For the lot of families living in the Inland Valley 120 years ago was anything but easy, but for Mary Sheldon St. Clair managing a farm and a family was all the more difficult because she was alone.

Marie's husband Elmer was alive all right, but 1,500 miles away working for his brother as a traveling salesman in the spring and summer of 1893. It left Mary to manage her four children, one an infant, as well as the family's eight-acre ranch in what today is Claremont.

There is a rather special record of her toil and loneliness from a collection of letters discovered in an attic and preserved about 1959 by one of her daughters, Eva St. Clair.

Today handwritten letters are certainly an endangered species. But in the 1890s, not only were letters written several times a week among friends and family, but many were saved and in some case cherished as intimate recollections of people and places long gone.

Eugene St. Clair of Pomona has a collection of those transcribed letters sent to or from his grandparents more than a century ago. There are no remarkable historic events described in them -- they simply chronicle the day-to-day trails of a young rural family struggling to make ends meet under difficult conditions.

Mary St. Clair, whose father was one of the founders of Pomona College, was prolific in her letter-writing, often penning three or four letters a week which then had to catch up with her on-the-go husband. Her May 23, 1893, letter reached him in Round Grove, Ill., by way of Chicago, Dixon and Rockford, Ill.

Although her husband sent her money regularly, she was still operating on a shoestring. She wrote that she had taken two turkeys to the Palomares Hotel -- Pomona's largest at that time -- and sold them for 16 cents a pound. The $4.32 she got didn't sound like much but with it she bought some butter, cloth, thread and a broom and hired a girl to make her a dress.

A week earlier, Mary told of making "four rolls of butter" which she sold for 35 cents to help make ends meet.

Just to go anywhere with her large family was an ordeal for Mary. She wrote July 8 of an outing by buggy to Live Oak Canyon above today's La Verne, but not until she finished "canning a few apricots and bathing myself and the children and mopping the kitchen floor. I put up a lunch of muffins buttered and cookies and cheese and dried beef and milk."

Then there was the letter of June 11, which probably alarmed Elmer when he received it in Princeton, Ill. Mary told of a day trip she made with friends and family into San Antonio Canyon, then a rugged rock-strewn roadless area difficult for wagons to traverse. It took them several hours to reach their picnic spot.

After picnicking, Mary was driving home when her buggy hit a rock and tipped over, throwing her mother and 5-year-old son Maurice into the creek.

"So they all came home shivering in cold for it was chilly," she wrote. A fire was made when they arrived and despite the fact Maurice was very cold, the next day "he was bright as a button."

Mary's letters tell of worshipping at Pilgrim Congregational Church in Pomona, picking raspberries and blackberries to sell, and of having to make difficult decisions running the farm.

They also tell of her longing for Elmer during the months he was gone -- unfortunately his letters sent to her are not part of the archive.

"How are you tonight, dearie -- I long for you darling again and may the dear father long spare your precious life for so it is and ever will be to me," she wrote July 28 on a moonlit evening after the kids were asleep and her work finally done. "And your little boys need you. They are growing and need a father's watchful eye."

Elmer did return later that year, and the family soon increased to six children. Elmer became an expert at budding, or grafting, citrus trees and spent a number of years being hired by ranchers throughout Southern California. He also raised nursery stock, Eva recalled, the sale of which enabled him to buy a piano for the family as well as a 1909 Ford.

Mary, who was Elmer's second wife, died of colon cancer at age 62 in October 1917. He would wed two times after her death, outliving all four wives when he died at 76 in 1936.

Eva St. Clair, who transcribed the letters, died in 1975.