aurora’s eyes lit up when she saw it! That little machine has made all the difference.
Minnie moves her feet up and down on the foot pedal, engaging the treadle mechanism that drives the machine. Her feet need to stay in rhythm with the fly wheel, neither getting ahead of it nor lagging behind. A belt attached to the fly wheel spins a smaller wheel on the sewing machine, moving the needle and thread in and out of the fabric in a methodical and satisfying way. Minnie enjoys the soothing and meditative clickity-clack as she sews quilt blocks together, a perfect way to spend a winter day.
Tuesday, 19 January - went to Hville and Minnie came up with us
-- Minnie Gamache Diary, 1904
The village of Hermansville is so much livelier than the farm. People of all nationalities (mostly men) come and go in the streets. There’s a library with books, magazines and newspapers. The opera house offers minstrel shows, community meetings and dances. The streets, homes and businesses are brightly lit, thanks to electricity from the company power plant. Cousin Minnie and her husband, Henry Raiche, rent a home there from the Wisconsin Land & Lumber Co. Henry works as a saw filer, so he’s busy in the woods these days, keeping the saws sharp as the men cut down the pine and maple trees as fast as they can. They are counting on cold weather to continue, so they can continue to ice the roads and drag out huge stacks of logs on sleds.
“It’s so lonely here when Henry is gone all week,” Cousin Minnie says to her visitors. “After living with 16 brothers and sisters in Champion, I’m not used to such quiet.”
“You must be kept busy caring for darling Lilly,” Aurora says, cuddling and kissing Minnie’s daughter, her 16-month-old great niece.
“Yes, of course, Tante Aurora, but it would be so nice to have some adult conversation once in a while.”
“Well, you must pack up a few things and come stay with us this week,” Aurora says. “The boys are in the woods, so you and Lilly can sleep in their bedroom. Bring your sewing or knitting. We’ll have a fine time.”
When they return to the farm, our Minnie fetches some yellow peas from the cellar and Aurora covers them with water to soak overnight. Tomorrow, they’ll become a simple but delicious pea soup.
Wednesday 20 January - Minnie here. Mrs. Des. & Mary came over.
-- Minnie Gamache Diary, 1904
After breakfast of fresh eggs, beans and biscuits, Aurora chops up onions, carrots and celery from the root cellar and sautés them in some bacon fat until they are soft and fragrant. She adds the soaked peas and their liquid, along with a hambone.
“Minnie, une faveur, s'il vous plaît? Would you put a couple of pieces of wood in the stove?” Aurora asks.
Minnie fetches the wood from a box on the floor and lifts the stove lid, adding more fuel to the fire inside.
Once the water starts boiling, Aurora moves the pot off center, where the heat is less intense. The soup simmers away for several hours on the flat-top cast iron stove, filling the house with a delicious aroma.
Strasie Desjardins, the 58-year-old wife of Eli Desjardins, soon arrives with her daughter, Mary Alore. The Desjardins live on a 40-acre farm down the road, on the way to Hermansville. When the Gamache family arrived in 1895, Mary became one of Minnie’s first friends at the one-room school. Now Mary and her husband live in the village, where Joseph works as a laborer at the sawmill.
“Mary dear, how is your husband, Joseph? How is married life?” Aurora asks, with an eye toward her daughter.
“Joe is doing very well, Madam Gamache,” Mary says. “He’s been working such long hours, sometimes we hardly see each other. Can you believe we’ll be married two years this June?”
“That long already? It seems like just yesterday.”
“Yes, we are praying every night to the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph for a babe to join our family.”
“You know there's more to making a baby than just sending up prayers, eh?” says Madam Desjardins with a grin.
Everyone is fussing over little Lilly as she toddles around the kitchen, especially Aurora and Madam Desjardins, who are eager for grandchildren to be added to their broods. The women enjoy warm pea soup and crusty bread for lunch, and visit and tell stories into the afternoon.
Thursday 21 January - Mother & Minnie went to Mrs. J. Chenard. Lena was over.
-- Minnie Gamache Diary, 1904
Aurora and Cousin Minnie head off today to visit with Marie Dubey Chenard, a distant cousin of Aurora’s from Rimouski, Canada. Marie and her husband, John, live on 40 acres, just a few hundred yards north of the Gamache farm.
Our Minnie stays home to read and catch up on things, and is rewarded with a visit by Lena Brumsted, another old friend from school.
“I’ve got news,” Lena says. “I’ve been hired as a billing clerk for the general store!”
“Lena, congratulations! When do you start?”
“On Monday! Isn’t it grand? I’ll be working for Mr. Rodgers in the bookkeeping department, helping to keep track of inventory, billing and receipts.”
“You were always the best in our class at mathematics. I know you will be perfect. A real career girl!”
Later that night, Minnie thinks about Lena’s news. She’s both happy for her friend and envious, wishing she had the education and skills to take a bookkeeping job in the village. How grown up and modern that would be!
Friday 22 January - went to Hville to drive Minnie home
Saturday 23 January - Went to Mrs. Lavigne with Emily. slept there three in bed
-- Minnie Gamache Diary, 1904
Minnie drives her cousin back to the village on Friday, in plenty of time for her to welcome Henry home from the woods. On Saturday, the LaVignes’ home in Hermansville is filled with laughter. Mamie, 21, and Annie, 19, are thrilled to have Minnie and Emily Gagnon visit for the night.
Simeon and Flora LaVigne have six living children — Mamie and Annie are the oldest and 7-year-old Mary Jane the youngest. All but 17-year-old Albert are girls, so Mr. LaVigne and Albert are feeling a little outnumbered at dinner that night.
"So many belles femmes at our table, Albert. Such beautiful women. How did we become so fortunate?"
“Tell us a story about the horses, Papa,” says 10-year-old Leona LaVigne.
Simeon LaVigne works as a Teamster in the lumber yard, gently and skillfully directing teams of company-owned draft horses to move huge logs to the sawmill via a tram. Lower-ranking Teamsters work in the woods, hauling loads of logs on icy roads to the mill. Over time, Simeon has worked his way up from the logging roads to become the top driver in the lumber yard, trusted to move logs safely in the midst of many busy workers.
“Well, let me tell you about Frank, the smartest darn horse you ever did see,” said Mr. LaVigne. “He was Mr. Meyer’s favorite driving horse, so he had Frank shipped up here from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, about 15 years ago. Mr. Meyer was so happy to drive about town with that dappled brown horse pulling his basket phaeton.
“Frank understood pert near anything you said to him, and he would eat anything he saw a person eat. But you know what was his favorite thing to eat?”
“Candy!” the young girls shouted.
“Yes, candy! He didn’t care very much for gum — never did figure out how to chew it. But if you had a candy cane or peppermint down in the horse barn, you better let Frank have some.”
The children laugh at the idea of a horse eating candy.
“Now, Frank loved to run at top speed if he was feeling good. It wouldn’t do no good to pull on his reins and try to slow him down, he would just put his head down and run as fast as he could, until he got all that energy out. Then, he’d slow to a trot and act just like normal.
“One day, Mr. Meyer’s son-in-law, Doctor Earle, took Frank on a ride in the woods, Now, the Doctor didn’t know yet about Frank’s strange habits, see. When they crossed the Soo Line railroad, Frank took off a-runnin’ like mad. With Frank running toward that narrow bridge over Trout Creek, Doc Earle thought he was a dead man. So, he pulled out his revolver and fired a shot at the horse’s head. He figured, better for the horse to be killed than himself."
"Oh no!" said 10-year-old Leona.
“Don't worry. The bullet passed through the horse’s left ear, right near the tip. That horse stopped right then and there and began to cry so pitifully that Doc Earle got out to see how badly he was hurt. Seeing it was just a small wound, the doctor drove on. But Frank, he never did get over that day. From then on, he was afraid of the woods and trembled whenever he was driven on the Trout Creek road.”
“Poor Frank,” said Mary Jane.
“One day, one of the office men wanted to take a farmer on a carriage ride to see some land for sale. They drove Frank down a crooked, wooded trail to reach the property, but had to leave the horse at the edge of the woods, while the men hiked in to see the land. Well, they hitched Frank to a tree, but he put up a terrible fit, dancing and snorting like mad. He was just a scared to be in the woods. Finally, he settled down, and they thought he would be fine. But when they returned fifteen minutes later, Frank was nowhere to be found!
“He had disappeared with that carriage. The men started to walk back over the trail, finding the whip, the robe and the seat cushion scattered along the way. They were just sure that they would find the buggy smashed up ahead. But when they got to the main road, there was Frank and the carriage. He had started for town, but apparently decided he needed to wait for the men to return. He was standing there calmly with the basket phaeton, facing back toward the woods. The carriage didn’t have a single scratch!”
“Hooray!” the children cried.
“Well, it goes to show you how you have to treat horses — and people — just as you want to be treated,” Mr. LaVigne said.
“What happened to Frank?” Emily asked.
“That’s a sad story, Mademoiselle. One spring, when the ice on the roads was in danger of breaking up early, Doctor Earle decided to send the tram horse teams out of the lumber yard to the logging roads. Since Frank was older, he thought his driving horse should be put into service in the lumber yard. Frank did OK the first day, and the second. But by the third day, I could see that he was getting antsy. All of a sudden, Frank sped off with the lumber truck just like he would do with the buggy, as fast as he could go. Frank stopped short at the end of the tram, but the truck filled with logs was moving too fast. It crashed into Frank’s hind end, and he was killed.”
“Mon Dieu,” Emily said. “Pauvre cheval. That poor horse.”
“Oh, he was a grand cheval, that one,” Mr. LaVigne said.
“Who wants apple pie and ice cream?” said Mrs. LaVigne, trying to get the conversation and the children's minds away from sad stories.
“Moi! Moi!” cried Leona and Mary Jane.
The standard company-owned rental home in Hermansville is not spacious, but it’s enough to sleep these 10 happy and lively Frenchpeople -- some "three to a bed" -- on a clear winter’s night. On Sunday morning, they wake up to a bitterly cold day. Temperatures well below zero have descended on the entire Midwest. It’s going to be a dangerous, frigid week.
Resources & 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 are largely the product of my imagination. I welcome your corrections and alternate interpretations.
-- Jodi Perras, Minnie's Great-Granddaughter
Identities: While most of the people named this week were obvious, I had to discern the identity of "Lena," a good friend who appears 12 times in Minnie's diary. I could find no Lenas in the French Canadian community close to Minnie's age. Through a process of elimination and deduction, I've concluded that Lena was perhaps Caroline Brumsted, whose birth record in January 1883 lists her name as "Lina Broomstead." She's also called "Lena" in the 1894 Michigan census, when she was 11. Lena's parents, German-born Bernard "Barney" and Mary Olga (Dufek) Brumsted, operated a farm and worked in the lumber camps near Hermansville. Three of the Brumsted daughters became public school teachers. Caroline (Lena) Brumsted, their third daughter, is listed in city directories as a bookkeeper for Lauerman's Department Store in Marinette from 1907-1911 and at City Hall in Milwaukee in 1914-15. I don't know for certain if she worked at the Hermansville General Store, but it seems like a place where a young bookkeeper might have gotten her start.
Simeon "Simon" Rivard dit LaVigne was held in high esteem in Hermansville. A Gladstone Reporter account of his October 1920 funeral read: “At 9:30 a.m. a solemn requiem high mass was celebrated at St. Mary's Church with Rev. Fr. Fillion of Spaulding, Mich. Rev. Fr. Stuntebeck of Loretta, Mich. and Rev. Fr. Gagne of Hermansville officiating. The funeral cortege a mile in length then wound its way to the family burial plat where the body was laid at rest. During the services the mills and factory as well as other public places were closed and operations suspended in respect to this honorable man.”
Treadle Sewing Machine: Many women owned a treadle sewing machine in the late 1800s and early 1900s, before electricity was common in American homes. A treadle was the only kind of sewing machine my maternal grandmother, Hanna Christensen Benson (1891-1984), ever owned. Click here to hear the sound of a Singer treadle sewing machine. If you want to see how they worked, check out this YouTube video.
Pea Soup: Yellow pea soup was an important staple food for French Canadian immigrants. Families grew and stored many bags of dried yellow peas to last through the winter months. You can find a number of recipes on line, such as this one. I haven't tested the linked recipe, though I notice some say it has too much salt. The ham will add a lot of salt, so you might go easy on the salt until you taste the soup.
Frank the Horse: I drew the story of Frank the horse from Hermansville From the Beginning, by Charles M. Case, published by the IXL Historical Museum, 2001. I inserted Mr. LaVigne into the story, but otherwise it's a true account. Here's a photo of what a logging tramway might have looked like in that day.
Teamsters: Teamsters like Mr. LaVigne, who drove teams of horses in the logging camps and lumber yards, were indispensable. For historic images of Teamsters and lumberjacks working in the 1800s and early 1900s, click here.