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.


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