Hill Country Living
By Coulter Fussell
It’s an exciting time of year here in the Valley. School is back in session and all our young ones are in a tizzy. In reading the Wagner letters, I’ve learned that despite the different times in which we live (or lived), some things are eternal. Never is this more exemplified than in the letters from children.
The kids were prolific writers (in cursive!) and when they were too young to write, they dictated their letters to an older sibling who wrote for them. They wrote honestly and openly about what interested them, in their clunky pencilled letters, smeared and erased and decorated with drawings.
A vast majority of the content of their letters has to do with animals. Animal drama abounded here and the children were on top of the news. Turkeys were a big problem among the kids of the 1880s Water Valley. I’m not sure if we just had a mean batch of turkeys living here or what but the birds were constantly chasing, attacking, injuring, and causing mayhem among our youth. I think some therapy was probably needed, both for the frightened children and the angry turkeys.
The Wagner children also wrote about their household caretakers, servants and workers. I relish every mention of this group of Water Vallians as their stories, as important and vital as they were, remain a great mystery in this collection of letters. I can count on the Wagner children to pepper their letters here and there with mentions of the household and estate “staff” but there is still a gaping hole in the history. Confusingly, the Wagner kids refer to their caretakers and hired hands very casually and in passing, many times using nicknames. This often makes it difficult to tell whether the kids are referring to a human or an animal. Sad, but a true and honest problem I deal with in deciphering these letters. There is an example of this in the last letter.
Below are a few letters to older brother John Wagner, who is off at Bingham School in North Carolina, from his various siblings back here in Water Valley. All of these letters were written in pencil, had accompanying drawings and margins filled with well-practiced signatures.
Feb 10, 1884
I want to see you so bad, are you a grown man? Have you got whiskers? Are you as tall as Papa? I gave Mamma a big CANDY APPLE for a christmas present.
Love and kisses. I’m growed.
(As dictated to an older sibling)
George, Water Valley Mississippi
I send you a kiss. Papa took me on Frank to see the high water this morning. We had a rooster for dinner. Write me a letter.
Your little brother
George Andrew Jackson Wanamaker Wagner
(An aside, “Wanamaker” was a department store in Philadelphia.)
My Dear Brother,
I want to see you so bad, I am so much obliged to you for the monkey you sent me. How are you getting on? A friend of Papa’s from St. Louis bought some live partridges, 26 of them, in a box and took them over the hill towards the pasture and let one fly at a time and both shot at them. Only four got away, we killed 22 out of the hole bunch. We had some birds for supper and papa’s friend stayed for supper. Papa, Jessie, Calista, George and I went to a hard times supper. I’ll send you a bill of fare. We sent Glasseye over Mr. Leland’s so Papa attends to Frank every morning now. He worries him good. Papa sold the calf to the butcher, he was nice and fat.
Your little sister,