While Edith Lawson and Wanda Hannon were hard working women in every way, making a living was never easy during the Depression, especially in the Northwoods of Wisconsin. And as the correspondence between Wanda and Edith, and their friend Florence Drew, who lived in Milwaukee, progressed into the early 1930s, the subject of money became a desperate and frequent topic.
One way these women made money was sewing for Florence and her friends in Milwaukee. They were very prompt too, and once materials were sent for an article of clothing, Wanda in particular could have it made and mailed back to Milwaukee within a week.
The girls also grew a garden that encompassed an acre. They worked diligently in it, starting in the spring, and planted everything from radishes to corn. They canned a lot of this produce and depended on it to get them through the winter months. One summer there was a drought and Edith told Florence their garden was hurting for moisture. “”We sure feel sick about our garden,” penned Edith. “They tell us that berries, both black and blue are drying up. So it almost looks like our food supplies are cut off. We wish for rain but it looks like it is too late now.”
This was a very frightening outlook for these women who depended on garden produce and many times what they could catch from lakes and hunt in the woods to survive the cold and harsh winter months.
Edith did mention quite frequently, but very discreetly, her moonshine making ability. She referred to it in many different forms such as her “product,” “my goods” and “my special.” And she did relate to Florence that she could easily sell it, but for some reason they did not pursue this avenue of income very enthusiastically. In fact, Edith wrote Florence telling her about a neighbor lady named Barbara Young, who sampled her “product.” “I gave her a sample of my special and she begged me to tell her where she could get it,” Edith wrote. “I asked her what she would be willing to pay for some and she said she would pay $8 per gladly and take plenty. We talked things over on sworn secrecy and she offered to furnish our outfit and start me going then be a customer providing no one but Wanda and I would know. I promised to consider it. I am also to submit samples of beer and if satisfactory I can make that for her. So we will see what develops. It would mean some work for me but in bunches.”
While moonshine was mentioned throughout the women’s correspondence, they never went into making it in a big way. Both women were religious and attended church when they could so maybe that was a factor.
Another hindrance was their car, which rarely ran. They never mention the make or model, but a Mr. Titus was always working on it, usually for “gratis.” “Titus brought the car back but I drove it to the mailbox and it over heated,” wrote Edith. “He said it was because it was tight. I only drove two miles and at 15 miles an hour so I think something is very wrong.”
And even if the girls did have a working vehicle, there were many times the roads were impassable. Edith often wrote about mud so deep, even pedestrians had a hard time walking, and slush accumulating up to the hubs of the tires. There were many times in the early spring when they received no mail for a week or so because of the condition of the roads.
The building of Hwy. 51 was also mentioned often in the letters. Edith and Wanda spent close to two years fixing up a small cabin on their property to rent to tourists. They fervently hoped the highway would bisect their property so the road would pass close by to their rental cottage. It also gave the locals work that was so desperately needed. “Many men have landed here for 51 work at Tomahawk but they say they will employ local help only,” wrote Edith. “Men are willing to work for meals only. Men are desperate for places to stay and will do anything. There are so many natives out of work.”
One of the toughest blows for Wanda and Edith was when their rental cottage burned down. It was heated by an oil stove which over heated, starting the structure on fire. It threw the two into a deep depression and it would be safe to say they almost gave up. Then a friend invited them to stay at Rest a While Resort which was located on the banks of Big Bearskin Lake down the road from their homestead. Edith and Wanda were overjoyed at this prospect which would get them through the winter months in style. The place was eventually sold, but Edith was impressed with it. One day the caretaker’s wife, Mrs. Watkins, gave her a tour. “Mrs. Watkins took us through the lodge and dance hall and believe me the lodge was a thrill,” wrote Edith. “It is very large and is well furnished. A balcony goes around the upper floor and bedrooms open off this ala movie style. Game is mounted and displayed all over the place. Mr. Young lost the place for lack of $15,000. The mortgage was foreclosed. The men who hold the mortgage are desperate for cash and will transfer the place to anyone for the amount of the mortgage. There’s an investment here of over $50,000. There’s a lodge, dance hall, keepers house, 6 cottages, and one over night log cabin. There are six garages, a lighting plant with motor boats, row boats, canoes and all personal furnishings. What a buy for a person with money.”
Another topic that was written about very frequently was Edith’s poor health. She was often bedridden with an ailment she never defined in the letters. However, at one point Wanda wrote Florence asking her to bring up morphia powders for Edith and Edith once asked Florence to get her some Dr. Carter’s Little Liver Pills, which worked as a laxative.
Around 1931, someone gave Edith and Wanda a radio; however, it didn’t work. A chart was needed to figure out the “tubes” which had to be replaced. “No one will touch it because they are afraid of blowing a tube,” wrote Edith. At one point, the girls were both bedridden and Edith pined for the radio to work. The girls also couldn’t afford their prescription to the Milwaukee Journal and it bothered them greatly they were virtually cut off from learning of any news unless they went out. It was never revealed during the years the letters were written whether the girls got the radio working.
In the last few letters of this five year correspondence it becomes desperately evident that this hard working pair was going to lose their property. They couldn’t keep up with the taxes, and they owed everyone from the butcher to the lumber yard to the grocer. Edith was reduced to writing Florence letters on empty forms for registering rabbits and the girls had to take turns using their one pen and pencil. Edith evens wrote about making underwear out of Florence’s old curtain linings and not having any shoes.
The girls did not leave the area, though. They stayed in Harshaw their entire lives, and found a niche caretaking at resorts and tourist homes. Edith even became Cassian’s town secretary for many years and her neat and thorough ledgers are part of the history of this area.
Now Edith and Wanda’s story, through their correspondence with Florence, will also be preserved. It reveals a lifestyle that many would find incomprehensible, yet these friends were determined to make their dream come true. However, the cards were stacked against them, and though they battled valiantly, their homestead was not to be. But what a tale they left for everyone to ponder.
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