January 5, 1857 - Honeymoon Song


Tuesday 5th. Started for Uncle Clinton Garter's, [west of Grand Rapids]. Rather a cold day to ride, but Otis heat a brick & put to my feet & I was quite comfortable. . . . We passed through a wee village named Berlin. . . . Aunt Harriet is a lively, good little woman, the three little ones, Thomas, George & Sarah, are full of life & mischief, & Uncle is what I call a model of a handsome man, & moreover he looks very much like Otis. Uncles folks have a great deal of company I should think. . . . Mr. Birdsall, Mr. Perkins, who is a good singer, & Alonzo Van Gordon a brother of Aunts & who was here to supper; called. Uncle has a fiddle & plays better than any man I have heard in this center portion of the state.


[In large script]


Down on the Mississippi floting

Long time I trabled on the way

All knight the cottonwood a toting

Sing for my trulub all the day


Nell was a lady

Last night she died

Tole the bell for lubly nel

My dark virginny bride


When I saw my nelly in the morning

Smile till she opened up her eyes

I carried like the light ob day a doning

Jis before the sun begins to rize


Now I am unhappy and am weeping

Can't tote the cotton wood no more

Last night while Nelly was a sleeping

Deth came knocking at the door


Close by de margin ob de water

Where de lone weeping willow grows

There libed Virginny's lubly daughter

There she in deth may find repose


Down in the meadow mong de clober

Walked with my Nelly by my side

Now all dem happy daze are ober

Farewell my dark Virginny bride


Henry Garter Jr.




Of course we may know this song as "Nelly Was a Lady," by Stephen Foster, published in 1849. It seems Rosette was so taken with her new Uncle Henry she assumed he'd written this very popular song.


Otis and Rosette Churchill took their wedding journey by horse-drawn sleigh, a "cutter" that the menfolk constructed the month before and had "ironed" - fitted with runners - in Portland. Others rode with them for short jaunts of several miles, so it was presumably not the smallest size. On their journey they headed west beyond Grand Rapids, then came back through the city for, among other things, the opportunity for Otis to have an "ambrotype" photograph made of Rosette.


The people they visited included Otis's aunts and uncles on his mother Betsey Garter Churchill's side - her brother Henry, named for their father, and one of three sisters who married three brothers of the King family. Back in Orange Township, where they settled, another of these sisters - Lucinda - and her husband Myron King became very important to the newlyweds. Details of the extended Garter family come from the journal and from the beautifully detailed work of William Robert Brittenham (deceased 2008), The Garter Family of New York and Michigan.


Enjoy listening to this version of

"Nelly Was a Lady"

by Charles Szabo.


Imagine how captivating this tune must have been in the cordial company of a family celebrating a new marriage,

with good singers and a good fiddle to lead them all.


For links to more information on Stephen Foster, cultural sensitivity, and music, please subscribe to the email list with the link in the footer of this page.


March 19-20, 1857 - Maple Sugar Production


Thursday 19th. Our folks sugared off 90 lbs. & Otis sugared off, but it has not been weighed yet, for we could not bring it up it was so dark. I went there in the afternoon . . . & we did not get home till 25 minutes past 10. I took along something to eat, & we ate our supper in the woods. We had to see by firelight as we had no candle. And that is the first supper we ate & the first evening we passed at our own home.

Friday 20th. . . . An Indian called & bought a pound of sugar. I went to Fathers sugar-bush to see if Sol wanted me to help drain the sirup. He did not. . . . I went to Otis' bush toward night to help bring up the sugar that was left the night before. He boiled till eleven. He got the big chair up in front of the fire, which is made of the end of an old stove-trough. There was one hole in the back, but he put a board on it & it makes a nice warm chair, & there I sat & dozed as easily as a kitten.




My own family began making maple syrup when we moved to Pennsylvania a decade ago, and I learned the history of the process through the Jennings Environmental Center in Slippery Rock. Since we can buy sugar at the store, we store our maple syrup instead of processing it further to a big loaf of sugar as Rosette's family did. But maple sugar, honey, and perhaps beet sugar were the only real sources of sweetener for the pioneers in Michigan, continued from the craft learned from the Indians in New York and New England in previous generations. Maple sugar was also very popular among the abolitionists, as a way of boycotting the slave-dependent cane sugar trade. (See "Sugaring Off," on the Greene, New York website, for more details)

"Sugaring-off," as Rosette calls it, is the process of collecting sap from maple trees--a good stand of trees being called a "sugar-bush"--and then boiling it down over an open fire in wide, flat pans. It takes 40 gallons of sap to make one gallon of syrup, and that is then cooked down a bit further to crystallize into dry sugar.  The Ramsdells and Churchills made a good part of their living from this enterprise over several weeks each February-March--Rosette reports that she and Otis netted over 200 pounds of sugar their first season and her parents 700 pounds (representing well over 3000 gallons of sap!). Later lower-quality sap was used to make vinegar, with the help of a "mother" or "starter" from another batch of vinegar.

One of my favorite scenes in the journal is Rosette's account of the rest of the night recorded here--they stayed late to finish the sugaring-off (getting just the right consistency) and then lost their way when they tried to go home! You'll have to read the novel to learn that story . . .


Use the link in the footer of this page to sign up for email updates and learn more about maple sugar and candy.

Photo of red maples in Slippery Rock, PA , courtesy of Glenn Marsch
Red maples also produce syrup, but about 25% less than sugar maples.

"The maples, silent keepers of their secret among all the green trees, flame out their place in fall that we might find them." --Rosette (the novel)

Nighttime photo of collecting sap from maple tree, courtesy of Glenn Marsch.
Betsy Marsch tapping a maple tree

The modern way of tapping maple trees is much the same as in Rosette's time. Betsy Marsch, artist for the cover of Rosette, collecting the sap from a day or two in March, 2015.


June-July 1857 - Homemaking and Soapmaking


Tuesday 16th. . . Otis went to fathers before dinner & staid till night & made me a bread board, rolling pin, mop-stick, & ironing board.

Wednesday 17th. Rainy. Aunt Lucinda [King] gave us a pail of soap & Otis went & got it. I baked bread in our new stove for the first time. I like it the best of any I have ever seen.



Thursday 16th. I went to fathers in the morning & staid till night & put up water on the leech to make soap.

Friday 17th. The mosequetoes did not trouble us much. I went to fathers before dinner, found Albert L[ong] standing at the gate. He had ran away & I sent him right home. Put up more water, but as there will not be lye enough, mother will put it in the kettle with the grease & let it stand till we get more ashes.


Wednesday 22nd. Cloudy. Otis chopped at fathers, put up ashes to make soap &c.


Saturday 25th. We wrote to [Otis's] mother & [Otis's brother] Sylvester. Otis went to Lyons with Uncle M[yron King] & I to fathers & finished the soap. . . .

Sunday 26th. . . . Otis went to fathers to see the soap. He says I must boil it more.


Thursday 30th.  Very warm. I went to fathers & boiled the soap. It is quite good. And I split some straw, & had some raspberry sauce, which was delicious. 



June 1857 is when Otis and Rosette moved into their little shanty on the farm where they would the next summer build their house (which still stands today). It is charming to see Rosette's list of household items Otis fashioned for her. A critical part of pioneer housekeeping was washing--clothes, dishes, and hard-working people. Otis's aunt gave them a pail of soap as a wonderful housewarming gift.

I am privileged that my friend Lori Chandler of Ashgrove Soaps, a Handcrafted Soap & Cosmetic Guild Certified Teacher and Soapmaker, reviewed with me the soapmaking details in the journal. Here is what I gleaned from Ms. Chandler about the soapmaking process and what was likely going on with each of the entries:


Putting up water on the leach is adding water to a barrel of ashes that have been collected over time, often in an "ash hopper." Different kinds of wood produced different quantities of potassium hydroxide, and the concentration of lye draining out of the barrel would vary according to the quality of the ash. The caustic lye was commonly tested with a feather--if the quill dissolved away, the lye was too strong, and if the barbs remained, it was too weak, but if the quill remained and the small barbs of feathers dissolved away, it was just right. Rosette's mother Sally Ramsdell presumably tested it and called for more ash.


The grease they added the leach water (lye) was from the rendered fat of animals which may have included those from the wild or from the farm. Frequently lard from pigs was used in soapmaking. A family butchering a pig might smoke the hams and render the fat for soapmaking at the same time. The next mention of soapmaking in the journal is in October, a traditional butchering time when some fresh meat might be preserved by the cold and some by salting. Ms. Chandler says the resulting soap "was a soft bar" and used for all soap needs in the family--laundry, dishes, and bathing.


Soap is made in several ways. Cold-processed (requiring three weeks) and hot-processed (ready for use as soon as made) are two common methods. The dates in the journal suggest Rosette's was a combination. The process, called "saponification," turns oils and lye into soap. Although Otis did not approve of his wife's first efforts, it's encouraging that she pronounces the soap "quite good" at the end. During the 1800s a soapmaker would judge a soap according to his experience and visual cues. Hot-process soap could be made in a kettle using low heat on a woodstove or outside hanging from a tripod or spit over a bed of coals. Soapmaking was a craft of both genders in a family--Otis seems to be the one making it on his own in October of 1857, when Rosette was just a few weeks past childbirth. According to Ms. Chandler, commercial soapmakers of this era were usually male.


Ms. Chandler adds that times have changed and so have the knowledge and skills related to soapmaking. With modern methods, handcrafted soap techniques are no longer based on oral tradition handed down from previous generations, but are formulated by soapmaking artisans using current technical knowledge.


To learn more about historic soapmaking and perhaps order some of Lori Chandler's amazing soaps (I gave some as bridal shower gifts this year), please visit AshgroveSoaps.com. I look forward to enjoying a daylong workshop with Lori in February 2016. The Pittsburgh Soapmaker Gathering is coming up in June 2016, with a traditional soapmaking theme. Check Lori's website for upcoming events!

Lori Chandler, in costume, displaying some of her wares with her daughter Abigail at the Depreciation Lands Festival in 2009. 


October 30 - November 6, 1857 - An Apple-Paring Bee

Friday 30th.  Otis went to Lyons, & sold a load of wheat for six shillings a bushel. Bought two flat-irons, [a dozen] Candlesticks, cotton-flannel, nails. Glass, hammer, wicking 1 ball 1 lb saleratus &c. Marian & Henry came P.M. & staid 2 or 3 hours & brought a basket of apples.

. . .

Wednesday 4th. Marian gave me an invitation to a pareing bee there in the evening & we went & staid all night. Solomon, Ellen, Jerome,  & Daniel; S. Jackson; Ann & Cornelius [McKelvey]; Amos & Ellen Kinney; Justine, Catherine & Mary M.; Mary Jane Sutton; Ellen, George & Abigail B.; Mariah & Edward M.; William & Edwin W.; Riley Griffin & Pheba Root, were there. Danced after they got done pareing apples.[semicolons added for clarity]

Thursday 5th. Rained all the forenoon & some P.M. We came home about noon. Mr. Howe & Mr. Long called to write with our pen & ink. Very warm for the season.

Friday 6th. High winds & pleasant. Otis husked corn at fathers.




The several shopping lists in Rosette's journal offer fascinating details of her housekeeping in the shanty she and Otis had shared since June. Because she had an infant by now, the cotton-flannel was likely for him, and the candlesticks and wicking promise a candle-making project very soon. "Saleratus" is disputed a bit among my sources, but it is enough to explain it as baking powder. Before the purchase of the flat-irons, Rosette was borrowing from their neighbors the Longs across the road.

Some apple harvesting had begun in July, and Otis purchased apple trees then to plant on his farm. Several times Rosette mentions baskets of apples coming from various neighbors - sometimes these may be gifts but sometimes purchases or trades. The guest list from the paring bee is typical of the MANY gatherings detailed in the journal. Even just everyday visiting often happened several times a day, men and women in different groups visiting in a circle of a couple of miles' radius. Sometimes an evening visit became an overnight stay, as weather and lack of lighting might require.

For details from a delightful magazine account of an apple paring a few decades later, one that helped shape a scene in the novel, please subscribe to the email list.