Ranney Letter #4

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.”

My transcription:

Phelps, Nov 13
th, 1843
Respected Brother,

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

Ranney Letter #3

Lucius writes his brother Henry again from Allen Michigan, April 1843. He apologizes for not writing sooner, and thanks Henry for sending newspapers. Apologies for tardiness will be a frequent part of these letters, showing that there’s an expectation among the brothers that their correspondence will be frequent and that letters will get timely responses. This expectation, added to Lucius’s remarks about money (“We have money enough due this fall in Phelps…”) and the fact that he continues to call Phelps home, suggest the brothers continue to consider themselves members of a geographically extended family rather than free agents. This connection continues, in spite of the fact that the brothers are now adults (Henry is 27 and Lucius has just turned 24) supporting themselves and building their own homes far from the family center in western New York.


Lucius tells Henry he has traded one of his lots of land for one with a better “situation,” which might mean that the land is better for farming, or that it’s closer to town. The new parcel has thirty-five “improved” acres, ready for planting. Lucius reports in detail how much he paid for the parcel and what he plans to do with the new land. Although he doesn’t mention this, it seems he traded evenly as far as acreage was concerned, since Lucius continues to live on this 160 acre farm the rest of his life and it is easy to find on old maps. Two eighty acre parcels in the bottom center of the map above (due south of the town of Allen) are marked as belonging to Lucius. Neither parcel has the stream on it that Lucius boasted of in his first letter, so that is apparently the parcel he traded (possibly it’s one of the parcels to the right of one of Lucius’s parcels on this map). It’s also possible to find the parcels on satellite photos. Although they’ve been subdivided into a half dozen smaller parcels, you can still see the shape of the old lot and section lines. This is the case across much of the Midwest — once you’re aware of it, the lines are easy to see on satellite images or out the window of a plane.

News of other family members is a feature in this letter, as it will be in most of the Ranney letters. Lucius tells of seeing Lewis, who has expanded his peppermint planting to fifty acres. This means he will probably distill at least 500 pounds of oil in the fall, and Lucius advises his brother to come out and buy it. This is not only evidence Lucius would like to see Henry (he mentions that a couple more times in this letter alone), but is a reminder that Henry Ranney is one of several Easterners who regularly buy the peppermint oil of Michigan farmers (there will be much more on this subject in my dissertation -- wherever I manage to complete it!). Trade between Western settlers and Eastern merchants frequently ran along these family lines, and was yet another tie binding the migrants with the folks who stayed behind.

In addition to farming, Lucius has gone into the Potash business. Potash is potassium carbonate, which is used for bleaching textiles, making glass, and most important, making soap. Potassium is also one of the major elements of agricultural fertilizers (which is more important now than it was then), and is now mined but in the nineteenth century was produced by soaking wood ashes on large vats (hence the name, pot ash). Until settlers reached the treeless plains of what we now call the Midwest, there were always trees to clear before the wheat could be planted. So potash was often the first product that could be shipped back to Eastern markets. Lucius says he has partnered with “one of Mrs. Baggerly’s Sons in Law.” The Baggerlys are not an Ashfield family, so this suggests that Henry is at least familiar with some of the people his family has met since they moved to Phelps.

Lucius remarks that the land around Allen is filling up fast. Forests are becoming wheat fields, and the value of land will rise quickly as the last parcels are settled. Then Lucius gives his brother some advice: he should find a wife. His description of Henry’s social life and his own frontier existence give an interesting glimpse at the different lifestyles lived by those in the East and West in 1843. Finally, Lucius asks for information on cousins from Ashfield. He has heard they were in Medina, about thirty-five miles away, and he would like to visit them if he was anywhere nearby. Once again, family — even extended family — is an important part of frontier life.

Note: In a postscript at the end, Lucius says “Excuse bad spelling writing &c.” As I’m transcribing these letters, I’m fixing some of the spelling and punctuation in order to make them easier for modern readers. That includes adding apostrophes to contractions and breaking long run-ons into separate sentences. But just so you don’t miss all the fun, in the PS Lucius
actually wrote “Excuse bad speling writing &c.”

My transcription:

Allen April 30th 43
Henry Ranney

Dear Brother

I once more take my pen to write a few lines to inform you that I am well & ever have been in Michigan. I shall not apologize for not writing any sooner for I have not any except negligence to make. I suppose you are well are you not? I hear nothing in particular from you of late but receive papers from you quite often which I peruse with pleasure.

I traded one of my lots of land the other day for a lot with 35 acres improved House & Barn. I gave or rather agreed to give five Hundred Dollars in four yearly payments, the first next fall, & clear ten acres on the lot I let him have. I think the extra improvements are worth five Hundred Dollars & the situation of it is worth One Hundred Dollars more than the one I traded, so therefore you see that according to my estimation I have made $100. We have money enough due this fall in Phelps to make the first payment & shall with common luck raise enough wheat to pay the rest. I have six acres of wheat on the ground which bids fair for 100 bushels. I intend to clear 20 acres this summer & seed thirty to wheat. I have two as good lots of land for farming as there is in Michigan or anywhere else. If you doubt my word come out here and see which I hope you will this fall will you not?

As for Lewis I saw him a few weeks ago. He was well and is doing well I guess. He & his partner will have about 50 acres of mint to still this fall. You had better come out this fall & buy their oil. What is it worth now?

I wrote a letter home about two weeks since stating to our folks that I should probably be at home about the tenth of May. I suppose that they will move then to the West but shall write again today that I shall not return home until June for my business is such that I cannot leave at present. I want to plant about eight acres this spring & furthermore I am in the Potash business with a partner. One of Mrs Baggerly’s Son in Laws. We are a building a Pot-Ash this spring. We have made three tons & we find it profitable therefore we intend to follow the business.

This part of the country is settling fast. Where there was forests one year ago the same surface is now waving with wheat. The cars will run to Hillsdale Center this summer, six miles east from where this child is & then you can out here time in a hurry if you please.

We have had a hard winter for the past one for this country. Grain is pretty well up. Wheat is worth 62 cents per bushel corn 50 oats 37 potatoes 25 &c.

I shall give you a little advice, that is a man of your cloth & business ought to have a wife. Why? Because you are t home at night then and nothing to trouble your mind but someone to cheer up your drooping spirits. But you are now a hunting up a horse and then you are in trouble to know who to take to this party that ball that ride this circus &c. But it is different with me. Sometimes I should be at home at night & sometimes in the woods to where night would overtake me I should be obliged to stay. Now I am contented where ever I am, with a wife I should be discontented under such circumstances. Therefore you see the disadvantage I should labor under with one. But I don’t say that I shan’t have one.

Enough on that head. I want you should write as soon as you receive this or put it off till after I go East. I shall go about the first of June. I should like to meet you there or somewhere else very much. I do not know when I shall go to Ashfield if ever, but think I shall in the course of a year or two. If you see any of Uncle Jesse’s folks just ask them what part their girls live. When I am a traveling about I may go near them. If I do I should like to know it & go and see them. I have been through Medinah where I heard since one lived. Give my respects to all inquiring friends.

Yours in haste, Henry S. R.
Lucius Ranney
Excuse bad spelling writing &c.