Friendship, tough times in Northwoods portrayed in letters
When Edith Lawson and Wanda Hannon came to Harshaw back in the late 1920s, they had big dreams. They settled in a little cabin on 140 acres that had just recently been logged off. Highway 51 was non-existent, and the Depression was soon to rear its ugly head. But this pair of inseparable friends were determined to carve out a life in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. They worked hard amidst deprivation, fires, illness, loneliness and many times an empty pantry.
But their fascinating story would never have been realized if it wasn’t for Clare Schuster-Doyle. It all started when Clare found an old cookie tin packed full of hundreds of letters from Edith and Wanda to her great aunt, Florence Drew. Florence lived in Milwaukee, along with her sister Alice. Neither of these women ever married, but focused on their careers in factories in Milwaukee. “When I was growing up, Florence and Alice lived in our house which had several stories,” said Clare. “My dad was their great nephew and we lived in the first apartment of the house and they lived above us. These two ladies were part of my childhood, though, because I would see them every day.”
When these sisters were put into a nursing home a few years ago, Clare cleaned out their apartment and found the tin tucked away in a closet. When she opened it and started reading the letters, she was totally enthralled with the story they depicted. “The letters were written from 1928 to 1932 and they fascinated me,” said Clare. “Edith and her friend Wanda were trying to make a living during the Depression and from what they wrote, they really had a hard time.”
Clare thought the letters were too interesting to just throw out or stash away again, so she got in touch with the Cassian Town Board and Denny Thompson, who is Cassian’s treasurer and an avid Harshaw historian, jumped at the chance to accept them. “It’s just amazing what these women went through to make a go of it up here back then,” he said. “The letters are so interesting and explain in detail how this area was settled back at that time.”
Clare is uncertain how her aunts and Edith and Wanda came to be pen pals. “They weren’t related to our family,” she said, “and I don’t know where they met, but one thing is for sure, they were very good friends.” And that’s evident in the letters. Edith is the primary writer and she opens almost all her correspondence with ” My Dear Florence” and in one letter pens, “your friendship has been like a stay in a corset, one that hasn’t broken.”
Clare and Denny organized the letters by date, and the postal mark on the first letter is from Oct. 1928. Even this early in the correspondence, Edith wrote about her health problems that were a prevalent factor during her life and a frequent subject in the letters. “I had a bad attack Sunday afternoon and took my next to last full grain of morphia powder,” she wrote. “Today I am much better, but lots of pain yet.” It is never revealed in any of the letters exactly what Edith suffered from, but it was an ailment that had her bedridden many days.
Another favorite topic was their rabbit business. By all indications, they raised American Chinchillas and Silver Fox, which are known as both meat and fur breeds. In fact, today the Silver Fox rabbit is considered rare. “Well I had a buyer last Tuesday and after much bickering he offered us $25 for a trio of Silver Fox and Chins,” wrote Edith. “That is of the 3 to 4 month age.” She went on to explain that the buyer wanted the rabbits registered, but she failed to find someone who could help with the paper work so the sale fell through.
As the Depression deepened, it’s evident that Edith and Wanda’s lifestyle turned even more desperate. In an early correspondence Edith wrote, “We were so thankful for your letter. Florence, we were so low in spirits as well as supplies that we were about ready to lay down and die, defeated. Last night Wanda had the worst blues that I ever saw her have and I told her to cheer up as we had hit bottom although I was all through myself.”
But the pair never gave up on their dream. One goal they had was to fix up another structure on their property to use as a rental for hunters and fishermen, which they worked on diligently in the four years they corresponded with Florence. But many months it would sit empty, even during prime hunting and fishing times. “We haven’t had any renters or even inquiries,” Edith penned. “No one has any money.”
In addition to their rabbit and cabin business, these two women were also excellent seamstresses and did lots of sewing for Florence and her friends and relatives in Milwaukee. Coats, smocks, dresses and even underwear were hand crafted by these two. In fact, it may have been their sewing that brought these friends together, because it is mentioned often in all the letters.
They were also very resourceful in other ways and in fact turned to one product they could brew that was a known money maker: moonshine. In their letters they are very discreet about selling their “product,” but it comes across clear enough and Florence must have known about it. The girls had buyers even in Milwaukee. One time Edith and Wanda were invited along with some neighbors to visit Milwaukee, and wanted to bring along some of their “goods” but their chauffeurs were strict teetotalers. “Would love to be able to put this in the trunk,” wrote Edith. “But I think I’ll have to pack it in my grip.”
While times were particularly tough for Edith and Wanda, they did have a dog named Logo, who they adored. Edith wrote at great length and in many letters how much they missed this animal when it died. “Logo’s death shocked me so that I have been unable to reconcile myself,” Edith wrote. “I cried when he died and couldn’t stop for three days. Poor little chap, he was poisoned. He got some wolf bait containing strychnine. It’s very much against the law to use poison this way. We can’t do a thing about it though. He is gone but Wanda and I see him everywhere. We miss him something awful. He was quite an entertainer and lots of company.”
Both of these women were married before they moved to the Northwoods and in fact, Wanda was married to a war veteran who died shortly after they were wed. That qualified her for a $40 a month war veteran widow’s pension. It took many months for the paperwork to come through for this money to be realized, but by then they were so much in debt they could barely keep ahead. Then tragedy struck again and their rental cabin burned down, throwing the pair into even more despair. Despite all their hard work, they couldn’t keep up with the taxes, and their property was foreclosed on by the county.
There are lots of missing pieces on what these friends did for a few years after they lost their property, but eventually they ended up caretaking, and living in, a newly built farmhouse owned by a doctor in Harshaw. Edith even became Cassian’s town clerk for many years, but what Wanda did is unknown. They both lived well into their 80s, though, and are buried side by side in St. Joseph’s Cemetery in Rhinelander.
“I’m so glad Clare decided to share those letters with us,” said Denny. “Wanda and Edith were true Northwoods pioneers and their letters give us an idea on how hard it was to make it up here, especially during the Depression. But they also give us a very good idea of what this area was like back at that time. There’s so much history there and we’re so grateful to have this kind of documentation.”