Lewis writes to Henry for the first time since his illness. He has recovered, and can almost walk normally, but he is a changed man. Lewis says he is “Able to do a good fair days works. But not the nerve I carried in former years.” He has reduced his farm to forty acres, which he can manage comfortably, and his wife does a lot of the work with him “from choice.”
Lewis reports on the health and doings of the brothers. Lucius is now clearly the most driven farmer of the family, and younger brother Anson is working with him rather than out on his own for wages. Harrison and Lyman are in Arkansas, and Lemuel is out of touch. Henry has apparently retired from business and become a gentleman farmer, and Lewis pokes a little fun at him, asking whether he has done any heavy work himself or does he just watch others do it.
Their mother Achsah has decided to spend her winter in Phelps and Ashfield, Lewis reports. Henry’s wife Marie is ill, so Achsah will be able to help look after the children. Lewis says he encouraged her to go, and that Lucius agrees it is a good idea, but would never say, “for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her.”
The season was dry and the harvest light, Lewis says. But he planted five acres of Peppermint, and he has seen in the papers that the oil is selling for $4.25 per pound. Lewis asks Henry for a price because he would prefer to deal with family, but he makes sure Henry knows he is aware of the oil’s value in New York.
Hillsdale Sept 11th 1853
It having been a long time since writing you, I have concluded to lay everything else aside and write you. Yet I had rather work a day than write a letter. I am unused to letter writing opt late (of which you are probably aware of) and it seems quite a job. I read a letter a week or two ago of yours at Lucius’s, stating that Marie’s health was very poor. I think I am prepared to sympathize with you in your afflictions, yet we had no children to look after or care for. But we cannot expect our days all sunshine.
Our relations’ healths are all quite good at present here. Lucius is a driving away as usual at farming. Anson is with him. Harrison and Lyman are yet in Arkansas, expect doing well. Lemuel we know but little about. Lyman wrote that he received a letter from him in July. He did not mention how he was doing or when he was coming back. But advised his Friends not to take the overland route to California.
My health is quite good this summer. Leg become about straight so as not to be observed in my common walk. Therefore you will calculate that I have not got the Blues as had when I wrote you last. My health in the main is quite good. Able to do good fair days works. But not the nerve I carried in former years. I do not work very hard nor do not intend to. I now have only 40 acres of land, 28 improved, which I can work myself with a boy in the summer season very comfortably. My wife is quite a rugged woman and very ambitious and helps me a great deal from choice.
Mother I believe has concluded to spend the coming winter at Phelps and Ashfield. I have mentioned it to her several times the past summer that there was nothing to hinder her from visiting her friends East again. But her head is full of cares and so much to do & Lucius has a very kind woman and would like to have her go if she could enjoy herself better. But Lucius would not recommend her to go for fear she would think they wanted to get rid of her. But Frank has invited her and you in your last wanted her, therefore she has concluded to go, probably in October.
We have had a very dry season. Wheat and corn came in fair. But most other crops were light. Wheat is worth 8/6 per. But I had only 85 bushes. Sowed only five acres last year. What is Pept Oil worth? I planted five acres last spring. It has been too dry for it, shall probably get about 30 or 35 lbs. I see it quoted at about four twenty-five in N.Y. Papers.
How does farming go? Have you split any rails yet or made stone wall? Or do you as an old saying is, keep tally while others do it? Ralph I suppose is company for you if nothing more. It hardly seems possible that he is a boy eight or nine years old. We are not remarkably fond of very small children at our house. But one of that age we should think worth fussing with.
I must close as I am going to town and have not time to write any more. Please write soon. I am much obliged for papers I am receiving from you and intend favoring you with the expense sometime.
My respects to you and yours.
I can send Hillsdale papers to you occasionally if of any account. Densmore’s people we have not heard from in several months. Probably well or we should have heard.
Lewis writes to Henry from Florence Michigan in February 1844. He waited for snow in Phelps, but when it did not come he set out in a wagon. Their brother “Frank” (Alonzo Franklin Ranney) traveled with Lewis and his partner Smith as far as Hillsdale, in order to look for a farm near Lucius and their mother. Achasah Sears Ranney was ill but improving, and Lewis says she likes her “situation” in Michigan.
When Lewis and Smith sold their peppermint oil to Franklin Wells, it was with the understanding that if the price had increased when Wells resold the oil they would get a share. Before he left Phelps, Lewis found that Wells’s agents in New York City had sold the oil before Wells wanted them to, and that the price had subsequently doubled to $4 per pound. Probably a “Gum Game,” says Lewis: a slang expression for a swindle, probably derived from the fact that raccoons and opossums often hide in sweet-gum trees to outwit predators (according to the Merriam Webster Dictionary). Wells was on his way to the city to settle the issue, and Lewis was expecting a windfall on their 594 pounds that Wells had sent to be sold along with his own oil. He repeats to Henry that he intends to more than double his peppermint investment, adding thirty new acres to the twenty he and Smith harvested that year (peppermint is a perennial, and yields only drop off a bit after the first year).
Lewis reports with amusement that the Mormons have been battling with the Methodists and others in Michigan, noting that it’s nice to have “something going on.” Most of the Ranneys are not particularly religious — some, like Lewis’s uncle Samuel, had been pretty aggressive freethinkers. This is fairly early in the development of Mormonism: Joseph Smith was still in Nauvoo Illinois organizing the church. The biblical debates Lewis mentions must have been quite a spectacle.
The Michigan economy is better off than western New York, Lewis tells Henry in closing. Wheat is worth five shillings (Due to the scarcity of American coins, British Shillings worth 24 cents were still in wide use. Wheat was $1.20) per bushel, and Lewis is not yet tied down. When his partner Smith marries, Lewis intends to live with him rather than get his own place.
Florence Feb 15th 1844
I arrived here about three weeks since from the East. We stayed some time in Phelps and vicinity waiting for snow to come upon. But it did not come, therefore we came with a wagon. We found very good wheeling most of the way. We came through Ohio. Frank came with us as far as Hillsdale. We found Mother having the ague & fever a little but a growing lighter every day. She seems to be well suited with her situation, being in a good neighborhood and better prospects than formerly. The rest of the family were enjoying good healths.
Frank intends purchasing in their vicinity. We got two dollars per lb for our oil we sold Wells of Lyons. He shipped it to N. York, ours was to be sold with his. His agent sold sooner than Wells expected they were a going to and when Wells was informed of the sale oil was worth $4.00 per lb in NY. Probably some Gum Game about it. Wells was a going down in a few weeks when I left to pry into affairs and if gets a clue we share in proportion to amy of oil.
Smith and I intend putting in thirty acres this spring to mint and that in addition to what we have already in I hope will give us some oil next fall or pocket change.
Lucius intends going to Grand River sometime in March I believe. He shall get something from that way this spring.
We are having great excitement about here again this winter. Methodists and Mormons are proselytizing considerably in this vicinity and something a doing with the other sects. The Mormons have gained a good many converts in this town and have organized a church. The sectarian preachers combine against the Mormons. But the Mormons having received challenges for discussions upon the Bible they accepted, which has made amusement for the hearer. Which is satisfactory to have something going on.
Wheat is worth 5/- per bushel. Times are better here than in New York. There has been no snow here this winter of any consequence. Smith my partner gets married in about two weeks. I shall live with him.
Nothing more. Yours respectfully,
L. G. Ranney
Write occasionally and send papers in any quantity.
Lewis writes from Phelps New York in November 1843, where he is visiting family and friends after selling his peppermint oil in neighboring Lyons. He apologizes for not writing sooner, admitting, “I ought to have written a long time since but through the fall I occupy twenty hours in the twenty four a stilling, therefore I wanted the rest for sleep.” Lewis reports that he left Florence on 18 October. He passed through Allen, where their mother, Achsah Sears Ranney, and the rest of the family had already moved after their father George’s death in Phelps a year earlier.
Lewis and his partner Smith delivered 594 pounds of peppermint oil to a dealer named Franklin Wells in the neighboring town of Lyons, who had commercial contacts in New York City and elsewhere. Lyons at this time was actually the center of the lucrative peppermint oil business (but you’ll be able to read more about that when I finish my dissertation), although Henry Ranney in Ashfield still did some mint oil business through the 1860s, connecting friends and family in Michigan with dealers in Boston who also happened to be relatives by marriage. A lot of business was transacted in the nineteenth century along these lines of kinship and trust. The deal is an interesting one, because it suggests the long-term relationship that lies behind it. Lewis receives $2.00 per pound in advance, and then he is also entitled to the increase in the oil’s value if it appreciates in the market over the next eight months. Peppermint oil was easy to store, and the price was very volatile, so this was a clever way for dealers to get a steady supply of oil and prevent growers from hoarding it. And it wasn’t insignificant business: Lewis and his partner made nearly $1,200, and they planned to expand their planting to thirty acres in the spring. Apparently they drove the oil overland themselves, because Lewis plans to start for home as soon as there’s “good sleighing.”
The family was ill when Lewis passed through Allen, so he didn’t stay for a visit. But he reports that his mother is pleased with the move and is thinking of staying in Michigan permanently. Their eldest brother Alonzo, Lewis says, has sold his farm in Phelps and is thinking of moving to Michigan as well (in the end though, Alonzo remains in Phelps). Lewis then announces he is planning on buying land in Indiana, just outside Chicago. It is still possible to get parcels for the “government price” of $1.25 per acre, and Lewis has seen how land values have increased in Michigan. So he plans to speculate, and set the land aside “until time of need.” This is interesting, because it shows that land speculation was quite normal. Often historians portray land speculators as ruthless capitalists from the east, and some definitely were. But it’s important to realize that everybody understood that settlement pushed up land values, and everybody who was able took advantage of the opportunity.
Like Lucius, Lewis thanks Henry for the Massachusetts newspapers he has been sending. He closes by mentioning Alonzo Franklin’s two young sons, who want to be remembered to their uncle, and assuring Henry that “Frank’s folks are all well.”
Phelps, Nov 13th, 1843
I now being perfectly at leisure I indulge in writing to you. I acknowledge I ought to have written a long time since, but through the fall I occupied twenty hours in the twenty four a stilling, therefore I wanted the rest in sleep. But we will stop excuses. I started from Florence the eighteenth Oct. I passed through where Lucius is but did not stay but an hour. Mother had been quite sick with a kind of fever, ague, &c., but was getting much better when I was there. Began to look fresh again and sit up most of the time, and the next was Harrison. He was a shaking with the ague while I was there. Anson had a few shakes but was rugged again. The rest of them were all well. Priscilla’s health is much improved since going to Michigan. Lucius wrote down here a few days since in true back woods style, saying they were getting as tough as bears. Priscilla in particular.
We brought down 594 lbs oil we sold to Wells of Lyons at $2.00 in advance and the rise 8 months. We had a little over 600 lbs, we left a few lbs at home. I have been here about three weeks. I shall tarry until good sleighing and then go back.
Mother and the family seem to be well pleased with their situation and find many more privileges than they expected and the prospect of a permanent home.
Smith and myself intend planting thirty acres in the spring of mint. It is rather hard business, but I think it better than wheat.
Franklin has sold his place here and thinks some of going to Michigan when I go, and look him out a place. He gets seven hundred dollars. Three in the spring and then one hundred yearly.
I think I shall start back in about four weeks probably, before if sleighing is good. My health has been good since I wrote you last winter. I shall remain in Florence another year probably. Crops were generally good in Michigan this season, but rather a poor season for mint, it being dry through harvest time.
You can direct letters and papers to me at Florence in a few weeks again and they will meet a happy reception. I am also greatly obliged to you for the papers I have received from you the year past.
I intend buying a lot of land this spring in Indiana forty miles east of Chicago, of prairie land to lay until time of need. Lands can be purchased at government price in that vicinity.
Frank’s folks are all well. Henry and Horace are a knocking about the table. They want me to write something about them. I guess they are pretty good boys.
Nothing more this time.
Yours respectfully, H. S. Ranney
Lewis G. Ranney
As I was doing research toward my dissertation in Ashfield Massachusetts last year, I came across a series of family letters written by six out of a set of eight brothers (and one sister who apparently wrote no letters). The Ranney brothers were all born between 1812 and 1833 in Ashfield, and all of them but the third son Henry went west — some farther than others. They wrote each other regularly for more than fifty years, and over a hundred of their letters are preserved at the Ashfield Historical Society. These would have been letters kept by Henry Sears Ranney. The collection probably includes most of the letters Henry received (he was apparently a very meticulous record-keeper, and served as Ashfield’s Town Clerk for fifty years!), but unfortunately does not include copies of letters Henry wrote. Unfortunate, but not unexpected. Although blotter-books were used in this period to make copies of handwritten letters, this practice was usually reserved for business correspondence.
A collection of a hundred family letters spanning half a century is treasure for a historian. Because the writers were all brothers, there is very little time wasted on empty formality — they get right to the point and write about what’s most important to the family. Reading the letters, we get a rare glimpse at the interests and concerns of a fairly normal American family, as they experienced life in the nineteenth century.
The story begins in May, 1839, with a three-page letter from twenty-four year old Lewis George Ranney (he was born George Lewis, but there were Georges in every generation since the Ranneys arrived in America in the 1650s, including his father and grandfather, so he switched to “L. G.”) to his younger brother Henry. Lewis begins with the most important news: “our folks are well as usual.” Their parents, George Ranney Jr. and Achsah Sears Ranney, had moved most of the family to Phelps New York (then called Vienna) in 1833. Henry, sixteen at the time, had stayed behind in Ashfield. In early 1838, George Ranney bought 105 acres in Phelps for $5,000; a year later he bought another hundred acres for $2,800. Eldest son Alonzo Franklin Ranney had a two acre house lot in town, worth $500, and Lewis was living at home in 1839 when he wrote to Henry — but he had already decided by this time that he was going on to Michigan.
The contents of the letter reveal the topics that interested Lewis, that he knew his brother would want to hear about. First, news of both the immediate and extended family. Lewis remarks about their cousins, Samuel Ranney’s sons: “Dexter is yet in Michigan I suppose, William is a-building a new house in the West Village, Frederick is about here as usual” (Samuel had died in 1837). In response to Henry’s letter, Lewis lists the birth dates of all the siblings. Achsah Sears Ranney had eleven children in the 21-year period between age 23 and 44, and then lived to age 80. Nine of the children were alive in 1839. Lewis goes on to mention a couple of Ashfield acquaintances, and then tells Henry that their father wants him to send money. Funds will be tight in Phelps until the harvest, several months away, and George Jr. “has had none from Michigan.” This is a very interesting point, because it shows that the family is not only in contact over half the continent, but is financially connected as well. Money and information (and, as we’ll see later, merchandise) flows in both directions between family members all over North America. We’re mistaken if we assume that when people moved west, they cut their ties with family and went on their own.
Here’s my transcription of the letter:
Phelps May 19th
I take the present opportunity of informing you that our folks are well as usual. I am working at home this season. I have a couple of acres of peppermint planted &c. We have planted this season about six acres of mint nine acres corn six acres spring wheat potatoes oats sufficient &c.
As to stock they have five cows four yearlings and four calves and in the horse line Lucius thinks he has got a team. They have swopt the old big sorrel and a mare they had for a pair of Dun colored horses equally matched. As heavy as the old (???) horse which makes a (???) team, they being smart, and the big horse is yet on hand. They calculate to summer fallow about eighteen or twenty acres. There has been a very good spring so far for crops and there are prospects now for considerable fruit.
Our people are a going into the poultry line considerable this season. Forty or fifty chickens already and a quantity of eggs yet to hatch. Eleven young turkeys and two turkeys yet to hatch &c. &C.
Our folks have taken a girl about ten years old which they like very well. I believe which makes quite a help to the woman affairs. Dexter is yet in Michigan. I suppose William is a building a new house in the west village. Frederick is about here as usual. Frank is about Pecks yet. Now news &c.
You requested us to send the Names Births &c. Of the children. I will write them viz.
Alonzo F Ranney Born Sept 13, 1812
Lewis G Ranney Born March 10, 1815
Henry S Ranney Born March 5, 1817
Lucius Ranney Born April 12, 1819
Priscilla M Ranney Do Jan 19, 1822
Harrison Ranney Born March 4, 1824
Lyman A Ranney Born August 1, 1828
Lemuel S Ranney Born Jany 17, 1831
Anson B Ranney Do May 31, 1833
Mother says she calculates to send you two or three pairs of socks.
James King is about Vienna making pumps.
James Flower was married a few weeks ago.
Father wishes you to send him fifty or a hundred Dollars if you can as he has had none from Michigan and having some to make out he Requests &c. Money is very scarce here now probably will be till after harvest.
They thought if you could spare it till fall it would accommodate very much then they want to square up the horse and the stock line and other small debts. Write again soon and send if you send &c.
L G Ranney