Carol Jennings is used to helping people learn more about family artifacts or photographs.
Sifting the past for facts is part of what she did formerly as a government records archivist at the South Dakota State Historical Society Archives, where she still helps out as a volunteer researcher.
But this time the artifact was personal – as though her own great-aunt had written a letter to her from December 1891 to give her a few hints of what daily life was like.
It happened when Nancy Galinat and Barb Feller of Pierre, women with ties to the Holabird and Harrold area, learned that an acquaintance of theirs, Tracy Laqua, had purchased a box of items at a Fort Pierre rummage sale. One was a letter written from the town of Harrold with a scrap of fabric sewn to it.
“Back then they didn’t have staples so she just sewed it to the letter,” Feller said. “Her handwriting was beautiful.”
The letter was from a Carrie Peterson. A centennial history of Harrold from 1986 showed that Carol Jennings of Pierre had written an article for that book about that same Carrie Peterson. It turned out that Carrie Peterson was Jennings’ great-aunt, so Laqua was glad to give Jennings the letter.
“I just read it and thought it doesn’t belong to me. She’s the one who has the connection to this woman,” Laqua said.
The letter is dated Dec. 17, 1891, and is addressed to Mr. F.G. Fischer at a store in Fort Pierre.
The letter says:
“Mr. Fischer, Dear sir
I will write a few lines to you & ask you if you would please send six yards of black casimer, if you have got it. I will send a sample of the kind I want, please send it as soon as possible if you have got it by mail. Pa will pay you next time he meets you. So you can charge it to Pa.”
Jennings, with her researcher’s knack, immediately searched available records to learn that Carrie Peterson was 19 years old at the time. But the letter raises all sorts of questions that research can’t answer.
“It was written at Christmas time, December 17. I wondered if she wanted to make something for Christmas, or if she’d get it in time for Christmas or what she was going to do with this material,” Jennings said.
Jennings has a photo of the Peter Peterson family, immigrants who had arrived from Norway in 1872, that dates to about 1900. Carrie Peterson – who later married but never had children – is shown in the photograph carrying a niece.
Jennings notes that it’s clear from the photograph that several women, and one of the younger children, too, wore black or dark dresses. So it may have been a dress for one of them that Carrie Peterson was sewing.
“What most impressed me was when she said, ‘Pa will pay you next time he meets you.’ You could not do that today. Nobody would trust you,” Jennings said.
The letter has ties to some other Pierre-area families besides Jennings.
The F.G. Fischer to whom it is addressed is Frank Fischer, whose grandchildren are still in business in the Pierre area. Frank Fischer is the grandfather of Karl Fischer of Fischer, Rounds & Associates; of Bill Fischer, formerly manager and president of American State Bank; and also of Tony and Helen Wegner of Wegner Auto.
Karl Fischer explained that three Fischer brothers, Frank, Anton and Charles, originally moved from Wisconsin to Harrold, where they opened a store. Then in 1889 – the same year South Dakota became a state – Frank rode the train as far as Pierre, taking advantage of an offer the Chicago and NorthWestern had at that time.
The railroad was backing Pierre in its bid to become state capital and wanted people to visit the city, so it gave visitors to Pierre free rides at the time.
“My granddad, Frank, got on the train in Harrold,” Karl Fischer said. “He rode it over to Pierre and he ended up catching the ferry to Fort Pierre. When he got over to Fort Pierre, there was this store that was for sale. He looked at it. When he went back home he said to Anton and Charles, ‘You go over there to Fort Pierre and take a look at that store, and if it looks as good to you as it did to me, buy it. Those cowboys have got money and pay cash. But these farmers want credit.’”
Carrie Peterson’s letter from December 1891 is written only two years after the Fischer brothers had made the move to Fort Pierre.
Fischer thinks it’s likely that she already knew the Fischer brothers from the time they ran a store in Harrold.
As for trusting customers who promise Pa will be in to pay sooner or later, Fischer doesn’t think that’s so odd.
Even in the South Dakota of today, he said, merchants probably have a pretty good sense of their customers and their character.