Tuesday, June 3, 2014

52 Ancestors: #22 Myrtie Mabel Wilcox, (1879-1953) - A Woman's Work -Whew!

52 Ancestors: #22 Myrtie Mabel Wilcox Henn (1879-1953)

Climbing My Family Tree: Myrtie Mabel Wilcox, 1899
Myrtie Mabel Wilcox, 1899
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This is my latest post for the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge initiated by Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small blog. For more information about the challenge and links to the other blogs participating in the challenge, please click on the badge in the right margin.

Myrtie Mabel Wilcox Henn, my great-grandmother on my father’s paternal side, was born on November 13, 1879 in Burnside, Michigan to George Butler and Mary Jane Currier Wilcox. She was the ninth of eleven children. Her siblings were:  Emma  Messer (1864-bef 1930); Annetta Sharp (1866-1928); George C. (1867-1897); Charles (1868-1904; Frank E. (1870-1894); Bertha Crippen (1872-1894); Adeline “Addie” Sutphen (1875-1903); Arthur H. (1877-1955); Arthur H.  (1877-1955); Russell (1883-1961) and Ethel G. Wilcox (1885 - ?). Her parents had emigrated from Canada and settled in Michigan in about 1867. 

Myrtie attended the local school in Burnside, Michigan as she grew up, and she obtained a teaching certificate, and was working as a teacher when she married my great-grandfather Owen James Henn (he went by "Owen" but I use both his first and middle names because there is an "Owen"  all but one of the Henn generations I know of so far, and it will be less confusing in the long run). Their fathers’ farms were kitty corner across the road from one another, and it is likely that she knew Owen James her whole life before deciding to marry him. Perhaps she’d seen him perform with the Burnside Cornet Band. They went to Romeo MI to get married on September 2, 1901. The marriage register indicates Myrtie  (21) was a teacher and Owen James (22) was a farmer. One of their witnesses was Addie Sutphen, Myrtie’s next oldest sister, who lived in Romeo. The document also includes the names of both fathers and the maiden names of both Myrtie's and Owen James’ mothers.

Climbing My Family Tree: Myrtie Wilcox and Owen J Henn Marriage record, 2 September 1901
Myrtie Wilcox and Owen J Henn Marriage record, 2 September 1901
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Myrtie and Owen James lived to share 52 years together and had eight children: Ervin John (1902-1992), Hazel Annette McArthur (1902-1962), Earl Owen (1904-1904), Lowell Floyd (1905-1984), Owen Carl (1906-1988), Irma Jane Sutton (1911-2006), Frank Elwyn (1913-1995), and Lucille Elizabeth Robson (1915-1993.) Early in their marriage, they had to deal with the death of a child. It was normal then to give a deceased  child’s name to another child, particularly if the dead child was named for someone the parents still wished to honor. So the name “Owen” was also given to the next son born after the baby died, my grandfather, Owen Carl Henn.

Normally, I couldn’t give much more information about the life of an ancestress who was a farmer’s wife, that wasn’t heavily drawn from her husband’s record, if she didn’t make the local newspaper, and  I’ve been unable to find any newspaper articles about Myrtie (which probably has more to do with the fact that I haven’t found archived editions of the local papers).  But Myrtie’s youngest daughter, Lucille Henn Robson, wrote and compiled a book of her own and her siblings’ memories about her parents and grandparents, her husband and his parents , and the community in which she and her siblings grew up, called “Members of the Flock.” In it she includes, throughout the book, descriptions of some of her mother’s daily life, to the point where I began to wonder whose job was harder in that family: Owen James’, as farmer, or Myrtie’s as farmer’s wife  (even though it was  listed on all the censuses as “none”)!

In the early years of their marriage not only did Myrtie have eight children in thirteen years, but she cared for them; made most, if not all, of their clothing; cooked for her children and her husband -- on a wood stove and without a refrigerator; cleaned the  house and washed the laundry – without indoor plumbing or electricity; and did farm chores. Irma, the 6th child, was the first child in the family to be bottle fed.

There was no indoor plumbing in Owen James and Myrtie’s home until after the children had left home. Halfway between the house and the barn was a windmill largely used for pumping water to the barn for the horses and the cattle.  Water for the house was carried by bucket load from the windmill mostly by Myrtie. As they grew up, she was helped by the children.  Later the windmill was replaced by a loud gasoline engine, and, in about 1935, by a quieter electric engine, when the county finally ran electricity out to the house and property.  After the children got married and moved out of the home, in about 1936, Owen James put plumbing in the house. For Myrtie, to have running water in a sink and to have a real bathroom were dreams come true.

During most of the years the kids were home, Myrtie did laundry using tubs and washboards and water she had carried from the well and heated on the kitchen stove. (I doubt the job was as bucolic as the picture below looks, as with 11 -12 people in the household, laundry would be a constant chore: hot, without air conditioning in the summer, and in a Michigan winter, getting the water from the well would be a very cold onerous task.)

Climbing My Family Tree: Ad for laundry soap, approx 1910
Ad for laundry soap, approx 1910 (in the public domain)
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Even something as simple today as ironing, if we do it at all (– permanent press, anyone?), was a major production before electricity. Lucille described the ironing process, explaining that this was before the luxury of an ironing board, and that the ironing was done on the kitchen table. A set of three irons – small, medium, and heavy were put on the cook stove to heat. One detachable cool handle fit all three irons and would clip on.  Myrtie would  test the iron’s readiness with a wet fingertip, and, if it was hot enough to sizzle, iron the garment. When the iron cooled, she took it back to the stove and set it on the stove to reheat; she then opened the stove lid and added more wood, and clipped the handle to another iron. Lucile said, “On hot days, she perspired, but with a large family, she ironed for hours.”

Climbing My Family Tree: Ad for clip on handled irons, 1911
Ad for clip on handled irons (in the public domain)
Click to make bigger

Myrtie's husband worked his Uncle Phil ‘s farm because Phil  had “rheumatism” (likely Rheumatoid arthritis).  They also cared for him in other little ways throughout the years, and he often visited at dinnertime. In the Spring of 1927, Phil got quite sick and didn’t get better. On June 30, 1927, Phil came to their home, and Myrtie put him in her and her husband’s bedroom to care for him until he got better. He didn’t leave the room , or the bed, for three years.  Myrtie fed him, and cleaned him, and took care of the bed pans.  At some point, because of the extra laundry, Phil and her husband bought her a Maytag washer with a gas engine to run it, but she still had to carry in water for the washing machine and two rinse tubs and heat it on the stove (to see how the washer worked, click HERE for a short demonstration on YouTube).  On July 9, 1930, Phil died in his sleep.

In addition to caring for the family and keeping house, there were farm chores to be done.

The farm had about 18 cows that needed to be milked twice daily. The milk was put into a separator,  a multi-piece contraption that Myrtie had to wash every morning. Once milk was poured in, the cream came out of one spout and the skimmed milk came out of the other. The milk was given to the animals (calves being weaned, pigs, and chickens), while the cream was put in milk cans and taken to the store once a week to be traded for groceries and other supplies. Some of the fresh cream was set aside to make butter in a big barrel churn that sat on a frame with handles that pushed the barrel over and over, thus churning the butter. The kids and Myrtie churned the butter, occasionally stopping to peek in the glass on the top to see how it was doing. When it turned into butter Myrtie drained all of the buttermilk into a pail. Then she tipped the butter into a large bowl and kneaded it to get out all of the buttermilk. Lucille said they then added yellow food coloring, which didn’t make sense to me so I looked it up and discovered that homemade butter can vary from very pale, almost white, to yellow, depending on what the cows eat, and, apparently, societal pressure had already declared that butter should be yellow. 

Climbing My Family Tree: End over End Butter Churn, photo by EFG, CC3
End over End Butter Churn, photo by EFG, CC3, found at Old and Interesting

Every year Myrtie raised hundreds of baby chicks in the basement, starting with eggs in an incubator powered by a kerosene lantern. It had regulators to keep the water temperature within a ½ degree of 103. Sometimes she set up two incubators. In front of the machine was an insulated glass door which was kept closed to preserve heat. Before the eggs could be put in the incubator they had to be tested to see if there was an embryo, by holding them up in front of a light in a box to see through the shell. Then the eggs were carefully put in the trays, and after 10 days they were tested again to see if there was a chicken inside. Only if the egg showed a chicken inside was it put back in the incubator.  For the next 21 days Myrtie had to take each rack out and turn each egg over halfway and then put the tray back in the incubator. At the end of 21 days, the little chicks would peck their way out of the shell, wet and exhausted. After a bit they fluffed up and regained their energy. In 4 to 6 hours the incubator would be full of live chicks hopping around. They would then be transferred to the brooder house in the back yard, which was heated by stove.

CVlimbing My Family Tree: Ad for kerosene lamp powered egg incubator, 1911
Ad for kerosene lamp powered egg incubator, 1911 (in public domain)
Also, you can still buy one from Lehman Bros (CLICK HERE)
Click picture to make bigger

Her life was not all work. Both Myrtie and her husband, and most of the children were musical, and she played piano and organ. On many Sunday afternoons the family gathered around the piano and sang song after song. [Now I think I know where the Henn tradition of gathering around the piano on Christmas and singing several books of Christmas carols, for hours, came from!]  She and her husband liked to listen to the radio as well: first, powered by car batteries brought into the house, and later by electricity. They never got a TV although they occasionally watched one at someone else’s home.

On November 5, 1953, after a short illness, Myrtie Mabel Wilcox Henn, age 73, died in Marlette Hospital. She was buried in the South Burnside Cemetery.  

If anyone knows more about Myrtie and would like to share with me, please leave a comment, or contact me by e-mail. My e-mail address is at the "contact Me" tab above. I would so love to know more!

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I would love to find online archives of local newspapers to see if there are any stories that would bring Myrtie more to life (it will be several years before I can make a research trip to Michigan). 
I'd also like to find more pictures of Myrtie and Owen James.

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U.S. Federal Censuses: 1880, 1900, 1910, 1920,1930, 1940; 1851 Census of Canada East, Canada West, New Brunswick, and Nova Scotia; "Michigan, Marriages, 1868-1925," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/N38F-DHW : accessed 27 May 2014), Owen Henn and Myrtle Wilcox, 02 Sep 1901; citing Romeo, Oakland, Michigan, v 3 p 523 rn 187, Department of Vital Records, Lansing; "Members of the Flock" by Lucille Henn Robson; http://www.oldandinteresting.comhttp://cooking.stackexchange.com/questions/21997/did-i-make-butter-or-something-elsehttp://www.jitterbuzz.com/ironing_history.htmlhttps://www.lehmans.com/p-1273-kerosene-powered-chicken-egg-incubator.aspxhttp://www.farmcollector.com/equipment/antique-incubators.aspx#axzz33Xoos0gt.)

2 comments:

  1. Hey Jo, this is great. Thanks for all the info!

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. You're welcome, Tamara; I'm glad you enjoyed it!

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