Thursday, October 14, 2021

Letters from Lucy Stephenson: August 26, 1821

Photo by Jill Cook

I was asked by the Edwardsville Intelligencer newspaper to write a monthly column about Stephenson House. After much thought, I decided to write letters in the voice of Lucy Stephenson; the matriarch of the historic home (1820-1834). These letters weave together historical events, present-day, and my imagings of what her life may have been like. Originally published in the Edwardsville Intelligencer,
August 30, 2021.

August 26, 1821

Edwardsville, IL

Dearest Mary,

     It’s been rather quiet on the farm of late. Visitors have been few, so I have little news to convey. Illness has swept across the region again, keeping many of our usual gatherings small. We are diligently trying to stave off a larger outbreak of sickness within the community. It remains to be seen whether our efforts prove effective but within our house, we’ve limited our trips to lower town and St. Louis, have begun washing our hands and linens more frequently, and covering our faces when in the presence of others. It may all prove futile in the end, but Ben and I feel it’s our duty, at least, to try to prevent the sickness from touching our friends and family intimately. Oh, how I long for a day when we shall return to the norm.

    Regardless of the sickness wreaking havoc currently, we manage to keep ourselves quite busy here with daily ministering necessary to preserver.  Summer will soon be at an end so there are always some tasks set forth each day. The apple trees have offered an abundance of fruit of late. It’s necessary we harvest throughout the week to forgo any needless waste. Winn and I, to date, have made apple butter, vinegar, jam, cider, and several large pies. All but the pies will be put up for the coming winter. We plan to store several bushels in the cellar as well. Tobe and James took the wagon to the mill yesterday to procure a good amount of sawdust to use in the large storage crocks kept in the cellar. The girls spent this morning washing them in preparation for the last of the fall apples to be added later next month. My father was always quite adamant that sawdust must be liberally added to each crock in order to thoroughly separate the apples to prevent rot. This method has proven quite effective over the years; we rarely have any spoilage during the winter and our apples from the previous year last well into the next. It’s quite a treat to enjoy the taste of an apple pie or tart baked mid-winter after all the fresh fruit is gone from the gardens. Fortunately, we have plenty to share and soon will find it necessary to trade some of our bushels to either the Robinson family (our neighbors) or Mr. Poage at the mercantile. Our cow and pigs quite enjoy the apples deemed less than worthy for winter storage and I do believe it makes them more robust too.

     The weather has turned most oppressive the last few days which is unfortunate since it's time to cut the hay in the south fields. As you know, this is our least favorite task. It’s hard, hot, dirty work made more draining due to the heat and humidity Illinois is known for. The men sharpened the scythes and mended the rakes two days ago and Ben is to Poage’s store this afternoon to purchase twine. The men lament a great need to purchase one of the newly manufactured horse-drawn rakes from back east to alleviate some of the labor, but Ben has not been able to procure such a rake much to his chagrin and ours. The children grumble daily about the impending chore but we all must work together to make short work of it.  Thankfully, Winn has made several batches of switchel for us to drink while in the fields. That will surely help stave off the excitability brought on by such a task and climate.

     I must bring this missive to a close so that Ben may carry it to the post this afternoon. It is my hope that upon his return I receive a letter from you. Extend my affections to your family and I look forward to a visit soon.


You most faithful friend,

Lucy Stephenson


P.S. Winn asked I enclose her receipt for switchel which she is quite sure you shall want for your own use at harvest time. She makes hers with molasses, but many prefer the more subtle flavor of honey. Winn often scoffs at this and insists molasses is more fortifying.

Switchel or Harvest Drink: Mix with five gallons of good water, half a gallon of molasses, one quart of vinegar, and two ounces of powdered ginger. This will make not only a very pleasant beverage, but one highly invigorating and healthful.

Friday, October 8, 2021

Letters from Lucy Stephenson: September 27, 1820

 **Written in September 2021 by RoxAnn Raisner (house director) in the voice of Lucy Stephenson and published in the online Edwardsville Intelligencer, October 6, 2021, Based on historical facts, current happenings at the House, and a historians vivid imaginings. Follow Letters from Lucy Stephenson on Facebook (

September 27, 1820
Edwardsville, Illinois


 Dearest Mary,

     It is with a very heavy heart that I write this letter. Unfortunately, we have not escaped the encroachment of summer fever sweeping across the region and mourn the loss of so many. It seems hardly possible that mere few weeks ago all was well, only to find ourselves caught unaware by a loved one’s sudden and complete departure from this world. How I ache from it daily. Preparations are being made so our house may observe a period of mourning. My daughters, Julia and Elvira, have begun the task of washing, airing, and mending clothing suitable for the expression of our loss. And, Winn has set to task picking apart some old garments to dye black and refashion. This morning, I sent an order to the fabric merchant in Belleville to procure several bolts of bombazine so we may sew-up some additional mourning attire for the entire household since it will be some time before we are unburdened by grief. The wool crepe bunting now hangs above our door so that all those who pass may be aware of our sorrow.

     Winn, in her infinite ability to be prepared, has baked several batches of funeral biscuits embossed with cherubs and crosses for mourners attending the funerals to pay their respects. I visited the newspaper in lower town yesterday to procure an order of small, printed remembrance wrappers to cover the biscuits, as well as several pieces of black sealing wax from Mr. Poage’s store to use in the closure of each. I find having a useful occupation keeps my mind from dwelling for too long on that which I cannot change. The reprieve does not last long, of course. I know you will want a copy of Winn’s receipt for the funeral biscuits so I shall include it. It’s quite simple and they store exceedingly well for long periods of time. I find many guests chose to keep their biscuit as a memento mori as opposed to eating them at the funeral.


Funeral Biscuits

Take twenty-four eggs, three pounds of flour, three pounds of lump sugar, grated, which will make forty-eight finger biscuits for a funeral.


     Dr. Todd, our local physician, has truly been a godsend the last weeks. Besides attending to countless families suffering from the summer fever’s, Ben’s ague recrudesced quite suddenly. As you well know, for some time now, Ben has been plagued with bouts of this insatiable illness. Some episodes far worse than others. Admittedly, this particular recurrence was quite arduous, causing me great concern as to his safe recovery. The severity, at one point, warranted the need to send for Rev. Ballard who provided much comfort through his ecclesiastic ministering and friendship. Thankfully, a new shipment of yellow bark arrived a Poage’s store to which we procured two orders before the supply was depleted from demand. After several days of treatment, it appears the most critical time has passed. Ben appears to be returning to health, slowly, but I do believe we owe much to both Dr. Todd and Rev. Ballard. I fear the probable outcome without the succor of both.

     Well, my dearest friend, I must close this letter for there is much to attend to. Hopefully, my next will contain happier news and these dark times shall be left behind as distant memories. I pray you stay well. Please write soon so that I may have something to brighten these bleak days. Give my love to all and know I hold you in high regard, as always.


Yours In Friendship,


Lucy Stephenson


Bombazine was a fabric used for mourning clothing in the early 19th century. It was a silk and wool mixture with a very flat appearance. It is no longer made. The closest fabric resembling it today is wool crepe.

The Funeral Biscuits receipt (recipe) was published in the 1828 (5th Edition) of The Whole Art of Confectionary: Sugar Boiling, Iceing, Candying, Jelly Making, &c. by W.S. Staveley. These biscuits were commonly given out at funerals and often wrapped in paper with the deceased name, poem, and/or information about the person printed on the outside and sealed with black sealing wax stamped with a funerary image such as skull and crossbones, cherub, rooster, cross, heart, etc.

Ague is the historical term for malaria. At the time, it was treated with a bark from South American known as yellow bark, Jesuit bark, lima bark, or Peruvian bark. The bark contained quinine and was the most effective treatment available at the time.

Col. Stephenson died on October 10, 1822, from what historians believe to be malaria. The museum will host Mourning Col. Stephenson: A Special Exhibit from September 30-October 31. 

Thursday, October 7, 2021

Letters from Lucy Stephenson, July 24, 1821

 I was asked by the Edwardsville Intelligencer newspaper to write a monthly column about Stephenson House. After much thought, I decided to write letters in the voice of Lucy Stephenson; the matriarch of the historic home (1820-1834). These letters weave together historical events, present-day, and my imagings of what her life may have been like. Originally published in the Edwardsville Intelligencer

July 24, 1821

Edwardsville, Illinois



Dearest Mary,

     How delighted we were to receive your package earlier this month containing so many wonderful items! The children barely contained their excitement as each new surprise was brought forth from the wrapping. I must tell you, Ben was no better than the children in containing his curiosity. He is convinced it was sent specifically for him since its timely arrival coincided with his birthday celebration on July 8. As you know, Ben is quite fond of this time of year due largely to it being his birth month, as well as, commemorating our nation's fight for Independence. He often tells visitors to our farm that the celebrations put forth by Edwardsville residents are, in most part, for His birthday and not the country’s. What tales he tells! I often tease him about being old enough to witness the signing of the Declaration when, in truth, he was but seven years old at the time.  He does so enjoy all the merriment and fuss though, and I believe the teasing too.


     Ben was honored with a birthday song from the children attending the Academy for Young Ladies earlier this month. They made Queen’s Cake in the kitchen with Justine which they decorated with red, white, and blue icing (very patriotic colors to be sure) then proceeded to the front door of the house. Upon stepping out of the door, Ben was bombarded by their young jubilant voices wishing him many years to come. He was very touched by their efforts. I do believe he found their song to be his most favored gift this year. The smallest moments in our lives often create the most lasting remembrances.

     In addition to all the lively celebrations this month, we enjoyed a gathering of several War of 1812 veterans on our front lawn. As you will recall, Ben served as a Major with the Illinois Territorial Militia during the war. He is quite proud of his service, as well as the promotion to the rank of Colonel by the close of the conflict. The recent gathering of former soldiers was made up of men from the regulars and the militia. It was quite enjoyable to receive all the men, as well as their wives and children, on the farm. The gathering only lasted a couple days but the comradery was a sight to behold. It had the air of a recruitment muster held during the War with all the tents, men in colorful uniforms, and chatter about the place. I believe the men benefited greatly from the opportunity to join with others of a shared history. Admittedly, I found the company of so many ladies, from distant regions, immensely informative. We imparted so much news to one another that it shall take me another month to process it all.

     The brandied pears included in your package were exceptional in their taste. So much so that I found it necessary to hide them at the back of the cellar under several layers of burlap and straw, along with a barrel, or two, stacked on top, to keep the men from the recent soldier gathering from consuming them all. We hosted a fine supper outside on long tables Saturday evening, and I do believe Ben would have given the men any food item they desired in an effort to show his appreciation for their service. But we must be aware that winter is only a few short months away.  Please do not misunderstand my intentions in hiding the precious pears, we have been blessed in our good fortune and as Rev. Ballard imparts in his sermons each week, we must endeavor to share with those less fortunate, however, we cannot be foolhardy either.  Caution must be practiced in all things, as well.

     Please include the receipt for the brandied pears in your next letter so that it can be added to the household book Winn keeps in the kitchen. When I was a child, my mother was rather fond of pears preserved in this fashion. It has been many years since I enjoyed brandied pears, but it brings back so many wonderful memories of my youth in the Ohio Valley. Our lone pear tree here on the farm has yet to produce enough fruit to allow us to brandy them and what it does give, the wild animals tend to consume before we have the opportunity to harvest. However, our peach trees are quite prolific. Winn and I put up several crocks full of brandied peaches last summer to which we are almost through. As I know your fondness for new receipts is as passionate as mine, I shall include my receipt for you. It was imparted to my mother by the daughter of Mr. George Tucker of Williamsburg in 1804, and it is a staple to our table throughout the year.

Peel your peaches and put them in a stone pot—set the pot into a vessel of water, and let it boil until a straw will pierce the fruit—then make a syrup of the brandy and sugar—1Lb. of sugar to a quart of brandy. Set in your peaches—They will be fit for use in a month. Brown sugar will do very well. Better without peeling.

Well, I find my time for letter-writing at an end. The children are being quite boisterous in the parlor, so I suspect they are fighting over some trifle or exuberantly plotting some mischief led by James, who, at present, ardently proclaims the sole desire to become an officer in the militia. Of course, the soldier gathering only fortified his conviction--but must he launch a new military campaign daily with his brother and sister in tow? In the Colonel’s absence, I shall assume command of the troops and bid farewell.

Give my affections to your dear family. Write soon as I promise to do the same.

Yours In Friendship,

Lucy Stephenson

P.S. I almost forgot to mention the successful completion of our final Academy of the summer, so I shall include it here. It often saddens me when one of the Academies ends knowing it will be many months until these bright young minds cross our threshold again.  I do so look forward to when we shall meet again in the next year. Our final session was completed just yesterday. The young women attending the Secondary Academy of Learning were truly gracious and their exuberance to learn a joy to behold. We have been truly blessed with the skills of our preceptresses who direct the lessons. Mrs. Elizabeth Edwards taught each participant how to make candle mats so as to preserve wooden surfaces…very useful indeed! Nothing vexes me more than to find a water ring or candle wax on one of my tables. Of course, I used the silk and millinery wire you sent to teach the girls how to make a common straw hat, to which, each completed with great success. Miss Kaylee McCoy shared her receipt on pickling and preserving green beans from the garden. I believe this receipt has been in her family for some time and it proved exceedingly good. Mrs. Amy Mullane brought cream and cider from her farm so the ladies might enjoy a refreshing syllabub on their last day. It was a well-earned treat since the cream required each young lady present to provide her strength to whip the cream into a nice froth. The final product was very well received after such a prolonged effort. Of course, we did not neglect the artistic endeavors at the Academy. Miss Janice Camren provided two excellent lessons; one discussing the useful creation of transparencies and the other how to craft a lovely glass bead necklace. A most helpful lesson in quilting on a frame was conducted by our local haberdasher, Mr. Mark Myers. I was struck by the number of the girls who had never learned to quilt before this instruction. Do young girls no longer need quilts for their hope chests? How very strange that seems to me! Well, my dear friend, I must truly finish this missive or run the risk of falling behind in my duties. Love to all!