Mabel Monsey, who as a young woman homesteaded a claim near Lake Stevens in Snohomish County with her husband and children, chronicled their pioneer experiences during their 13 years in the area in a wide variety of publications. This account of Monsey and her writing by Louise Lindgren was originally published in June 2001 in Third Age News and is presented here with permission of the author.
Good Stories Documenting the Pioneer Experience
Thanks to the grandchildren of Mabel Monsey and to the Lake Stevens Historical Society, the writings of Mabel Monsey survive for everyone to enjoy in an album at the Lake Stevens Museum. These are not just diary notations or letters as we often find at museums, but articles about the Monseys' life as homesteaders, published for magazines and newspapers in the east and in Seattle. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer carried a regular column; the Ohio Farmer and Housekeeper magazines benefitted from Mabel's ability to tell a good story as well as provide accurate documentation of the pioneer experience.
In addition to the Lake Stevens historical collection, a search of the internet reveals that the University of Illinois library has scanned forty of her articles written between 1890 and 1899 that appeared in Farm, Field and Fireside, Western Rural and Livestock Weekly, and National Rural and Family Magazine.
The Monsey family came west from Ohio in about 1888, first settling in Snohomish and in 1890 taking a 40-acre preemption claim near Hartford, a railroad junction northeast of Lake Stevens. They brought four girls with them, ranging in age from 9 years to 18 months. In an article describing their arrival, Mabel told of their trek from the train station at Hartford to their new property:
"We walked the mile and three-quarters down the railroad track, then one-quarter of a mile to our new home, over a good road. ... on either side of the road, was dense forest, and to see the sun one must look straight up."
Their furniture was hauled to a drop-off point in front of the shake cabin Mr. Monsey had built. The only problem was carrying all that furniture, including a heavy sewing machine and an organ, over, around, and through an immense pile of logs that filled the area from the road to the cabin door. A large fir log, 8 feet in diameter, lay in front of the front door. Mabel wrote, "We had to make a ladder to climb to the top of this log and then walk down the log to a smaller one, down the next to a still smaller one, and so on to the road." The road was completely hidden by felled logs and forest debris, while nearby Lake Stevens was hidden by a dense stand of timber.
The month was November. Only one room of the two-room cabin had a floor. The night before Mr. Monsey had slept in the house while numerous skunks had played in the room all night. On the day of his wife's arrival he laid the second room's flooring. Excess furniture was placed in the woodshed where it promptly became unglued, owing to the damp weather. Yet with all the confusion of moving into a tiny cabin as opposed to the normal home they had left behind, the cold and wet, the young children needing constant care and attention, Mabel wrote, "We were young and brave, my husband and I. We were ready to work hard in our struggle for a home."
Equipped to Handle Challenges
The Monseys were well-educated and had money in the bank. With their background and advantages, and particularly with their optimistic attitude, they were well equipped to handle pioneer challenges. Mabel was also determined to help out the family with income from writing. Education was extremely important to the Monseys. Mabel wrote:
"One of the first things I did was to subscribe for a number of the best farm journals, a floral magazine, several ladies' magazines and journals and the leading county paper. Also a good eastern paper, some eleven or twelve altogether, and they have been welcome inmates to our home ever since."
It was natural then for her to teach school in her home until a new school could be built nearby. And, since their family grew from four children in 1888 to eleven by 1903, the education of her children was always front and center as one of her major responsibilities.
Letters from Fordhart Corners
The chronicle of their life from 1891 to 1903 when they moved from the area is told in a variety of ways for various publications, including straight-talk "advice" columns, poetry, story-telling, and one humorous series in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer written under the pen name Jerusha Josh. Considering Monsey's educational background it must have been a challenge to write the Josh "Letters to the Editor." In them she uses all her satirical skills, completely mangling the English language as she pretends to be a nearly illiterate country bumpkin.
All the Josh letters are sent from "Fordhart Corners," a reversal of "Hartford." One deals with her spring routine: "Dear Mister Editur: I neow take my pen in hand to answer yeour kind and welcome letter, it done me lots of good tew know you missed my letters. No, I havn't forgotten yeou, but land sakes I have been so busy don't you know spring time is a busy time fer wimmen folks. why I have cleaned tew or three rooms and I haven't but just begun tew clean house, then I am making posy beds. I will heve my posies same as Jeremiah will heve his terbaccer, but I wont chaw Jeremiah's terbaccer an he wont make my posy beds, so I heve tew do it my self and its purty hard work"
Politics, Home Remedies, and a Woman's Role
In other articles, Mabel wrote quite seriously about everything from politics to home remedies and a woman's proper role within the family. She had an interesting take on the women who were fighting to achieve full voting privileges. One article is titled "Women Not Slaves" and takes one of the most famous suffragists to task for her views: "When I think of the Woman's Bible I am sorry that Elizabeth Cady Stanton in her old age should have been at the head of such a movement. For a woman to admit she is a slave is to admit she is not sensible. If a woman is a slave it is in nine cases out of ten her own fault. Any man will honor a woman who will assert her own rights."
Monsey's writings touched on many aspects of pioneer life and did it in a variety of styles. Some were moral lessons aimed at the young through humorous poetry or in columns that soberly admonished parents to provide proper guidance, as in "If a boy is allowed to sow wild oats they may afterwards be weeded out, but, like a post driven full of nails, after the nails have been removed the scars still remain." Others dealt with serious political and social issues such as this in a letter to the Seattle Post-Intelligencer editor, March 25, 1898: "All over our land the servant girl question is a perplexing one, and one to be remedied in but one way, and that is to make the honest, lady-like and educated servant our equal socially. And, why not? Is the girl who stands over a hot stove day after day preparing dainties for her mistress and family less honorable than the young daughter, who passes her day in idleness? I say, most emphatically, no."
Motherhood was the most important "profession" in Mabel's opinion, but motherhood did not mean servitude. She admonished, "Dear wives and mothers, we are equal with our husbands; 'tis our right to be and we should see that they understand it so, but when we want to be more than equal we are in the wrong. Women seem eager for a professional career. I am myself. I am a doctor, my family are my patients. I am a lawyer, my family are my clients. I am a minister (the best of all), ministering daily to my loved ones, yet finding time to bestow on others, but never to the neglect of my own family." In all the articles she rarely mentioned that she was a professional columnist, often writing at midnight or later because her duties as a wife and mother came first.
Eventually the Monseys achieved their dream of building a new frame house using timber from their property, milled locally. As the trees came down, Lake Stevens came into view, a daily joy. Flower beds were planted, even a greenhouse built, as Mabel also practiced floral arts and expounded on gardening for various publications. In all her columns, her sense of joy and accomplishment poured through. In spite of exceptionally hard work, she seemed to retain her energy, and in fact attributed that energy to rigorous physical labor. She wrote of the benefits of hard work, plain food, honesty, not "putting on airs," and the value of education. And, always, the joys of motherhood. She believed in working first for the family and only after their needs were met, for others, including the church. Mabel Monsey would not have considered herself an extraordinary woman. I beg to differ.
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.