The Letters of Esther McClure
Several years ago, Aunt Rosalie Denyes gave me a shoebox full of old family letters written to Sydney Blair almost 125 years ago. She said that she had read some of them and to not expect much, just news of people long forgotten.
In the summer of 2003, I started transcribing them. It wasn’t easy. Most of the letters are in very poor condition. One wonders how they could have survived as long as they did, occupying forgotten corners of attics and garages.
The first letters I picked were from a woman named Esther McClure in Cutler, Illinois to Sydney Blair in Girard, Kansas. Here is her story, pieced together from these letters and other sources:
Esther and Sydney were 27 years old in the spring of 1880, living in Cutler, Illinois with their families and were talking of getting married. Sydney went with others to Kansas to find land and make a new life. Esther remained behind to help on her father’s farm north of Cutler in a prairie known, as it is today, as Six Mile. She kept house for her father, at least two brothers, and hired hands. Her mother was dead.
It was no doubt a quite self sufficient farm. She cooked using a coal stove. They raised crops and animals, made their own soap, and even wove their own carpets.
Presumably Sydney went to Kansas by rail. It wasn’t by horse because he didn’t have one when he got there. However, he did have money and bought some land outside of Girard a few miles from the railroad.
The letters contain a lot of trivial and tragic news about people long gone. There are births, baptisms, sicknesses, and deaths. The U.S. Mail obviously played a vital role for separated families and friends. The letters also reveal an interesting portrait of pre-industrial life on the edge of the frontier. Ordinary life.
Sydney thought “Kansas was the place to start at the foot of the ladder.” It was a rougher life than in Cutler, but he liked it there. By December of 1880, he had a “little black shanty” with a living area measuring 16 X 15. The primitiveness didn’t seem to bother Essie, who said “as far as rough times goes I have always thought a person can have that anywhere.” She was not interested in staying where she was—“Sometimes I think no person could hire me to live in SixMile”.
In early summer of 1881, Joseph Sydney Blair came back to Cutler and married Esther McClure on Monday, July 4, 1881. They moved to Kansas where they had three children—Harry McClure Blair in 1882, John Elva Blair in 1884, and Ivan Sydney Blair in 1886. She was a small woman weighing less than a hundred pounds and preferred to be called “Essie”. She was devoted—to her family, her friends, and to Sydney. She died in Kansas on Monday, August 15, 1892. She was 39. Grandpa (John) Blair was 8. As far as I know, no stories about her were ever told. However, from these letters you can see a devoted, caring, and practical woman with common sense and a dry wit who is about to leave the only home she has ever known to go to Kansas, about which she knows nothing.
For the record, John Elva Blair was father to Rosalie Blair Denyes, Esther Blair Groves, Richard Blair [my father], Margaret Jane Blair Stimson, and Elva Blair Dewsbury.
Hal Stimson, 12-21-2003
Esther and Sydney knew each other in Cutler and were planning to get married. They were 27 years old in the spring of 1880. Their families were well acquainted. They also knew people in Kansas. Sydney went to Kansas in March of 18801 without much to get started, only a little money. I don’t know how he got there but it wasn’t by horse. In Kansas, a friend (Mr. Shaw) lends him “a beast to ride”, presumably a mule. They were married in Cutler on Monday, July 4, 1881. She refers to Sydney in her letters as “my dearest friend.”
Essie remained in Cutler, Illinois living in an area known as Six Mile, an area prairie north of Cutler—presumably six miles north. He thought “Kansas was the place to start at the foot of the ladder.” It was a rougher life than in Cutler, but he likes it there. By December of 1880, he is living in a “little black shanty” measuring 16 X 15. The primitiveness doesn’t seem to bother Essie, who says “as far as rough times goes I have always thought a person can have that anywhere.” She is not interested in staying where she is—“ Sometimes I think no person could hire me to live in SixMile”.
Essie’s mother is dead so the work in the home at her father’s farm fell upon her.
The work was obviously hard, and athough she doesn’t complain about it she does tell about it:
“[I] Have been cleaning kitchen today, [I] sat down to supper got up [and] walked to & from prayer meeting[,] read[,] up & washed dishes, made yeast, caked sausage for breakfast, had worship and sat down to write at half past nine. Will tell you something I did to day & never did before, I forget to eat my dinner to day.” 12-1-1880
“It was 20 degrees below zero, but we had 8 persons for dinner besides our own family (18 in all), My! But it was fearful work, getting dinner, but it had to be done” (1-3-1881)
“I must sleep as much as I can get for my work seems to increase instead of decrease. Father has hired Albert Harris for a mo[nth]. I asked him not to but he went ahead and hired [him]. I told father I had all the work on hands I could possibly do and not more to[o]; but we can not get thing[s] to go the way we would like sometimes. (3-22-1881)
She makes her own soap.
You will please[e] excuse me for scribbling. [I] am in a great hurry, the men have to eat their supper yet. How I do not wa[n]t you to think I am making a poor mouth to try to make you pittie me; not by any means for I have much to be thankful for. I just want you to have some idea of the reason why I delayed for so long.(6-4-1881)
In January of 1881 Sydney is having second thoughts about Kansas and has talked about returning to Cutler. The very practical Essie wrote to him:
“I don’t work so extreemly hard every day as I did the day [I] forgot to eat dinner; you might come out next summer and see for your self what prospects are. I do
not want you to sell your place[.] I feel like I have lived in Six Mile as long as I
want to and longer. Sydney, I know if we ask our Heavenly Father to make a way for us He will: let us trust him. If you put up a kitchen before I go out put up a shade by all means, looks does not concern me as much as cents.”
Sydney learns a trade in Kansas, possibly to be a carpenter.
Her father had help on the farm. Men were hired to butcher the swine. There were hands hired to do the work. Essie talks about making dinner for “four men besides our own hired hand.”
She enjoys music and singing, talked about “singings” and parties where “Davie and Elmer” brought their fiddles. She wrote “the singings are still thriving”. She writes of a woman, “She thinks we have splendid singings.”
She regularly attends church and her religion, Presbyterian, is obviously important to her. However, any church is better than no church. In writing about going to Kansas she says “I guess we will have to be either Methodist or Baptist, but keep up heart.” She laments that Christians cannot agree. There is a lot of discord within her church, but she takes it well. “I did not know it [Sunday School] was to be so interesting or I would have sent a telegram for you to attend.” She reports it started off with a “general explosion” and became “an amusing, interesting meeting.” She did not take part in the argument. “It is a shame for Christian[s] to quarrel so. Then there was another quarrel last Sab. Morn before Sab. School just after S.S. [Sunday School] was over. Wm. Blair got up and said Maynard would [be] Superintend S.S. next Sab., that J.C. Blair had no right to take his place. I think it would have been better for all parties if he had spoken in a quieter and milder way. This is the day [the] Presbytery meets … It is raining and very disagreeable.” (4-25-1881)
Mostly, however, church life was peaceful and a central part of their lives: “This is the week of prayer, the two churches have agreed to unite (sing the old version) [There] will be meetings at the churches alternately in the day time, and every night at Cutler School house.” (1-3-81)
She also wants Sydney to join a church in Kansas: “Have you been to church since you left home?” (3-27-1880)
There are parties where they sing, but probably don’t dance.
Because of the distances, when she visits people, she stays with them.
The McClures own a loom, which is used to weave carpets. She weaves one for Sydney in Kansas.
She’s small, weighing only 99 pounds. She even signs her letters, “Your Little Pet”. A scale was somewhat a novelty. She reports the weights of her friends.
Dry sense of humor: When she hears that he was caught in a snow storm, she writes of someone telling her to advise Sydney not to buy in the windy part of Kansas. She also asks him how many hats he has—a subtle way of referring to their tendency to blow off in the wind—not out of her curiosity about his clothing.
“One of the items of [the] Cutler literary paper; [it] was something like this “Mike pulled the fence down and let cows in the corn field; go to Sam for particulars”. Think you had better take the paper or you will miss some important news. (3-2-1881)
“[I] Was up at Cutler this eve, [and I] was so disappointed to not get a letter from you, they said George took the news out today so don’t know whether there was one or not. “ Obviously George was not a member of the town’s brightest and best. (3-2-1881)
“There was a wood chopping at Mr. Raulston’s last Friday. I think they should have let him chop his own wood; it would just help his digestion. “ 3-2-1881)
She tells of one gentleman staying with her (12-1-1880) who sat by himself in the sitting room reading aloud and trying to pace around the room for exercise. She was alarmed because Samie could hear him “clear out to the wood pile with the doors and windows closed”. She gave him a light dinner “for his stomach’s sake.”
Sydney buys land right away in Kansas. Essie was very practical about it. She had wanted good land and timber. She didn’t care much about a house. That could come later. I don’t think he lives on the land because Essie talks about his boarding arrangements.
Christmas was modest by modern standards. She talks of a new year’s tree instead of a Christmas tree and the gathering at Christmas:
“Richmands & Maggie were there, Maggie got a string of popcorn of[f] the tree and several other things, [I] don’t know what they were. I got about two double handfuls of candy, and don’t you think some fellow give me his heart but it was broken.”
Practicality: “Your head will be leavel [level] if you keep your property in your own hands; why I would go clear wild if I had that much money.” (1-27-81)
“John said he believed a person would be justified in taking their own life if they knew they would have to suffer as his father had done. (3-22-1881)
She wants to know if he has a garden started (3-22-1881)
but how do the folk keep the chickens off the garden stuff; do they not have chickens in Kan? what about getting a cow out there; which will be cheapest to buy out there or ship from here could you get a good young cow out there? at what price? I don’t mean for you to quit your work and scour the state looking for a cow: just keep your eyes and ears on the look out when you’re back in town or at any of your neighbours. (4-6-1881)
“I don’t know anything about out doors since last Wednesday, [I] have had the measles. Samie & Willie broke out [with measles on] Tuesday & Wednesday they did not break out on me until Friday night, I tell you I was a pretty sick girl Saturday & Sabbath. I was taking them as soon as the boys but I washed and helped scrub Monday
and got to[o] damp but when they did break out they came out good that was all that saved me. I’m glad to be able to tell you this evening that am improving fast. All most every thing tastes good now. The measles are just sweeping the country. “ (1-27-81)
A sense of propriety:
When Carry Manhunt’s brother died she went to a singing with Andrew 3 weeks later. What was so bad was that after the singing she went to the store with him and purchased 3 cigars and gave them to Andrew. The store was full of boys which Essie described as “I don’t want to get acquainted with no such.”
The drama of leaving her home:
and it will be four more long mo[nths]. before I can see you; well, I’ll not tell you again to go to Kan. without [me.]… I can go; you can be sure. We are trying to arrange so I can go when you come back. I don’t have, nor will [I] not have time to get lonesome but would be so glad to see Sydney occasionally, if it were possible. (2-17-1881)
Father has not said for me to “get up and git” yet, but he hasn’t said [I] shan’t go (3-22-1881) She is 27 years old, yet is showing strong deference to her father.
The most touching letter was written in April of 1881. It begins:
“as [I] will not have to work as hard as usual tomorrow (our fast day) [I] will sit up and talk to Sydney a while to night; [I] wish [I] could whisper it in your ear for then [I] would not have to wait so long for an answer.
I have thought and prayed much over this subject, all I ask of you will be to not think hard of me for being home sick, as I expect to be; yo[u] know I never was away from home except that winter in Sparta and I was just at home there[.] Mattie always seemed like a sister to me; you know she lived here until she married. I am sure of one thing I would not exchange you and your humble home for any of the Six Mile boys with their hundred of acres. I know I am leaving a good home but I feel like I was going to a good one. So far as waiting longer goes, I do not want even to think of putting in a whole year of waiting to see the one I love: My! Three months is as long as I want to be in suspense. If [I] could see you once or twice a mo.[month] it would be quite different. I don’t want you to think I am half dead to get married; it isn’t that I want a change from this constant work: I don’t have any idea if I could stand up to the work here another year if I could get throug[h] another year I don’t suppose I would be worth coming after. I know we have to work any where if we get along; but people can work better to their own plans than to others. I do not know what Father will do he has not decided yet and these dear brothers; Sydney that is the only thing that trouble me. Father is able to take care of himself and his habits are settled, but the boys are just at the critical point of their life.
There was a grand moon light picnic in Cutler last night. So grand they sent for Pinckneyville brass band and they came. And the only entertainments were the band[,] Ed Gordons stand, of candies, peanuts, lemonade and ice cream. I saw what I never saw in my life before, ladies eating ice cream wrapped in heavy shawls. It was very cool, unusually so. What do you think, I was there. I had just got Emma persuaded to go with the boys & I would stay at home; when we went out to milk[,] the band began playing,
(as we did not know it was to be there). When I heard that soon changed my mind: would have enjoyed it a very great deal better if a certain gent[tleman] in Kansas had been along. (6-4-1881)
1In her letter of March 27, 1880 she is thanking him for a buggie [buggy] ride. This is obviously in Cutler or very nearby. She had never been outside of Illinois.
There was a large wolf spider trapped in my water bucket (which I, of course, dumped into the rosemary), and a cottontail stopped by to drink from the plant saucer. The hallucinogenic Sacred Datura (datura wrightii) plants1 have sprung up all over the yard and the three red bird of paradise (caesalpinia pulcherrima) plants are finally flowering. Yellow butterflies abound, but don’t seem to ever alight, and there is an occasional Monarch.
Repairing a damaged drip line two months ago, exerting more muscle than a wimpy woman has, I ended up with tendonitis.
The first week I ignored the problem, and continued to go to all of my exercise classes, although ratcheting down from 5 lbs to 4. Then I was scheduled for my yearly physical and the doctor told me all of the above. So I continued my qigong (no weights), but stopped going to Silver Sneakers, and stopped heavy yard work.
Felt better this weekend so decided to stop taking Aleve. And started trimming back the enthusiastically growing bushes and vines and drooping tree branches. And a new spouter occurred in the yard that I had to repair it this morning. The necessary work has sent me back to Aleve.
It is 10am on Wednesday, September 3, 2014. A young coyote, dragging from the heat (97° with 33% humidity, temperature to climb to 104° with supposed thundershowers), just slogged across my driveway.