Sunday, November 29, 2009

A Letter From My Uncle Ralph

A few days ago, I posted a poem, My Uncle Ralph Never Wrote to Me,that I wrote a couple of years ago when I was transcribing the letters my uncle, Ralph Jabez McPherson, wrote to his sisters between 1980 and 1985. He was born in 1904, so he would have been about 76 to 80 years old at the time. He told of the events of his daily life, tidbits that he thought would entertain his sisters, but the parts I loved the most were when he told stories of his McPherson family.

This is one of my favorite pictures of my uncle (upper left). He loved baseball and reportedly was quite a good baseball player, though I don't know what position he played. McPherson guys loved their baseball, from Wisconsin, to Minnesota, to California. Uncle Ralph's great smile tells the tale of a man who loved baseball.

Below is an except from a letter he wrote on 25 April 1984. My Uncle Ralph was "wordy", his letters ranged from 4 pages on day when the news was light, to his usual 8 to 12 pages. I have kept his wording and spelling for that too tells part of the story of my dear uncle that I knew not so well.

To me this is a wonderful look into the world of my Minnesota McPherson family, the family of my father, aunts, uncles and grandparents, as well as great uncles and great grandparents. Enjoy, as some of this will resonate with many of you. Uncle Ralph was really rather an Everyman. Although he tells stories of his own family, you may find similarities with stories told by your aunts, uncles, parents and grandparents. He writes these letters with unique sense of a common history of time and place.

"Getting back to family. Dad leased the old Newman place, 360 acres between Fort Ripley and Crow Wing , we were a ½ mil off of the state highway, a quarter of a mi from Crow Wing lake & a mi from Dead lake & two mi from the old Lennox district school.. That was in 1913 & we lived there till the fall of 1918 & Helen & Allen were both born there & I rode a horse over to the county clerks place 3 mi from us with all the data. at that time (Meyers was the clerks name & he was a farmer besides being county clerk. It was a pleasant place but on 3 sides of us was all pastured timber & thats were my real education with work began. Before I went to school in the morning s had to get up to help feed the stock, milk 2 or 3 cows and clean the barn & besides that when I got home after school saw wood with a bucksaw for plenty of wood till the next night. The only part I hated was putting up ice in the winter as that took 3 or 4 weeks as 4 or 5 neighbors would get together & put up anywhere from 50 cakes to a hundered & it was a lot of work. Our cakes generaly measured 12” x 20” X 4' & we put up 60 cakes sawing the cakes with an ice saw is real slow in the water so saw a long slab in the water & pull it out on top of the ice with a team of horses & compared to up & down sawing in the water, out in the air it seemed like the saw went thru the ice like a knife to hot butter.

"We always had about 20 head of horses & about 30 head of cattle with at least 4 or 8 head of milking all the time as in those days when you went to the store you took 35 or 40 lbs of homemade butter, also eggs & in season garden produce & most of the time would have a little change coming back.

"There was still timber being cut in Minnesota then & the lbr camps logged in the winter when they could ice the skid roads so Dad always sent two teams up to the logging camps at that time a team would earn as much as a man. Altho you had to put special shoes on the horses . The show were built so you could replace the caulks in the shoes & the horses wouldn't slip. Another thing for 4 or 5 years in the fall he would send two or 3 teams & wagons to North Dakota to take in the wheat harvest, about a 3 days drive & he could always get some one that was going up for the harvest to take them. Dad only went up once & he said that was enough as that time nobody every worked in the lmb camps or harvest cams without getting lousy, as in those days there would be 35 or 40 men to a bunk house.

"Ourselves with our grain there was a harvest crew that went around from farmer to farmer & generally thresh all they had in one day. The famers had to feed them but they slept around the harvest rig & I don't believe I ever seen one of them wash his hands or face altho the farmer would set out warm water, towels & soap. I never seen one of them use it.

"In 1915 Dad took a job in Brainard one winter & altho it was only 12 mi he came home by rain Sat nights. It was the only way to get back & forth & 3 mi from us was the Lennox flagstop. All it was was an old box car with end doors & a potbellied stove & was half tore up from people trying to get wood for a fire. Mother & I would take Dad to meet the train going to Brainerd about 9 PM Sunday nights & he would come back Sat nites around Midnight. That winter was exceptionally cold so we always had to take plenty of wood to keep warm & it was quite a job for me going on 12 to harness the team about 11 PM & the horses didn't like it either. In 1916 Clare brought the grandfolks out to the big house on the lake which he had leased & the following hear Walt brought his family out & leased the old Foster place so for awhile there were 7 McPhersons going to the Lennox school. Almost half of the school. Also Like I said the Main Rd from Minneapolis to Duluth followed the river nearly all the way & about that time Dad got the contract to maintain 4 mi of state highway. He didn't have to put in over 3 days a week & that was with a land leveler with 4 horses. Most of the time I would be the one to work the road as you had to walk it all.

"In 1918 Bertha & Cecil got married & Leon & Minnie Clouse took Cecil & Bertha & Dad & Mother over to the preachers house. He was also a farmer & was hauling manure but all he did was change shoes not his overalls to marry them.
"Also soon after that Clare took the contract to Maintain 4 mi of state hiway up by Barrows about 8 mi up the road so Dad leased the place by the lake & also the Foster place a mi from there & let the Newman Place go. That house had 17 rooms & a full basement, so we moved in to half of it before Clare had got ready to move the Grandfolks and Jims kids to Barrows. Besides Gladys(Jerry) was getting married. The guy she married, I've forgot his 1st name but his last name was Brankel, he was a sharp shooter with the Canadian Princess Pat regiment during the war.

"On there wedding day it was snowing, Clare & Walt were both out west but there were about 30 people there for the wedding not counting the kids. I was upstairs changing into my suit of clothes when I heard someone yet the house is on fire. I run down the stairs & outside & looked up & the whole roof was a fire. I run back up stairs & change into my work clothes again & instead of throwing everything I could out the window I left everything upstairs. With that much help we got everything out downstairs, I can still seek like carrying the stoves out with fire still in them. It was still a big loss because there was 600 bushels of potatoes, 100 gal of sorgham 700 to 800 jars of fruit in the cellar besides most of the bedding , clothes & so forth besides a tough winter to get thru, we had another house a mi from there to move to but all the stock & fee had to stay at the place on the lake so it was a chore to go over twice a day to milk & take care of the animals.

1924 McPherson brothers and a cousin taking a swim
Back row: Harold, Allen & Clive McPherson
Front row: A Foss cousin & Ralph McPherson

"The next spring we got everything moved over where we were living. Meanwhile Uncle Jim had taken a job as a road boss building a new hiway between Worthington Minn & Sioux Fall S. Dakota & he had hired Bill BC who was a year older than me & 4 or 5 other young fellows from Little Falls that was our age & he said he would give me a job if I could get there. This was in 1919 & I was 15 but could easily do a mans work so Dad & I went over to the county road master & he gave me a job 6 mi from where we lived, 25 cents an hour(10 hour days) so I walked that 6 mi twice a day & worked 10 hours for 10 days. That was all I wanted, enough for train fare & a suitcase. Of course a big adventure as it was my 1st time away fro home.

"So you may get tired of reading will let you rest or until next time. Of course have lots to write about yet if you can stand it I will.
"Love, Ralph & Sally"


  1. What a treasure! I enjoyed the part about the ice harvest, something I'm happy we no longer need to do.

  2. How wonderful to have this first-person account! Lucky you!

  3. I love this letter. It was fascinating reading. He was a jewel. The part about the parson? only changing his shoes to marry the couple was priceless too.
    Thanks for coming bt and leaving a comment on my blog. Your are blessed with what I think is the ultimate seek in famiy history. What they did, how they did it, and what they thought about it.
    Thanks for sharing this.

  4. I feel as if you have given me a treasure that is priceless. As a little girl I used to sit and listen to Uncle Ralph's stories with such wonder and delight. I don't remember much about the stories he told but I remember his dancing crystal blue eyes. I read this story with the same anticipation I felt as a little girl! The icing on the cake is the pic with Papa as a little boy (Clive..my grandfather who I miss to this day) brought tears to my eyes. Thank you for such a wonderful gift!!