Old Letters – The Beginning for New Visitors…


At the moment, there are over two hundred  letters on my dining room table. They are old letters, their envelopes yellowed and brittle. Fortunately, the pages which they have been protecting all these decades are still crisp and pliable – clearly offering their words in a meticulous, inviting script.

These letters were written from 1914-1926 by my husband’s grandmother, Helena Schlichter, who maintained a steady and faithful correspondence over those years with her mother, Louisa Ottens. Most of the letters are written after Helena’s marriage to Alfred Schlichter. The adventuresome newly-weds would end up far from home, but Helena’s mother was kept very much in her life through detailed and frequent letters. They always begin “Dearest Mother,” and are signed “Helen” – so, I will refer to Helena as Helen.

I have stacked her letters in piles sorted by year – the oldest having been written in 1914 when Helen was a teenager. The 1919 pile is the tallest and I will soon be reading into it and finding out why she had so much to say in that year. It is the year she arrived in China as a Christian missionary, and it is the year her first child was born – so let me guess…

I have my notebooks ready. I decided to take notes by hand rather than sit next to a computer as I read the letters. Handwork seems more connecting. I put some effort into finding notebooks with a quality of paper I will enjoy writing on – with lines which are not too dark.  I’ll be using a mechanical pencil because I like the slip of graphite on paper. I feel like an artist  getting ready to fill a canvas as I begin to move through Helen’s letters, one by one.

My goal is to create a representation of the story that lies in these pages. There is a process here, as there is in painting a landscape, or a portrait, in which much of the detail confronting you must be left out. The trick is to determine where the essence is, how to arrange it, how to interpret the hues.

My first task is to just read and marvel as portions of Helen’s life unfold through over a decade of articulate, long, reflective and detailed discourse with her mother. These are letters of familial love, religious passion, foreign adventure, domestic joys, fabric swatches, recipes, motherhood, lots of photographs and theological tracts.

I hope lots of friends and relatives join me as I “blog” through discovery and reflection along the way.

For the next  chronological entry – scroll to the bottom.  

1520 Franklin Street



  • Photo for next blog.

   Five young sisters looking over garden fence on Franklin  Street –   many years before Helen Ottens Schlichter  is born

We hear so much about 1520 North Franklin in the letters that I thought we should take a visit.

1520 Franklin is an address,  although Helen generally is alluding to the group of people living there when she refers to it.  But, it is, although secondarily, a place. I am so sad that among the boxes of photos we have of the family from that era,  we have found none of  this house. I will keep looking.

Many of Helen’s descendants have been there, however, because the Franklin Street home remained in the family until 1965.  My husband clearly remembers it.

And Helena lovingly described it to me when I interviewed her last spring. 1520 Franklin street was an important part of her childhood: Grossmama made vegetable soup and little dumplings, many wonderful aunts and cousins were in and out- always a bit of interesting  bustle going on, I would imagine.

1520 Franklin Street  (the North has generally been dropped in family conversation) was a four story, clapboard row house on the east end of Broad Street, near Philadelphia’s city center.

The home was owned by immigrants Amalia (Grossmama) and John Conrad Hungerbeuhler, the maternal grandparents of our letter writer. ( I have been given a contact by Aunt Betty of a descendant who did a thorough genealogy of the German Hugerbuehlers – if only I had time…)

The seven Hungerbuehler children were raised in the house – but  no one knows the family’s date of  occupancy, so it s not clear if they were all born there or if some or all moved there as children. John Conrad was in the wine business. Judging by their residence and some other indicators – they seemed to have been financially solid and were able to provide well for their children,  having four stories to spread out (rather “up”) in, and sending their son, Conrad, to medical school.

But more about the house.

Helena described it in such detail (she is her mother’s daughter), that I could almost see it. The front door opened into a hallway, a staircase on the right. The hall continued past the stairs to the back of the long, narrow building. Rooms went off the hallway, also to the right. First there was the formal living room.  Helena remembers  a large  piano in there.  (Aunt Betty remembers it being a “big, square Cunningham.”) Helena remembers tables with inlaid marble and a crystal chandelier – which the ladies of the house dismantled for cleaning once a year. There were big windows. Helena alluded to  “house parties.”

Moving down the hall, past the living room, was the formal dinning room. At the end of the hallway, at the back of the house, there was a side wing – the kitchen and family room. This is where everyone hung out. It was furnished with a table, a chaise lounge – and a blackboard hung on the wall!  Helena remembers parakeets (Betty thinks it was a parrot) in that room. The Hugerbuehlers liked animals and also had a very old cat. I have something in my notes from Helena’s interview about a poodle and a ferret – but don’t recall the conversation – and hesitate to make the claim – but, maybe…

The family room  looked out onto the garden and a side yard. Aunt Betty remembers a high fence around the yard. I believe that must be it in the photo at the top.

The photo is of the first generation in the house – a houseful of young Victorian women. You can almost hear the swish of their skirts. Then, our letter writer (second generation) grows up near the house and is surrounded (nurtured) by grandparents, many aunts and a loving uncle.  Helen’s daughters, Helena and Betty, own Frankilin Street  in their childhood experiences (third generation). My husband, Helena’s son, also visited Franklin Street during his childhood and early adult life. Well – if we count Grossmama and John Conrad – FIVE generations!

Alma and Uncle Conrad never left Franklin Street. Both grew up there and died while living there – perhaps in the house. Bert stayed there until it was sold in 1965, when she was elderly.

And now – I have to talk about a  really pertinent  letter, which I  sadly can’t quote from at the moment – and this should be the moment!

When I first got the letters, and before I arranged them chronologically (they had gotten a bit out of order), I randomly looked at a few. One was so beautifully written and wonderful that I had to stop then and there  and read it to my husband:

Helen is reminding her mother of how she thinks in pictures and she can just see  everyone at 1520 – the 1520ites. She then clearly describes what she sees them doing at that moment. To date, my favorite passage out of many amazing bits of writing, and clearly establishing the importance of the inhabitants of Franklin Street in this story.

I will come across it as I read through the letters and I promise to share it when it pops up.

I will have the Hungerbuehler sister’s of the previous family portrait identified soon (via Aunt Betty). I fear I made a mistake on saying which one was Louisa – and I have a bit more information about the siblings to share.

Then – on to the Ottens. I have had a preliminary conversation with Aunt Betty about that side of the family. Truly – a book of it’s own. I don’t know if we’ll ever get to China.

” Give our love to all at 1520 North Franklin…..”









The  photo above is of Helen’s mother, Louisa, our letter recipient, and her siblings,  taken circa 1875. Louisa is in the back center, the tallest figure in the photo. These are  the Hungerbuehler’s of 1520 North Franklin Street,  Philadelphia.

They are: Amelia, Alma, Alberta, Louisa, Laura, Flora, and Conrad. A rhythmic litany of  Victorian names:  Amelia, Alma, Alberta, Louisa, Laura, Flora, and Conrad.

These are the aunts and uncles of Helen on her mother’s side. They were  part of her life – enriching it, I believe.  All of these names are mentioned  in Helen’s letters, often in reference to receiving  letters from them. So, we know Helen was supported by a rich family life.

I’ve identified Louisa and it’s obvious which person in the photo is Conrad. I cannot, at this time, identify who’s who regarding the other five sisters. But I do have a bit of information on most of  the Hungerbeuhlers of 1520 North Franklin Street:

Alberta  (“Aunt Bert”),  was an artist and every one in our family seems to have one of her wonderful paintings, each in an ornate frame, some quite large – botanical, still life, donkey with a cart, sewing basket with a Ladies Home Journal beside it- illustrations with fine detail, muted colors.  She never married and remained in the Franklin Street house. I recently came across  a 1918  letter from Helen to Aunt Bert, asking her, ever so coyly, if she would tint a photo of the  Arroyo.

“I am going to ask you to do me a big, big favor. Some time – some time, when you have plenty of leisure time ( – such a  time never comes, did you say?) will you tint a picture for me?”

Laura married and lived nearby – also in Germantown. A Laura is often mentioned by Helen in her letters. Since she does not refer to her as  “Aunt Laura,” perhaps she is  a cousin, Laura – maybe the daughter of Aunt Laura. Need more genealogy!

“Tell Laura she better come out here and join the girls that have such beautiful voices.”

It seems that this Laura could sing. My guess is that a reference to “Aunt Laura” will appear.

Amelia married and I’m not sure if she also lived nearby. Helen writes in her December 29, 1917 letter that,” Aunt Amelia sent money.

Uncle Conrad was an optometrist and never married. His medical office was on the second floor of the Franklin Street house.  Helen often expresses her desire to share her experiences with him.

“I wish Uncle Conrad could hear him (Dr. Evans), too. He is brilliant.”

Alma also never married and stayed in the Franklin Street house. She may have worked as a secretary.

Your delightful letter came Monday, Aunt Alma’s came then, too.”

Flora married and had a son named Harry. “Cousin Harry” is  referred to by Helen in her letters. He is high school age when Helen leaves Philadelphia in 1914.  She mentions receiving  letters from Aunt Flora – often mentions cousin Harry .

  “Tell Harry I haven’t forgotten that I haven’t yet written to him about Mr. Ward’s experience (with Navajo Indians in Arizona).

The Hungerbueuhlers, according to  Helen’s daughter, Betty (Aunt Betty),  were “very aware of things -alert.” I know from Helen’s daughter, Helena (Mimi),  that “the aunts were readers.” They sent the best in children’s literature to Betty and Helena when they were in China along with fine clothing from Wanamaker’s. ( Wanamaker’s comes up often in the letters!)  We  also have a child’s dress that belonged to Helena, from her childhood in China, with a Strawbridge and Clothier label – no doubt from one of the aunts.

We get the picture that the Hungerbuehlers  of Franklin Street are a  refined and educated Philadelphia family who maintain close family ties – and ties to the Franklin Street house which remained in the family until 1965.

Helen sometimes playfully referred to those still  living in the house during the period of the letters, as the  “1520ites.” We know that would include at least Helen’s Grandmother, “Grossmama;”  her  grandfather,  John Conrad, whom she sometimes affectionately referred to as “Old Man Smuckles;”  Uncle Conrad,  Alma and Alberta.

More about the Franklin Street house in the next post.

Then, we have to get to the Ottens,  Helen’s paternal family: Uncle  Henry (Harry),  the Ottens Louisa did not marry, and who is a story unto himself; and cousin Charles who is  frequently mentioned in the letters. As if the Hungerbuehlers were not enough family!


“BLOG,” where did that strange word come from?

…I have wondered.

The word “blog,” according to Wikipedia,  ” is a contraction of the words Web Log (weB LOG).”  Most people already know this, I suppose.

Unfortunately, the word reminds one  of  “blah.”  Hopefully, “blog” will not become synonymous with “blah.”  ( I can see it happening – because we have so many ways to create chatter, blather and prattle – blah, blah, blah).

I will try to keep this blog from sounding like “blog, blog, blog…” I am struggling with how to keep it interesting. I will try not to present information or comment that is not inspiring or relevant.

Relevant to what – I have been asking myself?

What is it I am doing with this blog ?

I think I am using it as a place to create a direction for the larger story I would like to put together.  A blog  seems so “unconfined.”  “Unconfined” is always a good way to start. You just go where you go – which usually turns out ok.

And, to what larger story am I ultimately going with these wonderful letters and photos? To a biography, I think.

But what does that mean?

I would like to present Helen’s life  in a way that is interesting to an audience beyond our family. As is the case with all of us,  Helen is defined by historical and familial context. And, she represents her time, her place and her genes.

So – I will blog my way through not just the letters as I read them (I have just finished the 1917 letters), but I will also present the context of Helen’s life as I research pieces of it  – starting with my next post: The Hungerbeuhlers of 1520 North Franklin Street.

A big cast of characters there!

Some day, some day, I will make a lemon pie…

I do have to get to some serious work on this project – but allow me this bit of fun.

I have heard dozens of times during my marriage to Helen’s grandson, Van,  about his grandmother’s wonderful, amazing, delicious  lemon meringue pies. And this from a guy who’s not that much into food. I have made a lemon meringue pie every few years over the last thirty – and I’m sure they didn’t measure up.

So, I’m reading letter # 13 October 7, 1917.

Young, newly-wed Helen had gotten a  letter from her friend, Elsie, who was learning to bake pies.

Helen writes to her mother:  “… one of them was lemon meringue. Never mind, some day, some day, I shall attempt a lemon pie.”

Well, first, I can’t really explain what a connection that was – to have a familiarity I have with the “grandmother” Helen to pop out at me from the letter of this very young woman, so far in time from being the grandmother of my husband’s memory. This very ordinary thing, a lemon pie, just  becomes extraordinary because who would think you could find her first thought of it from so long ago!

It gets better.

Letter # 15 October 20, 1917 

Helen writes to her mother: “Just baked a lemon meringue! Yes, sir and it’s good , too – Alfred said so!”

And – even better – The Recipe !

CRUST: One and 1/2 heaping cups lard, Three cups flour,  A little ice water , Salt to taste

FILLING: Mix 3 Tbl. cornstarch and 1 C sugar, Pour over 1C boiling water. Boil until clear.

  When slightly cooled, add:  2 Tbls butter, Juice and rind of 1 lemon, beaten yolks  of 2 eggs

 Cook slightly. Pour this mixture into baked pie crust.

MERINGUE:  Mix 1 Tbls powdered sugar with beaten egg whites.  Spread over top of lemon mixture, brown in oven for a few minutes.

To beat egg whites – use a pinch of salt.

Anyone interested – we could have a lemon pie contest and see who gets it just right. My husband Van will do the taste test!

“I can still talk things out with you – only it comes in inky form.”

Louisa Hungebeuhler Ottens

Louisa Hungerbuehler Ottens

From letter #16
November 27, 1917
Bible Institute of Los Angeles

A very long letter ends:

“And now, I’ve written all this to you, Mother dear because you are my Mother. I can still talk things out with you, only it comes in inky form.”

I think as we begin to delve into the letters and  life of Helen, we need to pause and pay some attention to Louisa Ottens, the Mother, always with a capital M, to whom our letter-writer, twenty-one at the time of this letter, is so devoted.

We must know Louisa primarily through inference because we do not have her part of the letter exchange. Her letters are missing  and we will not be able to hear her “voice.”

There is one person left, I know of, who will remember Louisa. That would be Helena Talmage’s sister, Betty Schlichter – Louisa’s second granddaughter. I hope to visit Aunt Betty this fall. She is ninety-two and very sharp. I think she will be helpful in “finding Louisa.”

We have some photos of Louisa, like the one above, in which she always looks pleasant, affable and hardy.

Helen frequently asks her Mother how her garden is doing – particularly inquiring after the chrysanthemums! She regularly describes the gardens of California to her  – or the variety of blooms in a flower shop. They seem to share a love of flowers.

Louisa writes to her young daughter as frequently as she is written to – which is often. We have no way of knowing if her correspondence is as lengthy and detailed as her daughter’s.  Helen requests things to be sent from home – vanilla, sugar and pretzels (always at the top of the list). She makes suggestions for Christmas gifts for her and Alfred!  Helen  graciously acknowledges each receipt – so we know her requests are fulfilled. Mother is attentive.

I have discerned a pattern in Helen’s letters (I’ve only read sixteen so far). Each has two distinct parts – a detailed, up-beat description of domestic life and goings on, and a rather serious and  impassioned religious discourse. Sometimes the transition, or lack of it, from one to the other, is a bit jolting.

Helen is a newly-wed, enjoying  Alfred’s company and dotting attention, learning to cook, sewing , shopping, decorating their home. She is also a devotee to a passionate, fundamentalist Christian movement, inspired by Billy Sunday ( more about him later). She and her husband are in Los Angles for two years of religious study before going off to be missionaries abroad.

So, Helen discusses theology and the religious context of her study and life with her Mother in each letter.

However, Loiusa does not participate in the religious conversation. I know this because it is commented on by Helen in a letter.  Louisa ignores the topic but Helen continues to try to  engage – to convert her family of  “lukewarm Christians” to “know” Christ  – not to just know “of'”  Him. Maybe there will be a reply on this topic from Louisa somewhere down the road, in later letters. We’ll see.

An interesting tid-bit about Louisa, that I know from family interviews, is that she dated Henry Ottens of Philadelphia first, but married his brother, William Frederick Ottens, a candy maker.  Henry ended up being a successful, wealthy businessman and would become a patron of Wildwood, New Jersey.

So, Louisa did not marry the wealthy brother. I have been told that everyone through the generations has wondered about her choice.  My guess is she liked William better! The question would be “why?”

Louisa’s maiden name was Hungerbuehler;  her parents were German immigrants. Her mother, “Grossmama,” is alive when the letters are being written. Helen asks about her often  and occasionally writes to her grandmother at 1520 North Franklin Street in Philadelphia.

I will try to glean more from the letters about Helen’s Mother, Louisa, as I proceed.

What is it about her, or Helen, that has created such a demonstrative mother-daughter relationship? Perhaps this was not uncommon in the post Victorian era.

It would also be interesting to try to find out more about Louisa’s relationship with Helen’s younger sister, Mildred.

Helen and Mildred were like night and day.

There is a large, interesting extended family dynamic in Helen and Louisa’s life  to also be explored. Louisa’s sister’s Amelia, Alberta, Alma, Flora, Laura and her brother, Conrad Hungerbuehler; wealthy Uncle Henry Ottens, Uncle Charles Beck and cousin Charles Beck (on the Ottens side), surround Louisa and Helen in a rich context in turn of the century Philadelphia.

Where to begin….


After a week with Helen’s Legacy – Back to Work


It has been a busy, wonderful week – full of family. We gathered in Montreat with the direct descendants of Helen Ottens Schlichter to celebrate the life of her daughter, my mother-in-law, Helena Talmage.

Helen and Alfred Schlichter had two daughters. Helena’s younger sister, Betty, arrived in Shanghai in 1921. Betty never married or had children. It was Helena who increased the Schlichter line with a daughter and two sons. These grandchildren of Helen Ottens Schlichter have given her a total of eleven great-grandchildren. All but three of them managed to get here this past week.

Six of Helen Schlichter’s great grandchildren have produced fourteen great-great grandchildren. So it goes.

Helen was still living when her first four granddaughters arrived. They called her Gigi.

This lineage, being from daughters , has not passed along the Schlichter name. But we pass along so much more through our genes. Helena’s first grandchild, Laney, her first great-grandchild, Kirsten, and great-grandaughter Jenny, are clearly Schlichters – or rather, Ottens – in stature, facial features and temperament.

We live on.

As I explore her life through her letters, I will be paying attention to the “chain” of women linked from the nineteenth to the twentieth century by Helen Ottens Schlichter.

Back to work.

Motherhood!…I must always say it tenderly…











“Helena – 28 days old – or young! “

Today would be the ninety fourth birthday of my mother-in-law, Helena Schlichter Talmage. She just passed away –  on July 24, 2013 –  a few days shy of her birthday.

To maintain some clarity among similar names: Helena Schlichter Talmage, my mother-in-law,  is the daughter of Helen Ottens Schlichter – the writer of the letters which this blog is about.

I thought, today, how amazing is it that, among the letters, sorted by date, I will surely be able to find a letter in which Helen writes to her mother about her newborn daughter, Helena, who was born 94 years ago!

The letter is dated:

    August 5, 1919,  Rm 5  Hospital, China Inland Mission, Shanghai

It is a long letter – both sides of seven pages – small writing. I will share excerpts: 

“-therefore also I have granted her to Jehovah; as long as she liveth she is granted to Jehovah.” I Sam. 1:28

Mother Dearest,

Isn’t it glorious? – Motherhood! I know now something of what the word means,     and I feel as if I must always say it tenderly….

Helena Louise – we are so very, very happy – and I know you are all rejoicing  with us….God sent her to us at five o’clock Sunday afternoon…She weighed in at seven pounds when she came to us and has an abundance of dark brown hair – straight – oh, so straight. I never saw so much hair on a young baby….

Of course, Helena is the dearest baby in the world, and we both nearly love her to pieces. She amuses us with the most comical faces, then suddenly a beautiful smile….

Well, this is the twelfth day since Helena has been ours, and I am now writing this sitting out on the veranda – in a long steamer chair, with Helena fast asleep in her coach right beside me. Alfred is here, too, lounging in a steamer chair…

A few days last week we were having the remains of a typhoon. What winds there were! ..but in the midst of banging doors and shutters, and howling winds Helena slept sweetly on…

Love to Papa and Mil and lots and lots of love to my dearest, dearest Mother  from

Her own happy daughter,




A Passing

helena & parents

July 27, 1920, Kurling, China   “The Family”

Alfred and Helen O Schlichter with daughter, Helena, on her first birthday


Helena Schlichter Talmage

July 27, 1919  – July 24 2013

Born of Loving Parents