The Early Life of Estella Jane Herron


Perhaps the later years of Kate Herron, or Grandma Clark, as she became to be called, can be mirrored in the remembrances of a daughter, Estella (Stell) who was born March 11, 1879. Herein follows the "Story of Stella."

I was the middle one of the "three little girls," and whenever an older sister or sister-in-law wanted someone for company, or to stay with children, I was farmed out. Ida was too "babyish" and Nellie was more help at home.

Before Pa died, when I was eight, I had spent three months in camp as company for sister, Kate. I remember that my father was fond of us little children. He was always kind, but we stood in awe of him.

Mother was a strict taskmaster. She thumped us on the head with her heavy thimble when we were bad and lectured us on manners and morals. "Whistling girls and crowing hens will always come to some bad end" produced results. We whistled only when out of hearing while bringing in the cows. "A stitch in time" kept us in repair and "morning hours are golden, noon are silver and night lead" got us up and going bright and early.

I was the curly heired one of the little girls. Mother would hold us by the forehead and rake the comb smoothly through our hair with not a lost motion.

Sister Kate wanted us clean when beaus came. She would grasp us by the chin and scrub the hide off. Charles was a tease. He would stretch his long legs out and trip us. Fred wanted us to help him with chores. I would run away, but he always delivered at last one telling blow. How we loved Frank. He brought me a majolica pitcher which is still in the family. When we called him to dinner, one little girl would ride on a horse with him, and the other two on the other horse.

School consisted of three months in the spring and three in the fall with vacation in the winter and summer. The teachers often boarded at our house. I quit school when I was fourteen in the eighth grade. Some of the older ones in the family had only six months schooling, yet read well and appeared educated. Reading, writing and arithmetic were the only subjects, and a bright student could learn a considerable amount in six months.

One month after Pa died, Charles, age seventeen, was caught in a cave-in cleaning out the well. He was imprisoned fourteen hours in a 24 foot well. Only the air around the chain saved him. When the cave-in occurred, Fred and I were standing so close we fell forward and were buried to our knees. The windlass was sucked down by the quicksand. I ran a half mile to the school where a crew was building the new school. Fred ran two miles to the mill and brought the men. Some one rode a horse to telephone for a doctor who came by buggy from Alpena. Soon about 150 people gathered. Digging was very dangerous because the timbers were buried, and as one was pulled out, more dirt caved in.

Before Pa died, he had the contract for the new school and had assembled planks and 100 pounds of spikes. With these supplies, a large frame was made, and as the men dug, the frame was sunk. Men worked in shifts, and women gave them food and coffee. From 12:30 P.M. to 4:00 P.M. they fearfully dug. They finally heard a muffled shout and knew he was alive. By 6:00 o’clock, they could talk to Charles, and the doctor handed down stimulants. All during the afternoon, he had been conscious and had heard each move toward his rescue.

Finally, the digging became so dangerous the men were afraid to go down. They had over. I’ll go down." been using a small fire shovel gingerly. At last, one old man of 74, John McSorley, said, "My life is nearly He carefully descended and found that one of Charles’ feet was wedged in between two timbers. He could not risk the danger of moving the timbers, so he cut the boot from the foot. At 3:00 A.M., they raised the rescuer and the boy. Such a cheer as arose from the crowd mingled with the tears of relief. The numbed foot had been cut severely. The doctor sewed up the wound. The men filled the hole. Charles was all summer recovering, and whenever he shook his head that summer, he shook sand out of his ears.

With a tragedy and a near-tragedy the year I was eight, I grew up fast. From the time I was ten, I took care of nephews and nieces who continued to arrive constantly it seemed. Mother finally had thirty-four grandchildren. I remember the earliest ones best, except my contribution of five. Neither Nellie nor Ida would help me when the small Willetts, Kings, or Herrons came to the house. "You offered, so take care of them," they would say.

Mother was a prompt woman. Meals were always on time. If a hired man ate daintily, she suspected him of laggard activity and fired him. She was suspicious of anyone who didn’t eat meat and eggs. Breakfasts were at six or seven o’clock depending on the chores. Every Friday was bake day. Every Saturday was butter and egg day in town. When mother left early and with vigor, we always played a bit and made candy, but we knew that by supper time, we must scrub the floors, polish the stove, sweep the bedrooms and have supper on the table as Ma drove into the yard. We quarreled a bit over which job was ours, but any dalliance at the beginning of the day meant a burst of speed at the end. 

In the summer, we gardened and picked bushels of berries. From the time I was ten, I always helped with chores and milking.

As soon as gardening and canning let up, Mother started knitting stockings and mittens for the whole family. She spun part of her own yarn.

As we grew older and wanted to attend dances, we hitched up the horse and democrat, and Mother and the three girls and Elmer attended parties. After Mother was a widow, the neighbors would make her a "wood bee" and she would give a dance in the evening. We had a neighborhood fiddler who practiced all one afternoon on three strings when he had the misfortune to break one. The dance was a great success.

We never served spirits. Mother thought drinking a mortal sin, but believed in the efficacy of good liquor after having a tooth pulled, leg amputated, or some such crisis. Once when Nellie had a tooth pulled, Ma bolstered her with a drink. She left the bottle with the dentist for the next visit, but someone else must have had a crisis. When the next tooth came out the bottle was empty.

The winter I was eleven, I stayed with sister, Annie, in camp for company, and to help with the children while she and a chore boy cooked for thirty to forty men. When I was fifteen, I helped sister-in-law, Annie Herron, cook for twenty-five men at the mill boarding house. I waited table, washed dishes and peeled potatoes. 

Finally, when I was sixteen, I became a full-fledged camp cook for my three brothers and two neighbors. My menu was potatoes, bagas, carrots, baked beans, fresh pork, occasionally beef, pancakes, bread, steamed pudding, always gingerbread, and two kinds of pie, dried apple and vinegar. I never had an egg to cook with, but had a five gallon keg of sour milk.

The year I was sixteen added another experience. I helped my sister , Nellie, and her husband cook for forty to fifty men on Miller Creek west of Hillman. The year I was eighteen, I cooked with sister-in-law Barbara Herron, near Atlanta. That was the winter I came out early and got married.

One of my most eventful winters was the one I was seventeen. I went into camp on December 13. Christmas in camp was just another day. I was near the North Branch, twelve miles from Hillman cooking for my brothers. As usual I received $2.50 a week. One day Charles cut his foot badly. I walked to the nearest camp and borrowed a cutter. In spite of loneliness, we did not neighbor with them because they had fleas. Charles started to town, but the cutter broke, so he rode the horse to Hillman. By the time the Doctor had fixed his foot, it was dark, so he went to a hotel. He threatened he would not pay for his room if he got lice. The next day, unable to work, he rode home 15 miles to Wilson. He discovered he had already been loused up by the driver of the supply wagon who had spent one night in camp just previous to his accident. Realizing what he would find on his return, he brought in two suits of underwear for each man. Ordinarily, the men did their washing on Sunday, but during this crisis, I did the extra washing, and they paid me "well" for it. I didn’t have any clothes line. I used little trees. One day a couple of scalers went by the camp and to my embarrassment, pointed laughingly at a little tree dressed in long read underwear and my unmentionables.

When camp supplies came, it meant a change of menu. Frequently, we would receive the following:

100 pounds of beans

30 pounds of dried apples

100 pounds of sugar

50 pound can of lard

5 gallon keg of syrup

4 gallon keg of molasses

2 or 3 barrels of flour

25 pounds of raisins in a sack

When raisins arrived, I would often make a steamed pudding for desert. The men would call out, "Come and get it. Cook’s got ‘Bugger in a bag’ today!"

In March of that year a telephone call came to Rea’s in Hillman of a serious accident at home. Mr. Rea brought the news to camp, and my brothers and I left at once. We rode all night on a flat cedar rack and reached home at the break of day. The horses had worked all day, so walked every step of the way. We found that Mother and Elmer, age twelve, had been in a run-away accident and Ma wasn’t expected to live. When the horses started to run, Mother jumped from the sleigh, struck a log and was almost scalped. She developed lockjaw and could not talk for five or six weeks. We fed her through a tube. Her head was shaved, and she wore a "Grandma" cap after the bandages came off. All that summer she was irrational, but she finally recovered. Elmer hung to the reins during the run-away, which happened because the sleigh, on a down grade, hit the horses’ heels when the "whiffle-tree" loosened. The sleigh struck a stump and some loose planks on the sleigh box struck Elmer in the back. Shortly, he began to cough with a injury, but Ma was so sick we did not think too much of it. He never recovered. His growth was stunted and one side of his back had a huge hump. However, he ran the farm for several years, married and had three children which Ma helped to bring up and dearly loved. He died when he was thirty-one, in 1915.

As I look back, I wonder how it happened that I felt competent for the work I did. My wages were better than ordinary housework. Mother did not think much of a "career" though, and felt a girl should think of marriage. I had a few "boy friends" or "beaus" as we called them. One walked me home from a dance, he on one side of the road and I on the other. Nellie and Ida had beaus galore, and I sort of basked in their light.

In the spring of 1896, a young man came to our community and built a blacksmith shop. He "went with" my sister, Nellie, but she married another. A year later, after a courtship, partly by correspondence from Hillman, he asked me to marry him. He needed a housekeeper for the new house he had built, and he was tired boarding around at the neighbors. I put him off six months, but mother thought he was a food catch, so on February 9, 1898, we were married in our own house, one-half mile from my old home. My sister Ida Herron, and Aldridge Breckenreed were our attendants. Rev. O.W. Willetts married us. My wedding dress had been made in town. It contained eight yards of material. Mother always made us woolen underskirts, and I suppose I wore it under the dress. At that time, I hadn’t even seen a silk stocking, so my "Sunday" stockings were long black woolen with gray toes. My dress was brown with splashes of pink and green and was trimmed in green. Dresses were worn to the ankles, modestly. My high shoes were black. My waist was 24 inches, but how I was pinched! I was not quite nineteen, and Henry, or as his family called him, Hay, was thirty-one. It was probably more romantic than it sounds, but we did not expect romance. He was very proud of my ability as a cook and invited special friends who came to the blacksmith shop to stay for dinner. He showed me off to his family when we took long buggy rides to Long Rapids to see his three married brothers and sister. Shortly after we were married, he bought me a bicycle. I made one trip to town, twelve miles, in thirty minutes. Some Sundays we would bicycle seventy-five miles.

As I look back on family history, there are two stories which occurred before I was born, and tow after I was married. One of the trials of Mother’s life was separation from her parents and brothers and sisters in a far distant new country. About every five years, she managed to get back to Cayuga, Ontario. She already had four children, and that winter she spent in camp as cook hoping her earnings would finance a trip home. It was a winter without snow. Logs could be cut, but not skidded to the nearest stream. Camp broke up early. Ma and Pa came out with nothing to buy with, even sugar and tea. As usual Pa built a bridge that summer, and they managed to get by. For the second winter in a row, there was no snow. The lumberman faced bankruptcy as all his cash was in supplies. For a second time Ma and Pa came out without money, and in addition, Ma was "in a family way." It was a time of great hardship when Charles was born in November. Pa went on bridge building and putting up barns, and in some manner, got some money together. Mother continued despondent, so as soon as the ships sailed in the spring, Pa sent her home to stay until she recovered. She took two children, and left the two oldest. And Mrs. Breckenreed, who had just lost a baby, nursed Charles, age three months, as her own.

A dozen years later another yearning developed. Ma had just given birth to twins, the eleventh and twelfth children, named James and Willie, after Annie’s and Kate’s prospective husbands. When the babies were three months old, Ma took them to Buffalo to show them to the relatives. She took Fred, age eight, along to hold one baby while she fed the other. August was a bad month for babies on the bottle. They sickened and died of "summer complaint" within hours of each other; one at 5 o’clock in the morning, the other at 5 o’clock at night. A telegram informed the family. Pa sent money to reimburse the Buffalo relatives for the funeral. It was a sad homecoming.

Another eight years went by. Jacob Link had died, and Ma had a feeling her mother was sick. It was 1900. I had been married two years, but had no children. The train had linked Alpena to Port Huron in recent years, thence to Niagara. Word came on a Saturday of a $6.00 excursion round trip to Niagara. Ma and I left the next day. When we arrived my grandmother had been buried three days. On the way home we had a twelve hour wait in Port Huron. Because we were not on schedule, the conductor or the Detroit and Mackinaw train would not honor our tickets. Ma and I did not have 50 cents between us. A strange woman, seeing our plight, said she too was going to Alpena. She loaned us $20.00. Ever afterward Ma furnished her with butter and eggs, and I fancy, many extras.

The last episode of my early life hinges around my sister, Nellie, She was the brown-eyed, gay, vivacious one – well loved by family and friends. When we were little, she always got the red ribbon because she was older than I. Ida got the pink ribbon because she was younger. I got the blue ribbon because it was left. I liked blue, fortunately.

Ellie married Henry Aris when she was nineteen. By the time she was twenty-three, she had twin daughters, and a son, Reuben, and she was pregnant. In the early spring, the whole family got pneumonia. Ma came from town and said, "Stellie, they need help." That was the time I rode twelve miles to town in thirty minutes. Onion poultices did no good, and we knew she would never recover. The husband could not even attend the funeral. Henry and I took the baby, Reuben, for a few weeks and loved him dearly.

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