Epitaph for potatoes

Ellen Harlow Clark. (Photo courtesy of the Marquette Regional History Center)

“What kind of preserves did they have in Noah’s Ark?

Ans. Preserved pears (pairs).”

Ellen Harlow, age 14, recorded this joke in her diary on April 18, 1860. It’s not terribly surprising that she would appreciate a good joke about preserves, because so much of her time in Marquette was taken up with the work involved in planting, preparing, and preserving food.

Ellen was only 3 when her parents brought her and her grandmother, Martha Bacon, to the area that would later become the city of Marquette. By the time Ellen began her first diary at age 11 her father had built a sawmill and a forge, gotten a post office established (and served as postmaster), platted the city and built a fine family home near the harbor (later another home would be built on Fourth Street which still stands).

Although there were only three in the family (Mrs. Bacon usually stayed out at the family farm two miles west of town in what is now the Harlow Farms subdivision), the house was often filled with boarders; so many, in fact, that Ellen frequently records that she had to give up her bedroom to one of them. And the boarders had to be fed. Even with the help of a series of “girls” to help, Ellen and her mother spent many hours securing, gathering, and preparing food.

They made good use of the local wild foods. In August 1858, Ellen, now 12 years old, reports that she went “raspberrying” on the 9th, 13th, 14th, and 16th collecting a total of 12 quarts. On the 20th she picked three quarts of whortleberries (what we now call blueberries). On the 26th she picked three more pints of whortleberries and bottled four quarts of raspberry wine. Although they made preserves from many of the berries, the wine was also a common theme.

In her diary for September 1861 she notes that she and her mother put up 24 bottles plus a two-gallon jug of whortleberry wine and a jug plus two bottles of raspberry wine with a little brandy added. (She apparently made a distinction between wine for home use and commercial liquor sales, noting at one point “Oh what a pity that there was such a thing as liquor invented. How can anyone be so cruel as to buy and sell liquor to people just for the sake of making money.”)

The family also fished. In June 1862, Ellen’s half-brother, George, visited from Boston and “went to the mill and caught 48 fish” and then caught 36 more three days later. They also bought fish from others: “March 13, 1861 — Father has been to Chocolay — at Mr. Cummings store he bought 9 trout which weighed four pounds and for which he paid .50. He bought a can of oysters and paid eleven shillings.”

Of course the family also had gardens. Although they bought some produce from others — the diary records buying a basket of tomatoes for a dollar and several occasions of buying popcorn, some of which popped better than others–they also grew much of their own food. The diary mentions apples, currents, peas, beans, cucumbers, and potatoes.

They grew enough potatoes that in the winter of 1861-62 they were able to sell 45 bushels to Mr. Cummings for his store in Chocolay. (It was not an entirely satisfactory transaction. Ellen notes that Mr. Cummings later complained that there were seven bushels which were frozen. “Doubtful,” she added.

One of the most joyous accounts in Ellen’s diary is the story of planting what were perhaps those same potatoes. Let Ellen take it from here.

“Before tea Mr. Jewitt proposed that his potatoes should be planted and forming ourselves into a procession we marched to the spot once known as my garden. Fanny carrying a knife and the potatoes took the lead and I followed, bearing a dish of water; after me came Mother with the stove shovel and last of all came Jewitt playing on a jaw harp. When we had selected the burying place he dug a hole and Fanny and I cut the potatoes in pieces then each dropped in a piece and put a shovel of dirt upon it. Remarks were then called for. We then procured some sticks which we fenced around it, after which we marched back to the house. On one of the sticks Mr. Jewitt wrote ‘Here was buried April 27 a California potato O.L Harlow, F.E Jones, E. J Harlow and H.E Jewitt, present.’ On the other side of the stick he wrote an epitaph which he composed.

‘In the spring when all was green, this potato was last seen;

In the fall when all is yellow, We hope for others ripe and mellow.’

Come to the Marquette Regional History Center at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday Nov. 17 to hear more about the early days of settlement in Worcester (Marquette) through the words of this family and the voices of present day community members.


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