With Introduction and Comments by
My wife’s grandfather, Howard Pearson Miller (1885-1969), married Sarah Jane Baer (1891-1972) and took over her family’s farm overlooking the beautiful Quemahoning Reservoir [see “Introduction: Miller” and “The Lost Civilizations of the Quemahoning”]. Family tradition says that he paid her father, Franklin Baer (1862-1916), just $1600 for the hilltop estate. Meanwhile, Mary Miller, Howard’s other sister, married Austin [Aus] E. Thomas, and they began farming just below the Baer-Miller farm in the rich soil on the western shore of the lake. What follows is the transcript of a letter written in 1906 by Mary [Mrs. Austin E.] Thomas to her Brother Earl Miller and sister-in-law Ruth [Hall], who had moved to Iowa to farm. Earl’s daughter-in-law, Marjorie, provided us a copy of the letter. She calls it “priceless,” and we agree. Ruth and Earl had been married in September, a few months before the wedding of Mary and Austin, which was in the late fall. This letter was written just after the holidays, and there are many things we could say and ask about the communiqué. The 8 pages are small, but Mary uses every inch in comparing the two weddings and, in doing so, giving us a glimpse of rural Somerset County life of nearly 100 years ago. Many of the sentences are grammatically incomplete or run-on, typical of handwritten letter style. There are misspellings and missing punctuation, again understandable for someone writing quickly to get her thoughts down on paper before she forgets. I have taken the liberty to correct these errors and add paragraphs to make reading the letter easier. Where there is a question, and the placement of punctuation would change the meaning, I have placed the punctuation in brackets. Here is Mary’s century-old letter to her brother and sister-in-law in Iowa: addressed to:
Mr. & Mrs. Earl E. Miller
R.F.D. No. 3
Iowa City, Iowa
[with 2-cent George Washington stamp postmarked Hollsopple, PA 1/3/06]
Hollsopple, Pa. R. 1
Jan. 3, 1906
Dear Brother and Sister,
While we are having such a rainy forenoon I will write you a letter. Yes, the wedding is over and I’m well satisfied. Hope will always be. We didn’t have such a big time like you did. We thought it would be too much work for there would be too many to ask. The following were here:
Mr. & Mrs. J.J. Keim
Mrs. Thomas, Jennie Thomas
Howard and Charles Miller
Aunt Martha Bowman
Nathaniel Hamer and Rev. Flots (They came together. Mr. Hamer was not invited, only by the preacher I suppose but was all right.)
And last, Mr. Thomas and myself (You know we were in the crowd too.)
We were married at five o’clock Sunday eve. After that we went to the dining room for a fine supper.
We did not take a trip like you did. On Xmas we drove to Mr. Thomas’ home for a turkey roast. Mama and Mr. Keim went along.
My dress was white silk trimmed with lace, insertion, tucks, and shirring. Mr. wore a black suit. I don’t know whether you care to know what we had for supper or not. I’ll tell you:
Roast chicken Chocolate cake
Sweet potatoes Bride’s cake
Cold slaw Lemonade
Potato salad Custard
Chipped beef and a few other little things like
Celery spiced & pickled dishes
We are not going to housekeeping this winter. I’m staying with Mama for a while. Can tell you later where we will make our home. I think we will take up farming. Ain’t sure yet. We better take the farm if we get it or may be another chance won’t be as good.
Howard is staying with Grandpa’s for a few months yet anyway. Charley is over there going to school. Don’t know how long he will stay. I guess he will get homesick. He can go there and don’t need to be vaccinated is the reason he went over there.
I think we will put off our wedding trip till later then come and visit you. Wintertime is not so pleasant to travel.
Well, we received a few presents but not as many as you unless we get some yet. But we didn’t have so many people around us like you. But these are very pretty. Austin’s sister made us such a pretty cushion. Is the prettiest I ever saw. She can make such pretty things. His mother gave us a bedspread. Mama gave us teaspoons, tablespoons, butter knife and sugar shell [?]. And the ones you sent are so pretty and we thank you many, many times for them. Then we got some dishes, books, testament, and such things.
We got those pictures of you and Ruth. Think they are good and if you want to [,] send two. Send the light colored card. Both light. You seem to think your picture and Mama’s ain’t as good as the rest. I think they are. My picture is not so very good. He made me put my head back so far I could hardly see. I had the over check [?] on but I’m glad we have them.
Mr. and me want to go to Johnstown any nice day and have our pictures taken. Will send you one when we get them if they are worth sending.
Ruth, did you pull Earl’s ears on Christmas? I wish I could have pulled them. I thought of you people so often.
Mama sent you a bureau scarf. Did you get it?
Last Sunday afternoon Austin and me drove to Grandpa’s and spent New Years with them on Monday. Came back here that eve. Grandpa was glad to see us or seemed to be [.] Well, they all were. Grandpa is not very well. He said he is nearly played out. And he looks that way.
Next Sunday we have Communion at the Lutheran Church, Hooversville. On New Years evening they began protracted meeting.
Well, I believe I had better quit or you will begin to think this has no end. Tell Aunt Mary I will write to her soon. How are all friends? This leaves us all real well. Please answer soon.
Oh, I forgot. We had such a nice entertainment at the L. church on Xmas eve. We were there. The church looked fine.
Mrs. A.E. Thomas
Of most interest to me are the verbal expressions, which I believe must have been typical of that era: “Turkey roast,” “Going to housekeeping,” and “Testament,” to name a few. Today, if my translations are correct, we would say, “We’re going to have roasted turkey,” “We are going to set up housekeeping, “ and “We received a Bible.” Today, in my family, we have a custom of pulling one’s ear once for each year of age on one’s birthday, but then, apparently, ear pulling was associated with Christmas.
Mary is very self-conscious about her pictures: “My picture is not very good.” She says that her new groom “made me put my head back so far I could hardly see.” She had her “over check” on. Is that some type of cape or veil? In any event, Mary closes the matter of the pictures by remarking, “I’m glad we have them.” In a note accompanying the photocopy of the letter, concerning the ceremony, Marjorie says, “Weddings were much simpler [back then]!” For example, in those days, usually only professional photographers had reliable cameras: large stationary ones in studios with chemical flashes. The couple would have their pictures taken right after the wedding by driving to some remote location. Having them taken before was usually out of the question because of the superstition concerning the groom seeing the bride. My parents, married the day after Christmas, 1938, in a church parsonage with only the preacher, Dad’s brother, and Mom’s sister as official and witnesses, drove nearly 15 miles to a studio right after the ceremony to have their picture taken. Afterwards, as with Mary and Austin, they returned home to a big meal, prepared by the family who worked all day preparing it rather than attend the ceremony.
Things are certainly different today. In this case, being married at 5:00 and then moving to the dining room, it sounds like everything took place at home. Many of the two dozen dishes were made with ingredients grown on the farm, but pineapples, celery, oranges, bananas, and peaches were no doubt imported from other parts of the country for this special ocassion. Lemonade that late in the year must have been very special.
We believe that the term “drove,” used several times by Mary, refers to horse and buggy. The automobile was only several years in the making when this letter was written, and transportation was rather limited at that time. It’s easy to understand why she says, “Wintertime is not so pleasant to travel.”
Howard Miller, Mary’s brother, would have been just 21 when he and his younger brother Charles traveled halfway across the country for the wedding. Either charley didn’t like shots or the family didn’t want to pay for his vaccination, but Mary believes that the reason he is staying with “Grandpa” [probably Bowman, whom we haven’t researched yet, because Grandpas Miller and Zimmerman were long dead] is for a medical reason. Small pox was a killer in those days. In fact many of the towns near the Miller farm, Jennerstown, Jenners, and Jenners Crossroads, are named in honor of Dr. Edward Jenner who developed the vaccine and saved many lives.
What a glimpse into rural life and customs in early 20th century America! Thanks to Marjorie for making this available, and we’re glad to share it with the world via the Internet. Your comments and insights are always welcome.