The story of a long-ago friendship captivates readers
Sometimes a story will take on a life of its own and that has certainly been the case with the tale of Edith Lawson and Wanda Hannon. These two young women came to Harshaw in the mid-1920s to carve out a life in the Northwoods of Wisconsin on 40 acres of land. They couldn’t have chosen a more difficult time to establish a homestead.
In the Oct. 28 edition of the Star Journal, we published a story about these women, who were determined to build a life for themselves by raising rabbits, dabbling in the tourist trade, sewing clothing for clients in Milwaukee and even making moonshine. Their story sparked a tremendous outpouring of curiosity from many Star Journal readers who were interested in knowing more about Edith and Wanda.
In reality, their tale would never have been revealed if not for a tin of letters their great-niece, Clare Shuster-Doyle, found in her Aunt Florence Drew’s closet. Aunt Florence was a diligent correspondent with Wanda and Edith, and saved all the letters they wrote to her. Clare found hundreds of these letters when she was cleaning out Florence’s closet after Florence moved to a nursing home. Clare found the letters too interesting to throw away or stash back in the tin, so she contacted the Cassian Town Board. Denny Thompson is Cassian’s town treasurer and a Harshaw historian, and jumped at the chance to read the letters. Clare brought them to Harshaw and copies were made for safe keeping.
The letters written to Florence from Edith and Wanda portray a life of hardship, physical ailments and many other trials and tribulations. The letters were penned between 1928 and 1932 when the Great Depression was deepening, and Wanda, Edith and their dream were certainly affected by this desperate time in the United States.
Reading the letters makes one realize just how tough the going was back in those days. Denny believes Wanda and Edith were beholden to Florence through loans she may have made to the girls, and that may be the reason why Florence kept all the letters tucked safely away. Florence, along with her sister Alice, worked in a factory in Milwaukee and regularly sent money to the girls. Wanda and Edith were also excellent seamstresses and Florence, Alice and their friends regularly sent the young pioneers requests for everything from coats to curtains and even underwear.
It has never been discovered why these women became such fast pen pals, or why Edith and Wanda decided to move to Harshaw, but Denny did find out some information of their life before they came to the Northwoods. Wanda had been married to a man named William Hannon. He was a veteran of the Spanish-American War and died in 1915. Wanda’s dad and brother Ted also decided to homestead in Harshaw. They bought 40 acres on Rocky Run Road. Wanda was the oldest of 12 children.
Edith’s maiden name was Brockway. Edith, along with her mother, moved to Milwaukee in 1920 from Flint, Mich. Edith’s father died, leaving what appears to be a trust, of which Edith was to receive $10 a month. This money was supposed to be sent to her from her sister Agnes, who took her time sending it and many times did not send it at all. It is still a mystery how Edith became a Lawson and like any good story, the saga continues.
But what is known for sure is that these two women did everything they could for five years to make a go of their homestead. In fact, they were quite confident they would make lots of money raising and selling rabbits, and they wrote often to Florence about this enterprise.
They raised American Chinchillas and Silver Fox rabbits, and both these breeds are known for their luxurious fur. It is speculated that perhaps this fur was to be used to trim clothing such as coats and gloves for manufacturers in Milwaukee. However, Edith or Wanda never wrote about sending pelts away. In fact, the rabbit business turned out to be a bust. “Our poor rabbits are sure up against it,” penned Edith to Florence early on in the correspondence. “Our hay ran out long ago and the clover has been too wet to feed so they are living on oats and water and they don’t like it. I sent out letters to all the names I have that were interested in rabbits but so far no replies. We will have to dispose of them as it doesn’t pay to go into debt for feed. We have to pay for the last batch of hay which cost $10. Ye Gads, but the money we spent on those rabbits. I don’t begrudge a cent put into this farm for other things for we have something but the rabbits were such an expense, worry, heartache and work. And now we have to give them away. Gee, I nearly die when I think of it.”
Eventually, the girls wrote of trying to sell some breeders to a man who insisted on pedigree papers on the rabbits. While they were purebreds, Edith couldn’t get the papers certified and the sale fell through. As the years passed, Edith wrote of Wanda eventually canning some of the rabbits, but as the letters progressed into the early 1930s less and less was written about these creatures and it is assumed the girls gave up on this proposition that did not make them any money.
Edith and Wanda lived very minimally. They had a well (no running water) and heated with wood and an old oil stove. Along with their own cabin, there was another crude structure on their property that they spent a couple of years fixing up for tourists. Before the Depression hit hard, they wrote to Florence of many guests that came to hunt, fish and play in the Northwoods. “Once the guests settle in they rarely leave,” wrote Edith. “We treat them good and they love Wanda’s cooking.”
The girls rented out their cottage for $12 a week, unless there was a “bunch,” then they charged $15. Breakfast cost 35 cents, lunch was 40 cents and dinner cost 50 cents.
Part two of this saga is coming in the Jan. 3 edition of the Star Journal. Moonshine, illness and never-ending money problems plagued the girls as the years went by.