Henry was brought up during the Great Depression; you know, the one in the 1930s in which virtually every family was poor.
It was no different for Henry and his three sisters, whose parents were trying to raise them “off the land” in Town of Blueberry Springs in northern Wisconsin. The land had been homesteaded by their paternal grandparents, and ended up in the hands of their father, who tried mightily to further support them on the meager income of a member of the rural township’s road crew. Their land was literally worthless, having given up several years of thin grain crops and a few vegetables, before turning to sand.
Chickens and a goat and several milk cows continued to roam the farm to provide some sustenance for the family.
“Henry Jr. should learn to work the farm,” his father had told his mother when he was about eight years old. “He seems to do more housework than any of the girls.”
He was the third born among the four children. In that regard, his mother had been lucky, being able to give birth at home to all four without any major complications. It wasn’t so lucky for the other families of this hard-scrabble area.
Only people like the school principal, the general store owner and the postmaster had indoor plumbing, and everyone else in town had learned to make do with outhouses, learning to do their business in “thunder jugs” during the below zero days of winter.
“Henry,” his mother said to his father. “The boy is still not grown.”
“He’ll grow eventually, Marie,” he told his wife, who at 30 years old looked to be nearly twice that age, her face wrinkled from the weather and untouched by any soaps or creams that would have softened her skin. Pictures of their wedding day, when she was 16, show her to be a particularly slender almost dainty young girl.
“I suppose, but I wish you wouldn’t push him so much,” she replied. “He’s just not very strong.”
In an ironic fate, Henry had developed to be a carbon copy of his mother, delicate, slender and sensitive, while two of his sisters had become images of their robust father, heavy-boned and muscular. Only Henry’s next oldest sister, Nancy Ann, imitated her mother’s more feminine features.
Their house was a tiny, two-floor frame structure with two dormers peaking out the front. The children all shared a single room, fashioned out of an attic. Only along the centerline could a full-sized adult stand erect, and the room had no heat, except for that which rose up the stairway from an oil space heater in the center of the living room below. In the midst of winter (when temperatures in some years never rose above zero farenheit for a whole month), that meant the room would get stiflingly hot when the fire below was raging, and frigid when their father lowered the heat to save money.
“He’s wearing my nighty again,” Nancy Ann complained on a cool night in April when Henry was eight.
“You got an extra one to wear,” Henry answered.
“It’s not fair,” Nancy Ann whined.
“Let him be Henrietta, if he wants,” yelled the oldest girl, Marsha.
“I don’t wanna be Henrietta,” Henry cried. “It’s just that I don’t have my pajamas. They must be in the wash.”
“Oh yes, you do like being Henrietta,” Marsha teased. “Look at how pretty she is.”
“I don’t like being Henrietta any more,” he said, tears beginning to flow. “Just leave me alone.”
He tried to crawl into his narrow bed (actually it was an old cot) and cover himself with a blanket, but Marsha and the youngest girl, Joannie, quickly pulled the covers off, exposing Henry in his sister’s flannel nighty, a light blue model with yellow flowers and lace collar.
“Dry your tears, sister,” Marsha told him, forcing him to sit up on the bed. She hugged him now. She was 13 years old and her body was maturing speedily, though she still acted with the naiveté of a younger girl.
“You’re so pretty, Henrietta,” said Joannie, now 5 years old.
“I’m not pretty,” Henry protested. “I’m a boy.”
“You are too. You are pretty.” The youngest repeated.
Being raised as the only boy among three sisters, and being forced due to poverty, to sleep in the same room with them, he almost did become a fourth sister, sharing all of their girlish joys and tribulations, their discussions about clothes, their ragdolls and the books they got from the township’s meager library.
The children shared clothes, and that often meant Henry wore girl’s panties and socks, and, sometimes, as on that April night, his sister’s nighty. When long winter days grew into boredom, the children would play make-believe, and almost always they dressed Henry in their clothes, making him a girl.
At first he was too young to protest, but then as he began school, he realized that boys don’t dress like that; besides, his mother and father quit thinking it was “cute,” and ordered the girls to quit dressing him.
It had been a year since they had dressed Henry, but he had grown to like the idea of being a girl. The last time they had dressed him, a year before, the girls had taken lots of care, fitting him into Nancy Ann’s First Communion dress (which had been Marsha’s dress before and would likely be Joannie’s when her time came).
Henry had been dazzled when he looked at himself in the downstairs mirror. Staring back at him was a pouty-faced, soft featured, slender girl; it was a sight he would never forget. They had even taken time to curl his longish hair, using a curling iron they heated over the wood stove.
They brought out the white shoes and a pair of white stockings; the shoes fit a little tight, but with the crown and its veil, and a white prayer book in hand, he was in the words of Marsha: “A perfect little angel.”
His pouts changed to smiles as he continued to peer into the mirror.
“Why can’t I be a girl, too?” he whispered so low no one heard.
“What?” Marsha asked.
Their game ended as their mother entered the house; she had been across the road having coffee with the other women of the rural area.
“What’s this? Who’s this?” she yelled.
“Mother, I can explain . . .” Marsha began.
But their mother would hear none of this: “No. No. No. I told you girls to stop dressing him like a girl. Your father’ll kill all of us if he knows of this.”
“Sorry, mother,” Marsha said, taking responsibility. After all she was the oldest.
“Henrietta’s so pretty, mommy,” came the voice from little Joannie.
By now, Henry had begun to cry; he wanted to tell his mother not to blame Marsha and Nancy Ann, that he liked being a pretty girl. But, he knew that would only cause problems, and if their father found out, there’d be lots of whippings.
“Yes, Joannie,” his mother replied to the girl. “But, honey, Henry’s a boy, and should dress like one.”
That was the last time the girls dressed Henry, although he regularly wore some of their undergarments or Nancy Ann’s nighty when his were not clean. In most cases, the girls understood that, and it passed without comment. For Henry, however, the joy of wearing any of his sisters’ clothes pleased him immensely.
“Henry, remember the year we were in the Maypole contest and almost won?” Marsha said as they all sat with Henry that April night.
“That was fun,” he said.
“You were the only boy who danced,” Nancy Ann said. “But you were so cute.”
“I got teased about it, too,” he said.
“I know, Henry,” Marsha said. “You were brave to do it, but we had fun.”
Henry nodded. It was true he had enjoyed it; in fact, he always felt comfortable when he was doing things with his sisters, as if he was one of them. His physical weakness was apparent to all, and he failed miserably when trying to play with other boys, always unable to beat any of them in races or contests of physical strength. In baseball, the favored game of the kids of the township, he was particularly inept, still throwing like a girl, as he was constantly told.
“We oughta enter the Maypole contest again this year,” Marsha suggested.
“I don’t wanna,” Henry said, reliving the teasing he got the last time.
“We can be the Huffman sisters,” Nancy Ann suggested.
“What?” Henry’s voice said, full of shock.
“No that’s not good,” Marsha said. “The Huffman girls. She could be our cousin Henrietta from Oakhill.”
“Yes, Henry, you,” Marsha said. “We’ll make you so pretty, no one will know.”
Henry shook his head, but Joannie jumped with joy, landing on Henry’s lap, pleading: “Please, Henry, please.”
“What about dad?” questioned Nancy Ann.
“Mom’ll take care of him,” Marsha said.
“Do we have to tell mom?” Henry asked.
“Of course, silly,” Marsha said. “She’ll be cool with it.”
“And if we win, there’s a prize of $25, or of $10 if we’re second,” Nancy Ann said.
They discussed further strategies and Henry agreed, at first reluctantly, but soon with great enthusiasm, to be ‘Cousin Henrietta.’ When their mother yelled upstairs that it was bedtime, they broke up and Nancy Ann came to her brother, hugged him and said: “You really look pretty in my nighty.”
Henry had problems sleeping at first, his mind racing between the joys of prancing around the Maypole and the personal humiliations that might result. As sleep finally came, he returned his thoughts to a year earlier, when he saw a pretty seven-year-old girl in a First Communion dress staring back from the mirror. It was a lovely picture!
Marie Huffman confronted her husband, Henry Sr., two nights later as they enjoyed an after-dinner coffee. The parents truly loved each other; Henry Sr. was 20 when he married the teen-aged Marie, who became pregnant almost immediately. Henry Sr. was a quiet young man who left school before graduating to work on the oredocks in Ashland. The couple lived in Ashland in relative comfort, and with indoor plumbing, for two years due to his income from the docks, which thrived until 1930, when the growing Depression caused major layoffs, and forced the couple with young baby Marsha to move back to the “farm” in Blueberry Springs.
Henry Sr. was troubled by the dainty nature of his only son and namesake; the boy seemed not to be like other boys, who would roughhouse and fight and get dirty. Henry, on the other hand, was always trying to be neat and seemed to like to play with his sisters, enjoying their ragdolls.
“The girls want to enter the Maypole contest again this year, Henry,” she told her husband.
“That’s good, Marie, but I hope they won’t have Henry join them again,” he replied, taking a sip from his cup, looking aimlessly out the kitchen window, seeing the buds just beginning to emerge from trees and bushes.
“That’s just it, Hank,” she said, using his nickname, which she knew he preferred.
“What’s it? Henry’s not participating. That’s that!” He had turned his head from the window to look her square in the eyes.
“They want to dress him as a girl this year, and go as a team called the ‘Huffman girls.’”
“You’re all crazy,” he said. “I say ‘no.’”
“They could win, Hank. They almost did two years ago. And the prize is $25.”
Henry Huffman, Sr., thought for a minute, and then said: “$25? You really think they could win?”
“I think so, and second prize is $10.”
He was quiet for a minute. “Does Henry like the idea?”
“He says ‘no,’ but I think he does. He can be very pretty, you know.”
“I know. That’s what bothers me. Will he ever develop? Become a man?”
“He’s only eight Hank. Give him time.”
“And we sure could use the $25. We need to pay the taxes.”
In fact, Henry’s weekly pay on the township’s road crew was only $22.50; the prize money would indeed be a major help.
“We still can’t do it, Marie,” he said. “Henry’ll be teased.”
“Marsha says we’ll tell everyone the fourth girl is their cousin Henrietta from Ashland, and you know the girls can make him so pretty. No one will know.”
“I don’t know, Marie. How will we explain Henry not being there?”
“We’ll say he’s gone to Ashland for the weekend to be with your sister’s family.”
Finally, Henry Sr. agreed to the plan; the expectations of winning the $25 seemed too good, given the family’s current economic straits.
Blueberry Springs was settled in the logging days of northern Wisconsin in the late 1800s; by 1920, all of the virgin timber, the towering pines and spruce and maples and birch, had been cut, sawed into 8-foot lengths and floated down the Blueberry and Chippewa rivers to provide lumber for the growing cities of the Upper Midwest. During it’s heydey, the community boasted nearly 1,000 people, including three rooming houses, a dozen taverns, several whorehouses and a Lutheran and a Catholic Church.
Now, in 1934, half of the taverns were gone; there was one rooming house for railroad workers and one establishment that housed single women who were available for services.
In truth, it was a dusty, gray nondescript community. Only its name of Blueberry Springs connoted the beauty of what was once a virgin forest; there was indeed a Blueberry Springs, its fresh clear water pouring out of the side of a granite bluff, which also boasted luscious crops of blueberries, ripe for picking in August.
Henry loved to wander alone to the springs, less than a mile from the Huffman home. He found a spot on a rock, next to the spring, and dreamed often of being a pretty girl, perhaps a lovely sprite wearing a pink gauzy outfit. He hated it when someone would come to fill jugs with the fresh, sweet spring water, and destroy the pretty world he had constructed for himself.
Spring comes slowly in the northern USA, and perhaps even moreso in the Blueberry Springs township, which often registered as the coldest spot in the country in winter. The earliest settlers from Europe came to the area to log the trees, and they brought along their customs, the most popular of which was the annual May Dance and the Maypole celebration.
The First of May dramatized the end of the long, grey winter, and the coming of green to the cut-over forest land.
Many years ago, the lumber company, in an effort to stifle the demands of workers and to win their favor over possible unionization, sponsored the annual May Blueberry Festival, complete with rides and booths of chance, some singing by local groups and music. The highlight of the event was the Maypole Contest, in which children competed for prizes for the most original dance routine and the best looking group. The company provided lots of prizes, and the event became a local tradition.
With the closing of the lumber company works in Blueberry Springs, the prizes became less attractive, and the festival shrank in size; yet, it continued as a tradition, its prizes supported by the railroad company and the local merchants. It was for the impoverished community the second most important event of the year, after the Blueberry Harvest Festival in late August.
The Huffman house was shielded from onlookers by strings of evergreens and the girls, including the ‘cousin Henrietta,’ worked on their dance routine, practicing their steps, handling the streamers attached from a pole their father had put up in the yard. For these practices sessions, Henry wore an old tan school dress of Nancy Ann’s and tied his hair in pigtails.
Anyone coming upon the scene would see four girls prancing about; their steps were light and dainty. One girl would stand out as being particularly lovely and dainty in her moves; it was ‘cousin Henrietta’ who had mastered effeminate mannerisms perfectly. Henry had taken the role of being Henrietta seriously, realizing how important it was for the family to win the $25.
Their mother found old pink curtains that her neighbor Sally Cooper was throwing out, and used them to fashion four dresses for the girls, using her foot-pumped Singer Sewing Machine, perhaps the most valuable item in the family house.
The results were four-matching dresses made to flow simply from a square bodice and wide shoulder straps to the knees. They were sleeveless.
“They’re cool, mom,” said Marsha as they tried them on, just two days before the event.
“I think they need something more,” their mother said.
The girls all seemed to be satisfied, but Henry, always with an eye to beauty, agreed with his mother.
“Do you have enough material left to make belts, mom?” he asked.
“I think so. What do you have in mind?”
“Well mom, you could affix belts just about at the waist, and that would give the dresses some shape.”
“Oh Henrietta, it’s OK,” Marsha argued, using his girl’s name, which the family had been doing in preparation for the charade.
“No Marsha, I think Henrietta is right, but I don’t know if I have time for that,” his mother said.
“I can do it, mom,” he said. “I know how.”
“I know you do, honey,” his mother said.
Of the four children, Henry had been the most eager to help out in the house, and had mastered the sewing machine. None of the girls knew, or seemed to care, about sewing.
“You’re like a daughter,” his mother said later, as he finished up the belts and affixed them to the dresses. Henry smiled, and kissed his mother in response.
“Next team to dance will be the Huffman girls,” the May Blueberry Festival announcer said, his voice echoing out of a tiny speaker system.
The four Huffman children danced out into the circle, grabbing four streamers from the Maypole. All wore pink, had hair tied in pigtails and were without shoes. They did their routine with a flourish of confidence, dancing to the music performed by local musicians playing fiddles and a bass and drums.
As they had practiced it was obvious that ‘cousin Henrietta’ was to be the most notable dancer of the four. Her movements were light and almost fairy-like, and in her own mind Henrietta pictured herself as a lovely sprite dancing over the tiny falls that made up the Blueberry Springs.
Marsha at several points used her considerable strength to grade tiny Joannie and then Henrietta and move them into stylish curling lifts. Their skirts flowed and made for a magical scene, bringing cheers from the crowd.
They ended the four-minute performance to great cheering, and ran off to greet their parents.
Henry had been fearful someone would notice him, but no one did, even boys and girls from his class in school. They accepted him as ‘cousin Henrietta,’ and some even asked where Henry was. Some of the girls in his class wondered how long Henrietta would be staying at the Huffmans, but Henry merely said she was going back to Ashland that night.
“Oh that’s too bad, I wish you could have stayed and played with us,” said Marilyn Porter, a girl in his class.
“Me too,” Henry said, trying to keep his voice soft and low.
That Marilyn never recognized Henry excited him. He played often with the girl since she lived nearby. Often, too, the pair had played with her dolls; she had some real dolls, store bought, whereas Henry and his sisters usually had only homemade rag dolls. In his mind, he wished he could be Henrietta forever, a fact he kept to himself.
“And the winning team is The Huffman Girls,” the announcer said from the stage in the awards ceremony.
He beckoned the team with their mother onto the stage, asking them to introduce themselves. Beginning with little Joannie, the girls told their names and school grades, with Henry speaking in a shy, low voice, stating: “I’m their cousin Henrietta from Ashland and I’m eight.”
The announcer patted Henry’s head, saying into the crowd: “Isn’t she cute?”
Henry blushed, scrunching his narrow shoulders together in a girlish manner, holding his hands together at his crotch. His reaction brought cheers and applause from the crowd.
The girls left the stage and their mother accept the $25 in cash. They rushed to their father.
“I’m proud of you all,” their father said, hugging each individually.
When he got to Henry he held him particularly long, whispering into his ear: “You made this all happen. Daddy loves you. And Henrietta, too.”
“Thank you daddy. I thought you’d hate me.”
“No son, but I’m not sure what we’ll do about Henrietta from here on in.”
There was one award left to make: the selection of the May Princess, usually made to a girl under ten years of age.
“And the May Princess for the year 1934 is Henrietta Huffman of Ashland.”
Henry was stunned, and wanted to run from the event. How could he continue in this charade of being Henrietta?
“Go on up, Henrietta,” his father coaxed him.
Henry walked slowly and with some trepidation to the stage where last year’s princess, 10-year-old Mary Ellen Smoots, placed the princess tiara on his head.
All of the girls who had participated in the contest flooded the stage, greeting the 1934 May Princess, and then they placed Henry on a pony-drawn wagon, sitting alone on the platform behind a plump teen age boy handling the reins. They paraded around the grounds slowly, followed on foot by the Huffman girls and then the other dancers.
“I think she’s the loveliest princess ever,” Sally Cooper said to Marie Huffman as she watched her pretty son atop the pony wagon, so lovely and feminine.
May 1, 2009: Lake Superior View Nursing Home
“What is this, granddad?” Debbie Washburn, his granddaughter, was sitting next to his wheelchair paging through old family albums. The granddaughter was now 30 years old and had recently been divorced; she was spending much time with Henry, now 83 years old, keeping him company.
“What honey?” he said, his failing eyes having problems focusing.
“This picture of a little girl on a pony wagon? There’s words under it. ‘Henrietta — 1934 May Princess.’” She pointed to a snapshot, now fading a bit.
“Oh that, she was a cousin who came down to Blueberry Springs one May Day to dance with my sisters for the annual festival.”
“I didn’t know you had a cousin Henrietta, granddad.”
Henry felt his eyes tear up.
“We didn’t really, honey, but she was like a cousin.”
“What happened to her? She looks so pretty?”
“She just disappeared, honey. Just disappeared. We don’t know what happened to her.”
Debbie looked at the picture for the longest time. “She looks like she could be related, granddad.”
“Well you can’t tell much from that old photo. I guess she was pretty. But she helped us save the family farm.”
“It was quite a caper, I guess. I’ll tell you some other time, when grandpa is not so tired.”
“Ok, grandpa. Please tell me soon.”
She helped him out of the wheelchair and into his bed. He knew his time was short, and he knew the story of cousin Henrietta will never be told. He cried that night, thinking of May Princess of 1934 and the pretty girl in her first Communion dress. Henrietta may have disappeared but she lived every day within Henry.
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