Yesteryear’s Letters Shine Light on Past Lives

By Lura Jackson

 

This group of community members celebrated Halloween in 1938 at the Hall sisters' home on North Street. The Hall sisters were known for entertaining, and this event apparently filled the bill with guests adorning themselves in a variety of appropriate and less-appropriate attire. Note that one guest wears a "W.P.A." outfit.

When we consider the history of a place, the most common picture presented is one given in broad terms. As an example, we might read that “Calais was founded in 1809 in part due to its economically strategic location as a result of proximity to an abundance of trees and furs…”, or something along those lines. While this perspective gives us an overview of facts, it doesn’t do much to tell us what it was actually like to live in an area in the past, however. For a more intimate impression, we can turn to primary materials—letters, journals, or other items written by one person during a specific time period. 

One of the features Calais has in abundance is old buildings, and sometimes those old buildings hold a treasure cache of primary materials that illuminate what life was like in some regards. In this first column, we will examine one of three pieces sent to “Mrs. Joseph Kelly” on Barker Street in late October, 1938.

The first letter, sent from South Boston by a Charles Kelly, is neatly typed and folded inside a small envelope. In it, we learn that Charles is the nephew of Mrs. Kelly, and that he and his wife Lottie have successfully relocated to “a nice little place in South Boston” with five rooms and hot water heat. He writes of a terrible hurricane that affected Boston and “almost destroyed” New London, Connecticut, where another relative was without power for a month afterwards. 

The letter contains details that hint at the larger national picture. Charles writes of Jim, who was working with the “W.P.A.” and “getting along” with it. “W.P.A.” refers to Works Progress Administration, which was the largest agency organized by the New Deal as a way to employ unskilled men in public works projects after the Great Depression. Between 1935 and 1943, the project employed 8.5 million people.

Charles himself laments that he was unable to return to Calais, stating he was not given his full vacation. “I am getting lonesome for Calais,” he writes. “I sure would like to see you.”

 With the letter concluded, we turn our attention to its recipient. According to local records, Mrs. Ellen or Nellie Kelly (maiden name Eleanor A. Pillans) lived on Barker Street with her husband, Joseph. Joseph was a boilermaker, a profession that St. Croix Historical Society President Al Churchill notes would have been at the upper end of skilled labor at the time. Boilermakers would have been necessary to build and maintain boilers for the mill.

At the time of the 1900 census, Joseph was 20 and Nellie was 23, meaning when Charles mailed his letter she would have been around 60 years of age. Joseph and Nellie had three children, Percy, Lucy, and Inez.

Around the 1930s in Calais, the area was continuing to grow. While the Great Depression had some effect on community members, the rural nature of the St. Croix Valley insulated families from the devastating effects felt in heavily industrialized cities. By 1938, the railway was much less active as a passenger transportation line, and the street car had stopped working nearly a decade before. Instead, personal cars could be seen all over the roads of Calais.

Next week, we’ll have a look at another letter sent to Nellie—this time from a friend in Canada.

 

Special thanks to Vikki McConvey. The letter from Charles and its two companion pieces will be preserved without claim by the St. Croix Historical Society.