Soaring over Washtenaw County’s Superior Township on Google Maps gives the illusion of eagle-eyed omniscience. The plat map book lying open next to the computer shows that the meticulously-drawn maps of 19th-century farms correspond in good measure to the present-day brown and green patches on the screen.
Look – there are the outlines of the old Philip Vought farm on Ridge Road in eastern Superior Township. A fleeting sense of connection dissolves with the realization that the outline is only that – the chance to understand the lives of onetime residents is gone.
Would I have enjoyed growing up on the Vought farm?
What did a typical day involve?
How foreign and slow would a childhood be – measured not in miles per gallon but in wagon rides and footsteps?
Thirteen-year-old Mamie Vought left us her 1886 diary to let us know.
More a logbook than a reflective memoir, the diary’s entries chart Mamie’s parents’ routines, events on the farm, and the ceaseless round of visiting between Mamie and her friends, neighbors, and relatives. It becomes apparent, however, that Mamie’s short, telegraphic entries are also only outlines of her experience as a farm girl.
Oblique offhand clues in a year’s worth of entries and additional research in historical materials related to the farm help develop this blank outline into a hazy picture of a two-story farmhouse and barnyard in which appears a small ghostly figure in skirts, her features almost discernible.
Wednesday, June 30, 1886: Ma baked bread and pudding for dinner. I went over to see Myra a few minutes this morning. We picked cherries. Myra and Myrtie was here in the after noon we had fun a lot of it too.
Mamie’s father and mother farmed 160 acres on Ridge Road near Geddes Road. Philip and Mary’s farm resembled those of their 19th-century county neighbors in that they cultivated a range of crops and livestock, akin to the largely-vanished red-barn farms still romanticized in modern-day children’s books.
Philip had 137 of his 160 acres under cultivation. He grew mostly Indian corn as winter silage for his cows. He also grew 9 acres of oats, 4 of wheat, and had 3 acres of apple trees. Three acres of his property were pastureland for his cows and horses. Twenty acres were forest. Mamie – with her younger sister and only sibling, Abbie – explored the forest and gathered flowers there in the summer. In fall and winter, Philip and his hired farmhand George felled trees, dragged logs, and split wood for the farmhouse kitchen’s wood stove.
In 1880, Philip harvested 40 cords of wood and sold some of it for $60 [the equivalent of about $1,300 today]. He also raised bees and harvested 120 pounds of honey. A number of hogs milled around in his hog pen. In all, he earned $2,600 in farm income that year [$60,000]; his property was valued somewhat higher than those of his neighbors, at $13,000 [$290,000].
The two-story farmhouse was roomy and comfortable. Carpet lined the floor next to walls that Mary had neatly whitewashed. The home had bedrooms, a dressing room, a dining room, a front sitting room with a new sofa, and a kitchen. Mamie had her own room with a cozy handmade quilt on her bed, her school materials, her sewing supplies, her doll, her fish hooks, her colorful hair ribbons, her collection of 447 buttons (some sent through the mail from distant friends), and her tiny diary.
In the farmyard, Mary was in charge of the garden, where she grew cucumbers, green beans, cabbage, radishes, potatoes, peas, and other crops. She also had jurisdiction over the turkeys and chickens, periodically slaughtering batches of birds to take to Ypsilanti and sell to a meat merchant for resale to town residents – no USDA approval required.
This was the hyper-local food system in place in 19th-century Washtenaw County. Philip took his oats and wheat to town for sale, and Mary did the same with her birds. On February 10 of 1886, Mary and 13-year-old Mamie killed, plucked, and gutted 44 chickens for sale; they fetched $15.25 [$340] in town, roughly $8 apiece. A similar lot of turkeys earned $46.20 [$1,030].
Mamie helped her mother with other chores. Every Monday, Mary did the family laundry, and every Tuesday, ironed the clothes with solid cast iron hand-irons heated on the kitchen stove. Mamie often helped with the ironing. On one occasion, with relatives in the house and an extra-large load of ironing, Mamie ran to a neighbor’s house to borrow some extra flatirons.
Mamie walked the half-mile to the onetime one-room Fowler schoolhouse that stood just south of Geddes near Ridge Road. She was a good student, and in more than one spelling bee “spelled down the school.” It’s not known to the author whether she attended high school, but even by 1900, fewer than 6 percent of all grammar school graduates across the nation also graduated from a high school.
After school let out, or on one of the many days when she stayed home from school for no stated reason, Mamie worked on a patchwork “crazy work” needlework project, made clothes for her doll, helped hoe the garden, baked cookies, wrote letters, went fishing, or played in the playhouse her father had made (Abbie had her own). Most of Mamie’s free time was spent visiting neighbors and playing with friends.
Tuesday, March 23: Ma ironed and baked bread and biscuit for dinner. Mr Westfall [a neighbor] was here all day. Abbie and I went over to Christie’s and Myra came home with us. I pulled out Abbie’s first tooth.
Wednesday, March 24: I went over to Christie’s but could not go in because Clem had the mumps. George cut wood all day. Abbie and I helped him cord it. Ma worked on her dress.
Thursday, March 25: Christie was over this morning a few minutes. I mopped my first time today. Ma churned. George made the rail cribs to day. Abbie and I found a nest with eleven rats in it. Ma set 2 hens in the hog pen [on nests with fertile eggs to brood and hatch].
Mamie’s diary gives some idea of the diet of a 19th-century Washtenaw farm family. She takes note of the occasional chicken supper as though it were a special occasion. Other suppers she mentioned featured bean stew, soup, peas, string beans, hash, and a onetime meal of roast beef, the only mention of beef that year.
Sunday, January 3: Ma went over to see old Mrs. Gill in the fore noon. Ma and Abbie and I went over to Christie’s, in the after noon. We had a roast of beef for dinner all ate lots and it has been a rainy day all day long.
Mamie’s mother baked bread once or twice a week and churned butter about once a week, producing about 200 pounds of butter per year. Mary also regularly baked pies and cake. She made shortcake, fruitcake, and fruit pudding. Fruit that the family consumed included strawberries, cherries, gooseberries, blackberries from the woodlot, and apples. Mamie and her friends gathered wintergreen from a nearby marsh. The family obtained some groceries from town such as sugar and tea.
The diary also gives an idea of Mamie’s wardrobe. In addition to the clothes she already had in 1886, that year she acquired several items sewn by her mother: two skirts, a blouse, and four dresses that included a red dress, a plaid dress, and a Mother Hubbard, a sort of cover-all sack dress. That most of the items were finished in just two or three days amidst all of the other regular chores suggests that her mother owned a sewing machine. Some of Mamie’s clothes were store-bought, including a fancy collar, a hat, a bonnet, rubbers, a jacket, slippers, and hair ribbons.
Friday, November 12: Ma, Abbie, and I went to town this morning left pa to bake the bread. I got me a bonnet and Ma got her one. After we got home I went to Myra’s + she came home with me.
Tuesday, November 16: Abbie and I went to school. Ma ironed all this A.M. + worked on my red dress this P.M. It snowed to day.
The family went to town regularly but other entertainments were few. In early summer Mamie and her family visited the traveling circus in Ypsilanti. In late August she took a week-long trip with her family to Detroit to visit relatives, a vacation that included boat rides to Belle Isle and on the Detroit River and Lake St. Clair. The trip featured the one occasion that year that the family ate at a restaurant, at a hotel. Mamie also visited an Ypsilanti fair in late September. Otherwise Mamie entertained herself in a world without movies, television, or even radio, and much less electricity – as rural electrification would not arrive for decades.
At age 20, Mamie married Edward Pierce Rogers on December 28, 1893. Though the time of year seems unusual for a wedding, no fewer than four other wedding announcements appear in the same issue of the weekly Ypsilanti Commercial. Even the Ann Arbor Argus took note with this jocular tidbit from January 5, 1894:
Edward P. Rogers and Miss Mamie E. Vought, of Ypsilanti, are now conducting business under the firm name of Edward P. Rogers & Co. A large number of relatives and friends witnessed the ceremony. Many choice and useful presents.
The couple wed at Cherry Hill, a town at the intersection of Cherry Hill and Ridge Roads just outside of the Washtenaw county line. The couple moved to Ypsilanti, taking rooms at 119 Washington. Edward worked as a butcher, with a shop on Huron Street and later on Michigan Avenue. Mamie had two children, Myrtelle and Phillip. Mamie’s mother had lost two infants to illness before Mamie and Abbie were born, but Mamie never experienced that tragedy.
In 1911 the family moved to Detroit. By 1920, Ed worked as a salesman and Mamie operated part of their home as a boarding house, providing rooms and meals for 2 tenants. Myrtelle worked as a high school teacher and Philip as an insurance agent. Both lived at home.
In just a few decades Mamie’s world had changed completely. Her house was electrified and had running water. She bought all of her food. She heard the new technology of radio crackle to life, filling the house with music. Outside, the streetcar clanged past amid crowds of motorcars. By 1930, Ed worked as an assistant manager of a wholesale meat firm and Mamie ran a small restaurant. Their home had three boarders coming by for meals and two lodgers.
When Mamie died in 1944, shortly after her and Ed’s 50th wedding anniversary, the Ypsilanti papers remembered her with an obituary that mentioned the Superior Township farm. There, on quiet nights lit by kerosene lamps, Mamie had once dipped her nib pen into her violet ink and sent her words over a century into the future.
No fewer than three people correctly guessed last column’s Mystery Artifact: an antique stapler. Chuck Welch, Jim Rees, and Johnboy were correct.
Johnboy commented, “I have the exact same model sitting right here on my desk. Labeled ‘Swingline Speed Stapler 3’ Slide back the side tabs and the head opens up and swings back to load.” Good job, guys!
This time we’re veering more towards the strange with this odd toothy item. Because it’s so unusual, here’s a hint: the brand logo stamped on the item reads “109 A POPELL Product Made in USA.” Good luck!
Laura Bien is the author of “Hidden History of Ypsilanti” and “Tales from the Ypsilanti Archives.” Look for her article on Coldwater School, a short version of which first appeared here, in the July/August issue of Michigan History Magazine. firstname.lastname@example.org
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