The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

Billy Hanson's friend Art "larning this pig to sing."
Billy Hanson’s friend Art “larning this pig to sing.” See the full note from back of photograph. Horse-drawn wagon in background. Wyoming. probably 1910-1920.

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!

As I look back at the written materials in Billy’s chest, I find, old postcards of the ranch, greetings from friends, occasional tragedy or loss, and mundane business records. Even the driest of these take on new interest for me, as I watch him purchase additional land, or borrow money for “chattel” (non-land or building property=cattle and horses).
Like Billy and Betty (or perhaps it was mainly Betty), my mother and father (Milt and Helen Hanson) were diligent letter writers. Mom saved all of the Christmas cards from their friends across the country. Each week throughout the following year, Mom and Dad wrote back to 2 or 3 of the friends who had sent these cards and letters.

When email became available, Dad initiated a blizzard of dispatches to many, many people, becoming the first family spammer. On the other hand, Mom never liked the impersonal feeling of email, and wouldn’t even respond at all. She held fast to her pen and paper, writing in clear cursive. Largely because of Mom, I think, Dad continued to write by hand as well, letters that were much more likely to be read than his email spam.

And yet… despite Dad’s torrent of shared news articles, this blog post reminds me that my email conversations with Dad were much more frequent, more detailed, and more substantive than my pre-email contacts with him. In fact, I’ve discovered research we did together on the history of Billy and Betty and the ranch in emails I had long forgotten.

Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill's mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.
Helen (Hawkinson) Hanson, Bill’s mother, typed letters on her this portable Smith-Corona.

Another snail mail archive became important to my parents. My sister, Bet Ison, transcribed more than 90 letters written by Mom to her family while she was a social worker in post WWII Germany. Mom typed her letters on a portable Remington typewriter in 1949-50, leaving behind a chronicle of her efforts to find homes for refugees and her travels in Europe. The letters were written to be shared around the family.

Letters: A Balm for Dementia

In the first decade of the 21st century, as Mom experienced more and more severe dementia and Alzheimer’s disease, Bet suggested reading the letters out loud to her. For the last few years of her life, it was one of Mom’s favorite entertainments, a chance to listen to her own history in a time period from which she still had memories. It was fun for us too, as we had interesting conversations with her. Even when she couldn’t quite remember what she had for lunch an hour earlier, she could identify people and tell us about learning to ride a bicycle as she embarked on a multiple-day cycling trip along the Rhine.

Today, with our kaleidoscope of electronic social media, handwritten letters sent through snail mail have substantially decreased. Perhaps we have lost some measure of the thoughtful letters of the past. And yet, many of our letters of the past communicated simple news of the events in our lives: the health of our families and other commonplace information that seems little different from what we share electronically now. A thoughtful, caring email can be as endearing as any handwritten letter. With one difference… I find that handwritten notes or cards still feel more personal because the sender actually touched that paper, and felt the pen in their hand, and watched the ink flow out onto the paper.

On the side of email, I think we are more likely to retain our electronic archives than we were to save letters. I would dearly love to have an archive of emails sent by Billy and Betty that I could search through with keywords. But although they had the seen the beginnings of automobiles, airplanes, household electricity, telephones, and fax machines, my grandparents died before the advent of email. And so, I will have to “read between the lines” of the few letters, postcards, and pencil scratches on the backs of photographs for the history in the Alaska Billy Blog. There’s just something special about larning a pig to sing!

Note: This is the second of two connected posts. The first is here: No Letters: I hated Sundays!

No Letters: I hated Sundays!

Note: This is the first of two connected posts. The second post can be found here: The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen

“I hated Sundays when I was a kid,” said my Dad (Milt Hanson).

To say I was surprised would undersell my reaction. He was 82-years-old, a devout Lutheran, and read the Bible every day.

Always send an expert for the letters in the mailbox
Always send an expert to get the mail. What year and model of vehicle is that? No not the car… the tricycle… photo by Helen Hanson

“Why Dad?”

“Because there wasn’t any mail delivery!”

Yup. Growing up as an only child on a ranch from 1928 to 1942, miles from the nearest neighbor, he lived for his letters. He had pen pals. He collected stamps. He craved contact with people outside his isolated world. The wide-open ranch landscape that I loved as a kid was lonely for him.

Like all remnants of the past, the photo of this little girl standing on her tricycle to open the mailbox poses something of a mystery. I don’t know who she is, but that’s my Mom and Dad’s 1950 Chevy Deluxe sedan in the background. It’s Wyoming (notice the vintage lawn): most likely Cody or Cheyenne. What model of tricycle?? Anyone know?

When my grandfather, Billy Hanson was born in 1881, and throughout his life, letters were the main means of communication with anyone who wasn’t an immediate neighbor. He and my grandmother, Betty, never did have a telephone until they moved to town in 1964. Loved ones in far off places, a nephew in the army, business correspondence: some, but not nearly enough of those letters have survived and will show up in the Alaska Billy Blog.

From Stagecoaches to E-mail

Typical overland stagecoach-1869
Typical stage of the Concord type used by express companies on the overland trails. Soldiers guard from atop, ca. 1869.

Mail delivery by horseback between “posts” (as in “post office”; and in “blog post”?) and by stagecoach had been in place in England for over a hundred years by the time Benjamin Franklin was appointed as postmaster of Philadelphia by the British Crown Post in 1737. He would become the first Postmaster General under the Continental Congress in 1775.

In the 1800’s stage routes brought mail to the cascade of settlers and communities that flooded across western North America. Mail contracts were a crucial source of income for the stage lines, much as today’s mail contracts provide an essential income stream for the small air taxi operators that move people, freight, and mail in small aircraft to the remote communities scattered across Alaska. Without the reliable mail delivery revenues, my guess is that the number of routes would have been limited, and the cost for passengers and freight would have been significantly higher.

In 1858, the Overland Mail Company established twice weekly mail service across the 2800 miles between Missouri and San Francisco. Visit the Legends of America website for more about stagecoach routes and the Pony Express. Transportation and changes in technology would figure prominently in Billy’s ranch life. For now, it’s enough to know that railroad expansion (finally transcontinental in 1869), and the coming of the automobile would eventually replace the stagecoaches.

Although not as significant as the Overland Stage, probably no stage line has attracted more attention than the Deadwood Stage, more properly, the Cheyenne and Blackhills Stage and Express Line ( The line went through to Deadwood City, infamous for the murder of Wild Bill Hikock and his ‘dead man’s hand’, a poker hand with a pair of black jacks and and pair of black eights.

Letters traveled on the old Stage Route past OH Bar Ranch
Where’s the postman? Milt Hanson and Bob Hanson (Bill’s brother) survey the possible old stage route past the OH Bar ranch next to the horse gate.

My father once pointed to the dirt road that led from gate of the ranch to the pastures, the same gate to which I led Grandpa’s horse, Dolly, each morning to turn her out to pasture. “The stage ran through here,” he said. Perhaps. I’m relating a 50-year-old comment here. It crossed Alkali Creek, but the maps I’ve seen seem to show it a mile or two closer to its confluence with the Cheyenne river. The Deadwood stage was long gone by the time that Billy Hanson homesteaded in 1903, having discontinued in 1887. If you like tales of the Wild West, it’s hard to beat the robberies, murders, and wild times of Deadwood and the stage line. For a full account, visit the Wyoming Tales and Trails website.

Note: This is the first of two connected posts. The second post can be found here: The Family Spammer vs. The Cursive Queen