Letter Writers in the Family

Letter writing is a lost art. It is so easy to slam out a text or write that “quick email” that our penmanship is failing, and our ability to put together a proper complete sentence is suffering. 

This past week I have been busy transcribing my mother’s travel journal. The summer after she graduated from Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, she and two of her sorority sisters left to spend the summer traveling around Europe. They rented a 4-door Renault in Paris, a car so small that only one suitcase and the coats fit in the trunk, the other suitcases were strapped to the roof of the car. Leaving Paris, they would drive 2900 miles over the next 31 days, traveling through France, Germany, Switzerland, and Italy, before returning the car, and boarding a train to spend another week between London and Edinburgh, Scotland. 

Mom was diligent about recording the Date, Place, and Weather for each day, along with a short synopsis of how they had spent their day, and what they had seen. I thought that this small journal was giving me a great insight into her trip, and all of the wonders she had seen. That is until I read her letters home. My grandparents had saved each letter and postcard that she had sent home, mom had saved all the letters that she received at American Express offices throughout Europe, and neighbors had “returned” to her the postcards that she had sent to them. 

After I had finished the journal, I started to transcribe the letters, inserting the transcription of the letter following the date of the journal entry. Suddenly the trip came alive! From her journal entry I learn: “… ate a wonderful meal of snails, wine (Claret) & ice cream & raspberries…” From her letter home I discover that “… That evening we enjoyed a wonderful meal of snails & claret & ice cream & raspberries. They are served in their shells on trays, which look something like tiny, shallow muffin tins. Each snail is covered with melted butter, garlic, and parsley. You are given a small fork and tong like things (to hold the shell) with which you eat them. After you eat the snail you soak tiny bits of your bread in the garlic butter. It is really very tasty — of course you leave reeking of garlic, but happy.” As my grandma said in her August 7th letter to mom “You will never know how much your wonderful letters & cards mean to us. Am saving all of them & just to read about what you are seeing and such thrills us to death. Your letters are almost like a travelogue. Gosh but it sure sounds wonderful and we are so pleased that you are having such a wonderful time.”

Speaking of grandma. In the summer of 1955, Verna Amelia Gray Tapper was 44 years old. My grandfather, Roland John Tapper, Sr. was 45, turning 46 on August 1st. That summer, on August 6th, they celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. They were so young!! And grandma was just full of news to share. Mom’s  trip spanned ten weeks, and grandma wrote seven letters during that time, and mom sent 12 letters home, plus several postcards. For grandma and grandpa, they received a travelogue, and for mom, she kept up with all the news from home. And me? Well, I can sit down and “see” into the past. I can enjoy mom’s trip along with grandma and grandpa, and I can feel the heat of the 100° days, the happiness that grandma felt when “Dad had my diamond reset & got me a new wedding ring. So — for the first time I have matched rings…The settings are simple but dainty & beautiful & he is so proud of them he could just burst.”

Now I am scanning and organizing the letters, the postcards, the travel journal, and the book that mom put together at my request. In 2011 I had asked her to document her trip, which she did in the form of a photo journal, as she organized and captioned the photos that she had from the trip. I am working on putting this together in book format so that the whole summer can be savored in one bite, “The Summer of 1955.”

I Purchased a SHOTBOX During Rootstech

Yesterday I purchased a SHOTBOX. What is a SHOTBOX? The developer describes it this way: “The SHOTBOX is an all-in-one portable light studio that allows you to scan faster, capture amazing photos, and have fun unleashing your creative side all just using your smartphone.” Here is a link to their website:

Why did I purchase a SHOTBOX? To photograph family objects so that they can be cataloged and packed safely away in an archival manner. 

Until now I was not interested in owning a SHOTBOX. I found them fascinating, but you see, in my old house the kid’s bathroom made the perfect “studio” for capturing images of family objects, and there was no setup or storage. Well, maybe some clean-up of toothpaste residue, but that needed to be done anyway. But that house is no longer mine, and the new house does not sport a similar photo opportunity. So I decided to take a second look at the SHOTBOX and started to watch the videos that had been produced for Rootstech. The videos, combined with a conversation that I had had with my mother three weeks ago, sold me.

My in-laws wedding bands, photographed in the bathroom

Three weeks ago I was down in the basement amongst the yet to be opened boxes that we had moved from Appleton, and decided to open the box that contained my mother’s music boxes. I knew that many of them were not in the best shape having spent years in the basement, but they are full of memories. My mom had marked the bottom of each box with the month and year that she had received it, so I was looking for these dates as I unpacked each piece. I came across a box that had always been part of her collection but had no date marked on the bottom. I took it upstairs to ask her about it. This simple question of when she had received the box turned into an hour or more of conversation. And little did I know, it would be our last meaningful conversation, as she died last Sunday, February 21, 2021, from an aggressive form of kidney cancer. 

Lying in her bed, she told me that she had purchased the music box with money from Uncle Norman (Norman Tapper), in Switzerland, while on her trip to Europe. In the summer of 1955 my mother and two college friends, sailed to Europe to spend 31 days traveling through six countries. She was 22 years old. She went on to say that she arrived in Switzerland knowing that she wanted to find a certain type of box, one that was similar to a piece that her father had brought home from his trip to Europe in 1929. I don’t remember the next question that I asked her, but she said that her journal for the trip was in her sitting room, in the blanket chest in a bag she had also purchased on the trip. I went to look, found the bag and journal, and brought it back to her bedroom. Inside the bag was an envelope that contained the pictures she took on the trip along with all of the letters that she had written – and family members returned to her – and her journal. 

In the back of the journal was a “Cash Account” section where she noted every penny that she spent. The goal of each girl was to not spend more than $1,000, a goal they proudly reached. Looking through the book, I found the music box. She had paid 78 francs for it, and also included the conversion rate which was $18.09. Looking to see where she was on that day the “10th,” I find her in Geneva, Switzerland where the weather was “cool & clear.”

At my request, mom had put together a memory book for this trip, The Summer of 1955 which she had completed in June 2011. She wrote a great introductory page, with one of my favorite stories. You see, my mom never drove in my lifetime. Her early adult life was spent in Chicago, her early married life spent in New York City, and then Appleton, Outagamie, Wisconsin. In the first cities, she did not need a car, and arriving in Appleton, she and my dad only had one car, plus she could easily walk to what was then a vibrant downtown, from our little rental on Story Street. In her introduction, she wrote that her friends “…got their International Driver’s Licenses, but since I still hadn’t gotten my U.S. driver’s license I had to wait until we got to Paris to get mine. After I graduated [from Drake University] on June 7th I went home, applied for, took both written and driving tests, passed, and finally received my US driver’s license” My mother drove in the Swiss Alps, and took her turn throughout Europe, only to return to the United States, and never drive again.

While her book is amazing, with all of the photos organized and labeled, it does not include her journal. So that brings me back to the SHOTBOX and the video that decided the matter for me, Journal Tips – Rootstech Live Stream” where Aaron Johnson talks about his mom’s journal and how he digitized it. 

My SHOTBOX has been shipped, and while I wait, I am pondering how I will organize what I have. At this moment I am thinking that I will scan the journal, inserting the letters she sent home at the appropriate date within the journal. Once I reach the “Cash Account” I will photograph any items that we still have and add them to this section. In the final section, I will include the photo book she created in 2011, The Summer of 1955.

I am so glad that I decided to open the box that contained her music boxes, and took a look. 

The Cook Family Photo Album

In 2003 my mother, Emmie Lou Tapper Sternitzky, took on the monumental task of sorting, identifying, and cataloging the Cook photos that she and my father had been given to archive. She did an amazing job with these 297 images that she included in her photo book “The Cook Family Photo Album.” Through the years as my research has expanded, I have made notes confirming dates, correcting dates, identifying before unknown people in photos, and just enjoying the hard work that went into what I hold in my hands. 

The other day I was again going through the book, as I knew she had included a map that I wanted to look at when I was stopped by a postcard that had been saved by my great-grandmother, Effie Josette DuCate Cook. She had received New Years’ greetings from J. C. Gillett, the photo postcard being postmarked in Unity, Marathon County, Wisconsin, January 2, 1908. Moving on to look at the 1901 map, I noticed a J. C. Gillett living on 120 acres in Section 5, Brighton Township, across the street from George and Lewis’ land in section 6. Who was this J. C. Gillett?

I started the easy way, the 1900 United States Federal Census entry for my great-grandparents.[1] And there she was, listed as Jane C. Gillett, head of household, age 54, widowed, mother of 3 children with 2 living, born in England, immigrated in 1850, working as a school teacher, owning free of mortgage, a farm. Living with her was her son, Fay C. Gillett, age 23, occupation a farmer. 

This sparked my interest to learn a bit more about this woman, why was she sending such sweet New Year greetings to her neighbor? Imagine my surprise when the pieces all fell into place. Jane, really Jennie Clara Chaney Gillett, was born in England in February 1846. She married Fayette Clark Gillett on March 24, 1875, in Forest, Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and they had three children. Fay, who I have already mentioned born in 1876, Elizabeth Ann born July 28, 1878, and Jennie C. Gillett was born May 3, 1880, all in Forest. Sadly, they lost Jennie on January 12, 1881. Fayette passed away on August 21, 1889. He and Jennie were buried in Forest Cemetery, and this is where Jennie and Fay would return for burial. 

So how does this tie the two women together? Remember Jennie’s older daughter, Elizabeth Ann? She married George Sewall Cook, the brother of Lewis!! A family postcard. I find it interesting looking at the back to note that the card was postmarked, but no indication that it had ever been stamped. I wonder if Jennie walked into the post office, handed her penny and the postcard to the postmaster. He took the penny, stamped the card, and tucked it into Effie’s cubby for her to pick up. 

By 1920 Fay had retired from farming, and he moved with his mother into a house on West Front Street in the Village of Unity. Here they would spend the rest of their lives. (I have to admit that I have not checked to see if the address stayed the same. They may have moved households). Jennie passed away on April 13, 1924, and Fay would live until November 17, 1945. 

The New Years’ greeting sent in 1908 is now part of my collection, and it is so much fun to know a bit more about this woman standing in her yard with her dog. 


  1.  1. 1900 U.S. census, Marathon County, Wisconsin, population schedule, Brighton Township, enumeration district (ED) 72, sheet 1, p. 27A, dwelling 9, family 9, Lewis H.  Cook household; digital images, ( : accessed 25 Mar 2005); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T623, roll FHL microfilm: 1241798.

Ice Roads

Each year as Lake Winnebago freezes, plans are made for that year’s road system, as local fishing clubs map out the intricate, and extensive, roadway that will get fisherman and their vehicles out onto the ice. In 2018, about 75 miles of roads were designed and kept plowed by the 20 fishing clubs that create the ice fishing community. [1]

2018 was a cold year and the 131,939-acre lake that stretches 30 miles long and about 10 miles wide, had ice in some spots that measured 30 inches thick. Discarded Christmas trees are used to line routes to make navigation easier, especially at night, or during years when there is little to no snow cover. Bridges are custom built to span the cracks that appear, and these need to be moved frequently as the ice conditions change, and club members report that the ice is constantly moving, especially on windy days when you can feel the waves as you cross the ice.

The ice fishing clubs are not the only ones using the lake as a roadway, as a road is also created and maintained as a quick way to travel from Quinney in Calumet County to Oshkosh, Winnebago County. This 10-mile road connects the two communities and cuts almost 30 miles and 45 minutes off of the trip taken on traditional roadways. [2]

The idea of this ice highway is not a new one. Oshkosh retailers were thrilled in December 1910 to learn of a sled line that would run across Lake Winnebago from Stockbridge, Calumet County on the east shore to the city of Oshkosh. [3] On December 10th a group of four Stockbridge men started to map out the 10 3/4 mile route between the two communities. It took them just shy of four days, Saturday, Sunday, arriving in Oshkosh at noon on Monday. “They came across with one team and a bob-sled and every twenty or twenty-five rods along the way they set up in the ice a small evergreen tree or bush which would act as a guide for the wayfarers to come after them.” “Holes were cut in the ice and the trunks of the trees firmly placed in the holes so that evergreens would remain upright throughout the winter, no matter what winds or snow storms may try to topple them from their support. [4]

The 1910 road builders measured the ice as they made their way towards Oshkosh, and discovered that the thickest ice was at the east shore, while the thinnest ice was near Oshkosh. They speculated that the reason for this is the water is deepest near Stockbridge and much more shallow on the Oshkosh side. They stated that they would “easily see the bottom all the way to shore from a point two miles out.” [5]

That year other roads were planned, as the Cook & Brown Lime company was constructing a road from the brickyard near High Cliff to Appleton, Outagamie County, and another road was planned from Calumet Harbor to Oshkosh. 

Oshkosh was very excited for the opportunity that the ice road offered them as “it will be possible for east shore people to do much Christmas trading here.” In the summer the residents travel to Oshkosh by steamboat, and now in winter, they can make the trek across the ice. “It requires about two and one-half hours time to cross the ice with a team hauling a loaded sleigh at a pair pace.” [6]

Two and a half hours one way by sleigh in 1910. Looking at a Google map, the route from Stockbridge to Oshkosh via WI-55N is a distance of 39.9 miles and would take 47 minutes by car. Hard to believe that the author of the 2018 article had his facts fully researched as he stated that the ice road cuts almost 30 miles off of the trip. He further stated that traveling 25 MPH while on the ice reduces the length of the trip by 45 minutes. Either way, using the lake roads as a way to get to Oshkosh from Calumet County certainly saves time.


  1. 1. James B. Nelson, “Lake Winnebago’s winter roads offer access to fishing shacks, speedy commuter routes,” The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 14 Feb 2018; digital images, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel ( : accessed 31 Jan 2021).
  2. 2. Ibid.
  3. 3. “Sled Line to Run Over Winnebago,” Appleton Evening Crescent, 15 Dec 1910, Thursday, p. 2, col. 4; digital images, ( : accessed 31 Jan 2021). 
  4. 4. Ibid.
  5. 5. Ibid.
  6. 6. Ibid.

Suffers Hallucinations

Margaret Oleath Hansen was born November 4, 1886 in Denmark, Brown County, Wisconsin to Jens (James) and Marie Kirstine Jensdatter Hansen, who had emigrated from Denmark in 1881. 

By the time the 1900 United States Federal Census was enumerated, they were living in Marinette, Marinette County, Wisconsin. James was working as “Laber in coal.” [1] The census taker was not the best at his job (sorry John Stratton, whoever you are), as he noted that Marie was the mother of nine children, with eight living, and then proceeded to enumerate nine children. The eldest, Peter, age 22, had been born in Denmark, and the youngest, Willie and Ethel, were enumerated as both being two years of age, born just five months apart. I am sure with a bit more research, I could sort this out, but this short piece is to be about Margaret, or Maggie as she was called. 

On October 3, 1903, just a month shy of her 17th birthday, Maggie’s mother passed away at the age of 50, in Marinette. Maggie would marry Henry Louis (Ludwig) Edward Dettman on March 3, 1908 in Menominee, Menominee County, Wisconsin. The couple worked together in the grocery business their entire marriage. Henry died in 1956 at the age 70, and Margaret passed away on May 22, 1968. She was 81 years old. 

Why my interest in Margaret? While doing newspaper research, I came across an article about a Margaret Hanson, [sic] 20 years old, of Marinette.[2] This article was directly above the article I was looking to review, and was titled: “Insane Girl Would Be Lawyer.” The sub-title goes on to report: “Margaret Hanson of Marinette Is Cultured, but Suffers Hallucinations.” That caught my attention! The article states that this poor girl’s “hallucination” was that she wished to become a lawyer and study for the bar. For wishing to become a lawyer, she was committed to the insane asylum.

Margaret told the 1940 United States Federal Census [3] enumerator that the highest grade in school that she had completed was 5th grade. The court in 1906 found her “cultured and refined,” and “she was able to quote long passages from Dickens, Shakespeare and other authors.” So while she only had formal schooling till 5th grade, she never stopped learning. For her desire to continue learning, and to become a lawyer, the court committed her to the insane asylum, and it just so happened that the newly built Marinette County Asylum, Mental Health Institution, and Poor Home was open, and ready to accept patients. 

Marinette County Insane Asylum, Marinette, Wis.

There is the chance that the Margaret whose life I briefly told, is not the Margaret who wished to be a lawyer, but she was the only Margaret Hansen living in Marinette, age 20. I also do not know how long she was kept at the asylum, but she married Henry Dettman two years later, so I so hope it was not a long stay. If I did wish to search further, the Coffrin Library at the University of Wisconsin-Green Bay has the asylum records. While most information is restricted, it does look as though the admission book may be open for viewing. [4]

I am so glad to be living in a time when a young woman, obviously smart, who wished to become a lawyer, can become a lawyer. 


  1. 1. 1900 U.S. census, Marinette County, Wisconsin, population schedule, Marinette, 4th Ward, enumeration district (ED) 118, sheet 2 (penned), p. 129B (stamped), dwelling 23, family 28, James Hanson household; digital images, ( : accessed 22 Jan 2021); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T623, FHL Microfilm: 1241799.
  2.  2. “Insane Girl Would Be Lawyer,” The Manitowoc Pilot, 15 Feb 1906, p. 3, col. 6; digital images, GenealogyBank ( : accessed 21 Jan 2021).  
  3. 3. 1940 U.S. census, Marinette County, Indiana, population schedule, Marinette, 5th Ward, enumeration district (ED) 38-21, sheet 10, p. 290A, household 218, Henry L. Dittman household; digital images, ( : accessed 22 Jan 2021); citing National Archives and Records Administration microfilm T627.
  4. 4. Pine View Health Care Center Records, 1906-1993.

Strong Like Bull

In May of 2012 I started a blog that I titled: The Aroma of Bread. A Place for our family to gather and share memories of Marie’s kitchen. It began with scanning recipes from the cookbooks that we found in the utility room cupboards. Cookbooks falling apart, but many pages where we found handwritten notes about whether a recipe was “good” or where she was going when she made the dish. It didn’t really take off, so I stopped after a while. I have deleted the blog, but will archive the posts. 

Archived post from “The Aroma of Bread,” first published 12 Oct 2013, with comments from today.

It is so hard to believe that it has been seven years since the summer that we spent cleaning out Butch and Marie’s house and preparing it for sale. So much has happened since that time.

Here is this post from 2013:

A couple of weeks ago we were at the house to continue the cleaning. On the agenda for this particular day was to clean out the eaves, which were full of leaves and debris.

 Standing on the ladder doing a task that he had done many many times over the years, Gary got to thinking and remembering. Remembering the time that he was up on the roof painting the trim on this very window. Having finished painting, he needed to clip the aluminum storm back onto the house. Finding he needed some help holding the window in place – or the ability to grow extra arms, he asked Marie to lend him a hand. Up for the challenge, she climbed into the tub, and at 5’2″ (on a good day), she fearlessly took hold of her side of the window. As Gary worked to get it clipped, and Marie worked to hold it steady, she said for the first time what would become a favorite family phrase: “Strong like bull!” And that was almost the end of the window as both she and Gary got the giggles as they looked at each other through the opening.

Cleaning out the gutters that nice fall day, Gary paused to remember a moment of shared laughter with his mother.