Written on the back:
Taken after our school picnic in the teacher’s chair. The school (red brick) is at right of teacher. Notice the lillies of the valley her favorite flower then, and the pearl and diamond rings which she loved (I did too). The small chair in background was for bad boys; and guests. Living next door I was able to walk to and from school with teacher which gave me a very important feeling.
– L.T.W. (Laura Thierolf Wait)
Jessie Benton Hermans, my dad’s paternal grandmother, is rather a hero of mine. I’ve covered her life and general fabulousness in an earlier post (here), but I also promised a sequel. That was four years ago. Oops. (In my defense, there actually was a second post – here – just not the promised one.)
So – In the Black Box of memorabilia I received from dad’s sister was a stack of twenty-five letters Jessie wrote between 1899 and 1907 to Laura Thierolf, a friend and former student from Clifton Park Village School No. 6 in southeastern Saratoga County, New York. The letters cover the years after Jessie left the Clifton Park school – her marriage, her journey to South America, and her time in Chile running a school and starting a family.
Laura sent the letters to Jessie’s daughter, dad’s Aunt Ruth, after Jessie’s death, hoping they’d be read and cherished. They are.
A sample – the first letter in the series, gently edited. At this time, Jessie was 23, Laura had just turned 14 a few days before.
Cohoes, July 7, ‘99
My dear Laura; –
I want to send you a letter, and enclose the picture of me that Mrs. Obermair took, and there isn’t an envelope in the house that will hold the picture, so I’ll wrap both up in paper.
The picture is pretty good. Don’t you think so? I had her finish a dozen, and one picture of the group. The group is fine. I look at it a dozen times a day. It is on my desk at home. Some one was looking for me in it, and pointed to you, asking if it were I.
I suppose you are having a pleasant vacation. I am. I went away three times in as many weeks. The last time I went to see our Cohoes boys and others graduate at Williams College. Mr. Watson graduated with honor. I suppose you know who he is. I stayed a week and a half out there, part of the last week with friends about ten miles from there. I had a very enjoyable time. My father came out for one day to see the boys graduate.
I don’t get any thinner. With my white dress on I weigh 134-1/2 lbs. I thought I should lose by this time.
I saw your card this morning as I was dusting, and wanted to come right up and have a chat. Mr. Peck wanted to take me home last Saturday, but I’ve been away so much that now I must stay right at home and study for an examination which comes Aug. 10-11. After that, I want to come up before school opens.
I am afraid that I have taught my last in No. 6. I am only waiting for some teacher to be married, to be appointed to a position here. The School Board sent me word to make no other engagement, as I was sure of a place in the fall. So that is good for me, but I know I won’t enjoy it as much as I did up to “C.P.”
I suppose those “twinnies” are happy now that there is no school. Nellie can go down and play with Callie often now. How much Callie does like her.
Every day I watch the wagons going by to see if I can see any one from C.P. I haven’t seen a soul but Mr. Peck since I left.
He says two pieces of the ivy are growing. I hoped more would. That is the regular ivy that the college boys plant on the college walls Commencement week. Mr. Watson got it for me from one of the college buildings. [Laura’s note: “Jessie B. Hermans is engaged to Mr. Watson.”]
I would be very much pleased to hear from you soon. Perhaps I’ll stay home long enough to answer my letters.
Remember me to all your folks. And do let me know when the union picnic is to be. I want to come to that if I can.
My father waits to mail this for me. I forgot to tell you he sold his store just before I closed school.
Jessie B. Hermans
I love this so much. A real look into the very loving heart of my great-grandmother. She speaks of Clifton Park so fondly – like it was a world away from her world in Cohoes. In truth, the towns are ten miles and a bridge apart. But for a young, unmarried woman in the 19th Century, ten miles may as well have been a thousand.
I love the couple casual mentions of her father, of whom I know next to nothing… the seriously pointed reference to her fiancé, Adelbert S. Watson. And the sweet greetings to Laura’s family and her younger siblings. The mention of “the twinnies” is especially charming – Laura had twin brothers, Fred and Frank. They were going on eight years old at the time of this letter. Nellie was a year older than the boys.
Later letters detail her the births of sons Edmond and Kenneth, and daughter Winifred, and Kenneth’s death at eight months of age, plus lots of details about their lives in Chile.
From the final letter in the bunch:
Iquique College, May 2, 1907
My dear Laura; –
You will truly think my promises are made of piecrust, for it is six months nearly since I received your very welcome letter. I have been and am so busy, that I look the other way when my cubby hole of unanswered letters stares me in the face.
For the first time since I have been in Chile I am teaching all day. But I do not have the housekeeping burdens. Some one else does that. But there are so many calls on my time that you cannot imagine. Early and late, I have to run to the office, I can never go out anywhere with Mr. W, for when he is out I have to be head of the house. We do occasionally go out in the bay on board sailing vessels or steamers, if the captains are friends of ours, but it has to be after seven o’clock at night.
We are short one man teacher. One splendid one we had had to start for the States last week with his wife and two children because his wife, who had a very serious operation for cancer of the breast, was all run down, and threatened with cancer of the stomach. So we have to do extra work now, Mr. W and I especially.
But I don’t mind the work so much. It means more money, and then too, my baby [Winifred] is doing nicely, and so my mind is free for my work. She is ten months old now, my heart’s darling, just as much like Kenneth as one baby can be like another, except that she is well, and he was not. Her father thinks there is no baby like her.
I was pleased to hear that Arthur Wait is the one whom you are to marry. I think you have made a very wise choice. I knew nothing of it but a suggestion that you were wearing a diamond. I know how provoked you feel about people knowing more of your private affairs than you yourselves. They had me about to be married many times before we had settled the day.
I think you are wise not to marry at once. You are both young, and will never again be so care free as you are now. Enjoy your young days. Married days are good, but you will never in all your life see happier days than the years of your engagement. I think back on mine with such tender memories.
You are wise to enjoy your own family a little longer. Afterward, other thoughts and cares will have first place, and it is only natural and right that they should.
I liked the two little pictures you sent me, especially the one with the book in your hand. You have changed very little. You are fleshier and more womanly, but it is the same Laura. How I should like to see you in your own house! Even tho I do not often write, I send many loving thoughts your way.
Edmond goes to kindergarten, second year. He knows his letters now, and begins to read a little. He would not stay out of school if I paid him.
We are almost full now, 266 matriculations. We have a girls’ side and a boys’ side, entirely separate, but until today they have eaten in the dining room together, but at separate tables. We have only a small number of girls in comparison to the boys. Today we fixed two tables in the library for the girls, and so have the dining room free for the boys. They looked sad when they missed the girls, but I looked glad. They are so silly about each other.
Mr. W said a few months ago that he should like to go home at the end of this year. But now I am afraid we can’t, as that teacher who went home would have been very good indeed to have left in charge here. Even if we get a good new one he will have been here such a short time at the end of the year that he could not be placed in charge. There is another, a very good teacher, knows Spanish well, etc., but hasn’t the all-round common sense that such a place requires. So it looks dubious for us. I threaten to take the two children and go alone. But I guess that threat is only words.
Now I must stop. Write when you can, for I know you too are busy. Remember me to Arthur and to all the friends.
Jessie H. Watson
“Made of piecrust” – love it. Now I don’t know if there were any more threats to leave, but Jessie soon found herself pregnant again, and plans were quickly made for her to move back to the States with the children. They arrived in New York in early October, rested a bit with relatives in New Jersey, then set out for her in-laws’ home in O’Neill, Nebraska, where daughter Ruth was born in January 1908. Adelbert stayed on in Chile for another school year, arriving back in August 1908. My grandfather was born eleven months later.
I don’t think she knew she was pregnant when she wrote this last letter – I think she’d have mentioned it – but the dates suggest she might have been. Whatever – it’s easy to understand why the desire to leave Chile was so on her mind. She later wrote with obvious relief about how healthy her children were once everyone was back home. “Goat’s milk, oatmeal gruel, thrived.”
Now to tie all this up. Laura did marry Arthur Wait, and in doing so became the wife of Adelbert’s third-cousin. That I knew. But the other day I discovered that Frank Thierolf, one of the “twinnies”, married Cornelia Howland Cassady, granddaughter of Cornelia Howland Baker and her “Baker Boy” husband Daniel. (See preceding post.) Teacher’s young friends ended up as family. Crazy.
Interesting insights into life in the early 20th century. I didn’t know her well but she was known to the family as “Granny” Watson and used to send me a brand new dollar bill for my birthday each year…with a strong suggestion to save all or a least part of the money.