Mae Hannebuth’s extended family must hold some kind of record for the circle letter that’s been flying around for the U.S. for 109 years. Mae, who lives at the Fair Oaks Apartments in Wadena, can’t remember a time when a fat letter didn’t arrive every few months. On Christmas Day, 1900, Mae’s grandmother is said to have told her daughter, Hannah (on her wedding day), “I wish you’d start a letter so everyone knows what’s going on in the family.” Being a dutiful daughter, that’s exactly what she did. From family member to family member, the letter started on its rounds and though the members of the group have changed over the years, it’s never stopped. Of course all of the original members have passed on and all who write now weren’t even born then. But carrying on the tradition as well as staying connected has kept the family writing as postage increased from 2 cents for that first letter to $1.73 for the most recent one that Mae received. “I hope this never ends,” says Mae as she looks at the photos and reads the newsy letters that arrived recently from her Uncle Rueben’s granddaughter, Carol Young, in Boscobel, Wisconsin. After reading the letters and catching up on the family news, Mae sits down and writes a letter to send to her sister Blanche’s daughter in St. Francis, Wisconsin, the next person on the master list (although the actual list disappeared some time ago). Each writer is to remove his or her previous letter, add a new one, and send it to one pre-designated person. The next person takes their own letter out and writes a new one and sends it to the next one. With the letters currently traveling to 13 recipients, that means thirteen letters along with photos, news clippings and children’s artwork fill the manila envelopes as they follow the chain from Minnesota to Wisconsin, Virginia and Texas. You’d think that historic events would have been hot topics in 109 years and they may have been. But, more often, the writers wrote about what they did; news about weddings, new babies, funerals, health updates, travel, education, jobs. Had all of the letters been saved, it would make a tremendous family history tome. But with each writer taking out their own letter each time it came to them, there wasn’t an opportunity to save any more than their own letters, which apparently they didn’t. “We didn’t think that far ahead to save the letters,” says Mae. Mae’s mother, Hannah, was the oldest of the eight children of Andrew and Katherine Walter. She grew up in Wisconsin and lived in the Rothsay area as a newlywed. She and her husband, Samuel Beaman, moved to a farm near Deer Creek before Mae was born. They had 10 children. In 1910, when Mae was one year old, three of her brothers died of scarlet fever. They died within three days. “They couldn’t have funerals because of quarantine,” she says, though this is part of the family history since she doesn’t remember that far back. “I was too young to remember, but it went into the letters.” Such sad letters to write and yet the following year her mother had twins, a joyous announcement to include in the family missive. Two years later, Hannah took Mae and the twins to her younger sister’s wedding back in Wisconsin. They took the train but Mae has no memory of that. She remembers the flower covered arch and that the groom, who was a Methodist preacher, was seven feet tall. She played in a sand pile with her uncle who was ten years older than she was. Her mother’s letter that year would have included the trip but probably not the parts that Mae remembers. “When I was a kid, Wadena was a foreign country,” she says. Imagine how exotic that circle letter must have been, coming to the Beaman family from all points of the country. “Mom would read the letters to the family or the kids would read them.” Mae started school in 1916, when she was seven years old. Her mother was in no hurry to send her off to school. The Deer Creek town school was closer than the local country school. “Dad paid the tuition for town school and I graduated in 1928,” says Mae. Since there were no computers or telephones, letters were the only way to stay connected. “We didn’t have any other way to communicate,” remembers Mae and staying connected was important to her Grandma back in Wisconsin, especially with her daughter who had the large family in Minnesota. “Family meant a lot,” says Mae, “and still does.” Mae lived for 96 years within four miles of Deer Creek. She married Bernard Hannebuth who was a carpenter and they had four children; one daughter and three sons. Mae stayed at home until the last one graduated. Then she went on the road with her husband who was building grain elevators in northern Minnesota and Iowa. “We lived like gypsies for nine summers,” she says and would pick up the mail when they went home. Mae has lived at Fair Oaks for the last two years. Alice Schoon has worked for Mae for ten years, helping care for her and her apartment. Alice recently went above and beyond the call of duty and compiled a new master list of letter recipients since the old list had disappeared. “Somebody old like me- you can’t remember where they belong,” Mae says, referring to the relationships of all of the letter writers. Two writers have recently dropped out of the circle because of health reasons. The newest writer in the group is the grandson of Mae’s cousin, Ruby. Calvin Knoes lives in Wichita Falls, Texas and Mae enjoys reading about his life as a Texas rancher. He wrote of the dry weather in Texas and of planting sorghum in April. He was also working on a nuclear power plant by rebuilding parts for the water filtration process. It had been 15 months since he had last received the circle letter. The most recent circle letter was sent to Mae on October 11. She had written last on February 11. She tries to sit down soon after receiving the letter and get one sent on its way. This time she has lots to write about: the party for her 100th birthday on August 14. It was a big affair at Fair Oaks with family and friends coming from all over. She’ll enclose photos. Maybe the circle letter will get back to her before she turns 101.
Circle letter been going since 1900