Letters from Long Ago

How long has it been since you received a handwritten letter — perhaps from your cousin or an old aunt? Some of you are probably saying, “I do not remember” or “never.” You youngsters may be asking, “What is a letter?”

For those who have grown up using only electronic devices for long distance communication, I will explain what a real letter is. You might think of it as being somewhat like an email or a text message. However, it was written with a pencil or a fountain pen, in longhand — a form of writing called “cursive,” which people of your age probably cannot read. After the message was written, the paper was folded, placed in an envelope, addressed to the recipient, stamped with a two-cent stamp, carried to the post office and sent on its way. Before we had air mail, you could expect it to reach its destination within a week.

So much for “instant messaging,” but that is how most people corresponded with far-away friends and relatives before long distance telephone calls became affordable.

Just imagine yourself in a permanent cellphone “dead space,” with no other phones available. That is where I found myself as a youngster, 200 miles away from home in college. You can be sure I loved getting letters from home. My mother sent me a letter most every week, keeping me informed with news from Frisco. About once a month, she enclosed a $1 bill, which, in those days, would buy me two movie tickets with Coca-Colas. So, I made sure I answered her letters.

Now, for some letters from long ago! The great-grandparents of my wife, Beth, came in a covered wagon and settled in this area in the year 1863. Beth recently uncovered a treasure trove of memories from our storage closet. It was a collection of letters, actually, copies of letters, written by some of her ancestors. One of the letters in particular intrigued me. It was written in 1902, the year Frisco was “born,” by an aunt whose family had settled on a farm near here. I will share portions of the letter with you, and I want you to notice the things that were news and concerns to people of that day — so different, in most cases, to our news and concerns of today.

After the usual opening greeting followed by a mention of water wells and rain (or the lack thereof), very vital subjects for farmers, the discussion turned more interesting: “We have a new town about two miles from us. Well, I guess the depot is only about a mile and a half, I guess. The Frisco Railroad passed through our country and was completed last spring. It runs about 3/4 of a mile east of us.” (Note: With further research, we find that the farm was located on the Collin and Denton County line, near where the North Dallas Tollway is today. Their barn was in Denton County and the house was in Collin County. Records show they sold the farm a few years later for about $1.50 per acre. According to my real estate friends, property in that area, if available today, might sell for more than $4,000 per acre). The letter continues, “Our town consists of two large lumber yards, two cotton gins, two grocery stores and a few dry goods stores. There is an ice house, a livery stable, beef markets, a real nice Methodist church and a good many nice dwellings. I don’t know just how many, but they are all nice. Papa, cousin Willie Hill, son of cousin Green, and two more men own one of the gins. They are buying wheat now while waiting for the cotton harvest. There is preaching at the Methodist church nearly every Sunday. There is only one church in town, but they are so kind to let other denominations preach in their church. I am an organist and also teach the infant class in Sunday School.”

The writer then turned to a discussion of the crops. She said, “Papa made 19 bushels of wheat per acre and thinks he will make 30 bushels of corn per acre. He thinks he has the best corn in the country. His cotton looks good now, but don’t know how it will turn out.”

Then, she continued her letter and asked her cousin about coming to visit, saying, “Do you guess you will ever come to Texas? I sure wish you would. I think you would like it. Some people talk about the prairie dogs, centipedes, horned frogs and tarantulas of Texas, but you need not be afraid of them here, for I never saw a prairie dog, although, there are a good many in West Texas. And as for centipedes, I very seldom see one of them. I killed one this spring — the last one I’ve seen and the first one I had seen in a long time. And horned frogs — ha! ha! — I am sure they won’t hook you. There are a good many of them, but I’ve caught lots of them and played with them. The children catch them every chance they get. And tarantulas — well I’m afraid of them, but have seen only two in my life, and one of them a boy had caught and brought to school in a bottle. So, you need not be afraid of those things. The trains are the most dangerous things I know of in this country, for Papa came very near being run over in the spring. But come along, and if you’re afraid of them, we won’t venture near them. We also have good water — two good wells with as good water as I think anyone ought to want. We sure have some fun times out here. There was a picnic at Frisco yesterday, and they had a baseball game in the afternoon. I sure enjoyed it, for Frisco came out ahead. I will have to close now. Write soon, and make it a long letter.” After her closing comments, Anna signed the letter to her cousin.

Another letter in Beth’s book of memories was one (eight pages long) written during the typhoid fever outbreak of the early 1900s. In it, Anna was warning her “mamma” and all the family about the dangers of “the fever.” She instructed them to take lots of tonic. Then she said, “Papa, if you read this letter before you get to the house, I want you to stop at the drug store and, first, get Bessie and Mamma a good course of medicine, and then a good blood tonic for all of you. I had a letter from Minnie Wolf this morning … said there were eight cases in town.” She then went on to other business, telling about their apple and peach crops. She advised her folks to eat lots of apples “to prevent constipation” and said, “This year’s peach crop is not good. I guess the dry weather got them. Some of them are falling off the tree and they’re about the size of the end of your thumb.”

So, there you see some of the news and concerns of that day. How do those subjects compare to what you might share with your out-of-state friends or relatives today? If you were telling them about Frisco, or inviting them to come here, you might mention things like our new schools, parks, the Dallas Cowboys headquarters or the $5 Billion Mile. At any rate, your news would certainly be different from what was shared in those early day letters, and you can bet it would get there a whole lot faster.