History of a House

Jean McCrie ca. 1939

My mother, Jean Campbell (nee McCrie) Schutze, lived her whole life in one house. The only exception was when she and my father, who worked for the Department of the Army, lived in Washington, D.C., during World War II.

She was born, raised, married, and died in the house at 3087 14th Avenue in Detroit, Michigan. Her mother gave birth to her at home (on the kitchen table according to family legend) in 1917, and she was married in the living room of the house in 1941. Although she died in a hospital in 1970, she had lapsed into a diabetic coma in her bedroom from which she never woke.

I, too, was raised in this house on 14th Street — it was apparently demoted from an avenue by the time I came along in 1949 — and lived there until I was in my mid twenties.

The house, long ago demolished, is still very real in my mind. I can walk through each room, point out where the family members sat at the table, see my mother and grandmother canning vegetables in the kitchen, smell the flowers growing in the back yard. It’s where I spent my formative years with many of the people I’ve loved most in life.

Betty Schutze in front of house on 14th Street, 1950

I’ve often thought it would be interesting to research this home that’s so full of memories. So with Detroit street directories and federal censuses in hand, I began to trace the house back into the past, all the way to 1890 when it first appeared in city directories.

The building was similar to its multi-story, multi-family neighbors: a two-story structure with a complete set of living quarters on each floor and separate entrances for the downstairs and upstairs families. In some years there was only one family living in the house, in other years there were two, and sometimes boarders besides.

The first occupant was Richard Shekell, owner of Shekell & Son, a flour and feed store at the corner of Grand River and Cass Avenues. His sons Clyde, Lee, and Percy lived with their widowed father. Richard died by 1893 and the sons moved out.

Rev. Andrew Wolff
Mrs. Wolff

In 1893 the Reverend Andrew Wolff, from Franklin, Indiana, was installed as pastor of the Calvary Presbyterian Church at Michigan and Maybury Avenues.1 In his two year tenure he ruminated on sermons in the home on 14th Ave while his wife Satiah took care of the more temporal concerns. He left at the end of 1894 to assume a pastorate in South Dakota. “As an orator he had few equals in the pulpit, and he was a thinker and a pleasing preacher, capable of expressing in beautiful form some original gems of thought.”2

In 1895 a widow, Elizabeth Hayes, moved in for two years. Her boarder was a young physician, Hugh McEachren, who stayed on to become the primary occupant. He married Jeannette Gilbert in 1897 and the 1900 census shows the couple employed a female servant. McEachren ran his medical practice in his home, and I remember my mother telling me that a doctor used to live in the house, and his office was the room that years later would be my mom and dad’s bedroom. McEachren died in 1906 at age 36 of tuberculosis and his widow moved out. But a boarder, Dr. Nelson MacArthur, became the house’s primary occupant through 1908, probably continuing the medical practice from the home.

The fact that my mother knew about the doctor, and even knew where his office was in the house, leads me to believe he was likely my grandfather James W. McCrie’s boyhood physician.

In 1909 a blacksmith by the name of James Mortson moved into the house. The automobile was in its infancy at the time, and an ad from the Detroit Free Press of 1910 showed that there was still a horse and mule market on 14th Avenue. The 1910 census showed Mortson living with his wife Ida and their son; in the other flat Stanley Perry, a young automobile clerk, lived with his teenage wife Agnes. The house on 14th Avenue in 1910 encapsulated the transition of Detroit from horse and buggy to automobile, with its occupants working different sides of the technological divide.

An advertisement from The Detroit Free Press, 7 August 1910

I remember a large wooden barn, complete with hayloft, in the back yard of our house on 14th Street. By the time I lived there, of course, the barn was used as a car garage, but for many years it would have been a horse and carriage barn for the home’s earlier occupants.

Morton, who became a salesman at the Columbia Buggy Company on Woodward Avenue, was the last occupant of the house before my grandfather, James Wellington McCrie, took over in 1914 with his wife Sarah. A year later they began their family.

Without benefit of land records, the issue of ownership of the house is speculative, but I noticed that the 1900 and 1910 censuses showed the occupants were renters rather than owners. That arrangement changed when James W. McCrie moved in, and the 1920 and subsequent censuses showed that he owned the house, lived in the downstairs flat, and rented out the upstairs flat.

It’s my suspicion that the house was owned from its beginning by James’s father James M. McCrie, who used it for rental income. In family history notes James W.’s daughter Margaret writes “James and Anna [James W. McCrie’s parents] kept roomers in their large home on 14th Street and rented out other properties they owned on 14th and 15th Streets.” It seems reasonable to conclude that James W. was the first occupant to actually own the home because it had been in family hands all along. It would also explain why he would live so close to his mother and sister just one block away. The house may even have been an inheritance upon the passing of his father in the same year James W. married Sarah.

The first upstairs tenant under James W.’s ownership was a dentist, Gordon Hackett, in 1914. The dentist was followed by the widow Fannie Lynn, who in turn was followed by Arthur Post, a motor company clerk, and his wife, two daughters, and sister-in-law. He was followed by another widow, Isabella Burt, and her son, a clerk.

An urban neighborhood — view of opposite side of 14th Ave from James W. McCrie’s house

The home on 14th Avenue was between Michigan and Grand River Avenues, not too far from the Detroit River. I could occasionally hear the large freighters’ boat horns, so it’s not surprising that between 1923 and 1925 a boat captain, Jerry Rose, was the tenant. He was followed by Carl Sanchez, an auto worker, and afterward by Jack MacDonald, a painter and decorator, and his wife, daughters, son-in-law, and a roomer. MacDonald’s son-in-law worked as a lithographic laborer and may have known my grandfather from work, since my grandfather was an accountant at a lithographic company.

Extract from the 1930 census showing James as an owner at 3087 14th Street, and Jack McDonald as a renter at 3089 14th Street, the upper flat.

In the 1940 census the upstairs flat was vacant, not surprisingly, as James and Sarah’s eldest child William was married later that year and the upstairs flat was to become his home. James died in 1940; his widow Sarah remained in the downstairs flat with her youngest daughter Jean. The next year, in 1941, Jean married Leonard Schutze and Len joined his wife and mother-in-law in the downstairs home.

This family arrangement was the final one for the house. William, living upstairs, became a computer analyst for IBM, Sperry Rand, and Burroughs, a field that was cutting edge in the 1950s and 1960s. Leonard, living downstairs, worked as an hydraulic engineer for the Army Corps of Engineers, Great Lakes Division. Bill had two children and Len had three.

By the early 1960s the neighborhood was in economic decline while Sarah McCrie was in physical decline. She died in 1963 at age 87. In 1967 the area was engulfed in the Detroit riot; in the ensuing years anyone who could afford it moved out and the neighborhood went to ruin.

William left the house after the 1967 riots; Leonard left in the early 1970s after his wife died and the home became a frequent target for break ins by neighborhood thieves.

William eventually sold the vacant house to a speculator but its days as a home were over. Shortly thereafter the house burned down.

For blocks around there are very few structures remaining. Looking at the area, it is difficult to imagine it was once a thriving neighborhood filled with houses, apartments, schools, grocery, drug, and dime stores, banks, churches, and a gas station.

Houses, even more than people, take their secrets to the grave. But a house that gave shelter and comfort and maybe even some inspiration to generations of Detroiters deserves some kind of obituary.

Lest it be forgotten, this is my humble tribute to the place I still call home.

The Wellington

I probably owe my fascination with fountain pens to James Wellington McCrie.

My grandfather was an accountant and he kept a stash of dipping pens and spare nibs in his desk drawer. I grew up in his house and frequently rummaged around in his desk. He didn’t mind; he’d passed away nine years before I was born.

Owen School, built 1879, ca. 1890

I went to the same elementary school as he did. When I attended it was the oldest school in Detroit. The desks still had ink wells. My older sister remembers using them, but by the time I began cursive writing the ballpoint had replaced the dipping pen in the classroom.

Nevertheless, exposure in my youth to the ink wells and to my grandfather’s cache of pens stirred thoughts of using a fountain pen when I was in college and I bought a cheap one with ink cartridges. I didn’t use it long—it leaked like a sieve and made a mess of both my paper and hands.

Years later I got a leather holder with a nice pen and pencil as a gift from co-workers. There was a different feeling to extracting those writing instruments from their pouch than with grabbing a Bic pen from the drawer. Maybe it was similar to the way one feels when putting on a suit and knotting a tie rather than pulling on jeans when going out to dinner: a feeling of anticipation, deliberation, mindfulness, sophistication.

Later still I attended a seminar where one of my classmates had a Montblanc ballpoint pen. It was the first time I felt pen envy; I was determined to have one of my own. I bought a Montblanc knockoff (i.e., fake) pen from a street vendor in New York. Unfortunately it just wasn’t the same—like wearing a tee shirt with a bow tie print to a formal affair—and I didn’t use it long, nor did I ever take it out of the apartment.

I reconnected with fountain pens when my wife and I visited her cousin in Los Angeles a couple of decades back and we were introduced to a friend of hers. Her friend worked as a district sales manager for Montblanc and she enthused about her personal fountain pens. She hooked me up with a deal on a Meisterstück fountain pen, and writing has never been the same. It’s tactile and pleasurable: deliberate, mindful, sophisticated.

Which brings me back to James Wellington McCrie. I’m naming one of my favorite fountain pens for the man who started me on this writing journey.

Pelikan M805

The pen I have in mind is a Pelikan Souverän M805 Stresemann. The pen’s striped gray barrel was designed after the suits worn by the Weimar Republic’s foreign minister Gustav Stresemann (1879-1929), a contemporary of my grandfather’s.

The design gives it a “buttoned down” look that would have been appreciated by my accountant grandfather. Pictures I have of him show he was a conservative dresser — yes, he wore a real bow tie — and this pen would look great in an accounting office, or any office for that matter. Its black and gray tones are matched with palladium plated clip and rings, and a rhodium plated 18-carat nib. The pen exudes understated sophistication.

The German-manufactured pen is a piston filler that holds a good amount of ink. When I reflect on my college years’ experience with a leaking cartridge pen, this would be its opposite — it fills easily and cleanly and writes without mishap or misstep. It’s fine-tipped nib would work nicely for an accountant filling in columns of numbers, but I eventually swapped it out for a broad nib more suited to writing lines of flowing text and signatures. That’s one of the strengths of the Pelikan brand, you can interchange the nibs among similar models.

Unfortunately, the pen is not as cheap as the knockoff Montblanc I snagged in New York. However, using the frugality inherited from my Scottish grandfather, I bought it from an on-line retailer in England — Cult Pens — which offers Pelikans at considerable discount over American pricing, especially when the exchange rate is favorable.

Peter Twydle, author of Fountain Pens: A Collector’s Guide, writes, “The one question people ask me more often than any other is, ‘What is the best fountain pen in the world?’ My answer is always Pelikan and, more specifically, the Pelikan M800 and its variants.” I can’t disagree with him. This pen writes beautifully. It fits comfortably in the hand. And with its beak-shaped clip, distinct pelican logo on the finial, and beautifully engraved nib, it is extremely handsome.


So just who was this James Wellington McCrie I’ve named my pen after? That’s a good question because I never met him, and his wife and daughter didn’t talk about him. His portrait was on the fireplace mantel, but he might as well have been a ghost. So here’s what I’ve found, and I have to say I’ve grown to like him.

James in 1878 in Grand Rapids

He was born in June of 1878 in Grand Haven, Michigan, to James and Anna (Anthony) McCrie. He was apparently named for his father but given a distinct middle name — a name that doesn’t have precedence on either his father’s or mother’s side.

When James was two years old his father was working as a foreman at the railroad’s grain elevator in Grand Haven along the Grand River. Leading a rather comfortable life, the family lived within a short walk to the river or a twenty-minute walk to Lake Michigan. His father apparently was well regarded, for two years later, in 1882, the family moved to the city of Detroit where his company had just completed a grain elevator in the rail yards on the Detroit River and his father was given the job of weighmaster. James was four years old.

Detroit Business University, 1894

Four years later the family moved to a house on 14th Avenue, where James attended the nearby John Owen Elementary School. His public education continued through the eighth grade; after that he attended the Detroit Business University for between six and twelve months to complete the business curriculum, taking courses in business writing (including penmanship of course), business arithmetic, bookkeeping, commercial law, business correspondence, and business paper (invoices, contracts, leases, mortgages, deeds, etc.).

James McCrie’s signature on a 1918 draft register shows a sample of his penmanship

The education stood by him well as he worked his way up from clerk, assistant bookkeeper, bookkeeper, paymaster, accountant and cost accountant over the course of his career in various businesses around Detroit.

He began at age 17, working as a clerk at Michigan Carbon Works, a stone’s throw from the Detroit River where today Cobo Hall is located. At age 21, in 1899, he was working as an assistant bookkeeper at Wm. H. Elliott, a store selling clothes and dry goods on the corner of Woodward Avenue and Grand River. The handsome 6-story red brick Elliott building still stands on the northwest corner of the intersection.

Four years later he was working as a bookkeeper at Crown Hat Manufacturing Company. He worked there for six years, and I believe it was while he was there, in about 1905, he met his future wife, Sarah Livingston, who was working as a stenographer at a millinery (hat) wholesaler a few blocks away in downtown Detroit. The couple put off marriage for seven years while Sarah was living with her elderly mother and young orphaned cousins. She wanted to delay starting her own family until the cousins were grown.

From an advertisement of 1909

In 1909, at age 31, James was a bookkeeper at Everitt-Metzger-Flanders. The company, more commonly known at E-M-F, was the fourth largest automobile manufacturer at the time, with Henry Ford’s company being the largest. Ford’s small factory, now a museum, was on the neighboring block on Piquette Avenue.

James would have shouldered his way to work in the heart of the fledgling auto industry amidst a stream of factory laborers on the streets, with machinists, engineers, inventors, and automobile tycoons bustling about. From his office he’d hear the thrump of machinery, the grunts of men, the cranking of engines, and the whistles of trains arriving with parts and departing with new cars. It was a time of energy, competition, and excitement in Detroit, centered in the neighborhood where he worked.

In 1910 Studebaker took over E-M-F and expanded the plant into Henry Ford’s factory when Ford moved his operations to Highland Park. (Interestingly, Studebaker ran its cars through Henry Ford’s old office at the front of the building on their way to the rail head.) James McCrie became an accountant with Studebaker that year. When the head of the company started up the Maxwell Car Company three years later, in 1913, James moved with him and became the paymaster at Maxwell.

Click on certificate to see enlarged image and guest book

It was a time of excitement in James’s personal life as well. He married Sarah Livingston in 1912 when he was 34 and she was 36 and in a couple of years they moved into a house on 14th Avenue a block from his mother’s.

They started their family quickly, with son William born in 1914; daughters Margaret and Jean followed in 1915 and 1917 respectively.

James W. McCrie with son William and mother Anna, wife Sarah, and sister Jennie (seated), 1914

With his new family established, James changed jobs again in 1918, becoming a bookkeeper and accountant for a pair of attorneys on the 14th floor of the Ford Building in downtown Detroit, a skyscraper of its day and a building that still stands. He was only there shortly though; the next year, at age 41, he started working for a lithographic company, Calvert Lithographing, on Grand River Avenue. He became a cost accountant for the prosperous and long-established firm; the job was solid, supporting the family through the Great Depression of the 1930s.

James Wellington McCrie (without jacket) in his side yard next to cousin Florence and friends ca. 1928

From photographs of James we know he was bald at an early age, overweight, a bit stiff, and almost always wore a tie. He seems to have had a sense of humor, but one he kept in check. Accountants are generally known to be conservative, conscientious, rules-based, and unimaginative in their work, and James looks like he fit the bill, right down to his socks.

James McCrie the father and gardener ca. 1917

Pictures show he worked a flower and vegetable garden in his back yard, and he had a chicken coop as well. He rented out the upper story of his two-story home, a common practice of that day and area. His bank book showed he religiously put money into savings, even during the years of the Depression, so he must have known how to manage his own as well as company funds.

Though he looked self-possessed in all of his photographs, my sister tells the story that he became so exasperated with his headstrong daughter (my mother), he once took her by the heels and hung her down the clothes chute when she misbehaved. He apparently wasn’t as unflappable as photographs suggest. (Clothes chutes were much bigger in those days. I used to sit in it and play astronaut during the early space exploration years.)

By his early 50s James’s love of ice cream and his sedentary job may have contributed to his developing chronic myocarditis and nephritis, which felled him at the age of 62. Bed-ridden in his last months, he died at home on the day his son was married in October of 1940.

James Wellington McCrie’s mantel portrait

I wish I’d had the chance to know him.

I also wish I’d had the foresight to keep at least one of his pens.

Instead, I have to settle for naming one of my favorite pens for him, thinking of him when I pick up the conservatively dressed Pelikan Stresemann. I call it ‘The Wellington’ in his honor. I think it’s an apt name.

Labor Monuments

Transcending” labor legacy landmark                   Photo from Brian Callahan’s flikr post.

It seems fitting that Transcending — a labor legacy landmark on Detroit’s riverfront — sits on the spot of one of my ancestor’s former work sites.
And the UAW-Ford National Programs Center building sits on another. Both are monuments to labor.

It’s a fortuitous coincidence that these monuments occupy the sites of my grandmother’s initial foray into the labor market of a growing industrial city.  In my mind, the aptly named Transcending commemorates her, and generally speaking our family’s, move from the farm to the city, the transition from the agrarian to the industrial age.

Sarah Livingstone posing in one of the millinery’s hats in 1901

Sarah Campbell Livingstone [later McCrie] came to Detroit with her mother and siblings in 1897, the year after her father died on the family farm near Alviston, Ontario. She was 21 years old.

Sarah went to business school for six months and began working as a stenographer for the H. T. Bush Produce Company on Woodbridge Street in downtown Detroit. The company was on the first floor of a two-story building whose upstairs occupant was the American Eagle Tobacco Company. She earned $6.00 a week.

Four years later she doubled her earnings when she went to work as a stenographer for Mitchell, Harris & Company, a wholesale millinery two blocks away on Jefferson Avenue near Griswold Street. She worked there for about 10 years.

Advertising flyer for Mitchell, Harris & Co. dating to 1901

That area of Detroit was long ago re-purposed and is now the location of Hart Plaza, filled with monuments, fountains, footpaths, and memorials on the riverfront.

Using the 1897 Detroit street directory and Sanborn fire insurance map, as well as an 1885 map of the area, one can pinpoint the locations of her former work sites with the help of Google Earth:

• H. T. Bush Produce Company was located where the present day UAW-Ford National Programs Center (formerly the Veterans Memorial) building sits.

• Mitchell, Harris & Company was located where the Transitioning labor legacy landmark now stands.

An 1885 Detroit map overlaid on present day Hart Plaza and Renaissance Center.
Sarah Livingstone worked in the buildings outlined in red.

The next time I visit Detroit I’d like to make a trip to Hart Plaza and stand where she stood over a hundred years ago. Closing my eyes, I’ll think of her among an army of produce, fish, dry goods, tobacco, lumber, clothing, machinery, and millinery workers bustling among the offices, warehouses and shops of bygone Detroit. A farm girl turned urban woman, laboring to make a living for herself and family, and soon, in 1912, to marry James W. McCrie and make a family of her own.

Transitioning is a monument designed for reflection on the importance of labor. When I next visit, it will also be a place to reflect on the transience of time and on the importance of family.

Origins

If the Big Bang theory is correct, the universe began 14 billion years ago.

If fundamentalists are correct, the universe was created seven thousand years ago.

If I’m correct, the universe always existed.

The question of origins arose as I was reading Neil deGrasse Tyson’s book, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry. I think the title is a euphemism for “people who want the Reader’s Digest version of astrophysics because they’re too lazy or dumb to plow through a scientific tome.” That pretty much describes me.

The book is small, about paperback sized, and has only 218 pages. But still, I was lost by the end of the first paragraph, the one introducing the Big Bang theory:

“In the beginning, nearly fourteen billion years ago, all the space and all the matter and all the energy of the known universe was contained in a volume less than one-trillionth the size of the period that ends this sentence.”

Huh? All the matter and energy of the universe crammed into the volume of a pin point? (It almost makes me want to ask how many angels could dance on the head of it.) But if such a micro dot really existed, where did all this matter and energy come from (there was no universe, after all, to forge it from), how was it constructed (given its inherent instability), why did it suddenly materialize, and just how the heck did everything fit inside it?

However, if scientists have posed a theory that raises as many questions as it answers, their religious brethren seem to be in the same boat (or ark, as it may be). For if gods created the universe, where did they come from? Did they always exist, as logic would suggest, indicating there really is no ultimate origin? Where do they live, outside of the universe, given they couldn’t very well have existed inside a universe they hadn’t yet created?

From a less cosmic and more human perspective, why did gods create mankind on a tiny speck in a universe billions of light years across? If mankind is the pinnacle of creation, why create such an enormous universe to obscure and endanger our presence? (Remember we’re probably talking about gods existing outside this universe, and if they’re looking in on us, they’d have to have uncommon visual skills to see us at such incredible distance and behind all the monstrous galaxies and dark matter that surround us.) And why put us on an orb destined for inevitable extinction from flying cosmic debris?

To my mind, the faithful and the scientists are looking at the universe through opposite ends of a telescope, the former seeing our world blown up to a significance well beyond its size, and the latter seeing the universe shrunk infinitesimally small in order to explain its origin. Me, I’m wondering if maybe we should set the telescope aside for a minute.

The intractability of the origin question leads me to wonder if maybe we’re anthropomorphizing the issue. People are born, we all have origins, so maybe we’re trying to see the universe in the same way. But what if the universe always existed? What if the universe’s expansion, as detected by scientific instruments, is simply part of a recurring cycle of repeated expansion and contraction over endless cycles of billions of years?

To me that makes as much sense as time and space having a beginning. If you can believe that gods existed forever (as it seems they must), you can just as easily believe that the universe existed forever. The recurring formation and destruction of stars and other objects through collisions of cosmic matter under the influences of nuclear, electro-magnetic, gravitational, and dark energy forces in the universe might argue against true beginnings and ends, just the perpetual metamorphosis of matter and energy.

Tyson’s book is a nice synopsis of current astrophysical science, I recommend a reading of it. It explains, among other things, the reasoning behind the Big Bang theory in layman’s terms. It’s perhaps my shortcoming that I couldn’t logically grasp the universe in a microdot. But if nothing else, it also served the purpose of getting me to thinking about my own concept of origin: namely, what if there were none?

P.S.: Tyson is also a fountain pen fan. An interview with him on his collection is on YouTube.

Proximity

The Oxford English Dictionary defines proximity as “nearness in space, time, or relationship.” That’s a great definition for an important tool of genealogy.

Proximity is useful in figuring out family history in the absence of direct evidence such as lineage notes or official records. Relationships are typically established between people who are proximate in space and time. Generations ago one’s social environment would have been largely limited to a day’s travel on horseback or foot. So if a genealogist is trying to deduce or confirm relationships, i.e. build family trees, it’s helpful to establish that the people lived in the same area at the time in question.

Censuses dating as far back as the 1840s were useful in placing people in an area at a given time. City or area directories were also helpful, especially for years between censuses. And land records were good in identifying locations of farm families.

These kinds of documents helped discover relationships among our ancestors:

They showed the rocky relationship between Leonard and Pearl Schutze in the early 1900s in the L.A. area. The couple lived separately as much as they lived together over the years. (Pearl eventually had an affair outside their marriage and committed suicide when it fell apart.)

They helped build Jane Hannah’s branch of the family tree, showing that a pair of Hannah brothers, undoubtedly her siblings, purchased a farm next door to her future husband’s family. Following the paper trail of one of those brothers showed when the family immigrated to America and from which city in Ireland.

Proximity can also be determined by vital records, such as birth, death, and marriage registrations which document place.

When I was searching for the birth family of John Campbell in Scotland there was a plethora of possibilities for a man with such a common name. His gravestone determined his birth year (time). His marriage (relationship) to Isabella McLean led to the probability that his birth family lived near Isabella’s (space). Sure enough, there was a Campbell family living on the Gallochoilly farmstead adjacent to Isabella’s that gave birth to a John Campbell in the matching year. Though proximity wasn’t definitive proof, it — combined with examining all other John Campbells of the shire in that timeframe — was solid evidence that this family was by far the most likely candidate for the family tree.

The North Knapdale parish register shows the parents, farmstead, and birth date for John Campbell

Just as documents provided evidence of time and space, maps were useful in verifying spacial proximity. In the John Campbell example, it was only through old ordnance maps of Scotland that we could establish the locations of farmsteads and their proximity to each other. The same goes for 19th century township or county atlases in the United States and Canada which showed farms by family name. They documented the clustering of families in the same vicinity and showed how many marriages were spawned by the collocation of the bride and groom’s families in the area.

The concept of proximity was a terrific tool, but it admittedly may apply less to modern times than it did in the past. Generations ago families lived and worked on farms and there were limited opportunities (i.e. small local populations) to establish relationships. In the modern era people live in densely populated urban communities and work away from home so there are far more social opportunities. Add to that the increased mobility of modern transportation, mega churches drawing wide-ranging congregations, e-learning replacing fixed location schools, and the prevalence of electronic interactions, such as dating sites, and spacial proximity expands exponentially, making it potentially less useful.

In my own case, I met my wife on a blind date arranged by mutual friends. We didn’t live close by, we didn’t attend the same schools, we didn’t work in the same location, and our birth families lived a couple of hundred miles apart. A future genealogist would have a hard time trying to reconstruct our family trees using proximity as a tool. But of course in the modern era, there’s no lack of official documentation, so proximity isn’t as vital. As an aside, though, the proximity concept still applied, as it was through mutual friends (relationship) that we met, and at the time she lived with her grandmother (relationship), which placed us in adjoining counties of geographical (space) proximity.

There’s an iconic moment in the movie The Graduate when a family friend, Mr. McGuire, gives career advice to the newly minted college graduate Benjamin:

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.
Benjamin: Yes, sir.
Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?
Benjamin: Yes, I am.
Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

I guess you could say that I’ve found one word that has helped me a lot in family research. Are you listening? Yes? Proximity.

Farewell to Microfilm

A recent announcement by FamilySearch heralded a new era in research technology:

“FamilySearch … plans to discontinue its 80-year-old microfilm distribution service. The transition is the result of significant progress made in FamilySearch’s microfilm digitization efforts and the obsolescence of microfilm technology. … Online access to digital images of the world’s historic records allows FamilySearch to service more people around the globe, faster and more efficiently.”

I read the announcement with some trepidation. I’d researched our Scottish ancestors for a number of years using microfilm at the local Family History Center (FHC) and I wasn’t sure how the transition to digital imagery would impact that research.

It turns out the new technology is a quantum leap forward.

Microfilm wasn’t cheap to use, costing $7.50 per roll to borrow. And since our ancestors came from a number of parishes, there were several rolls involved. Once delivered to the local FHC, the rolls had to be threaded into microfilm viewers in a darkened room and the reels turned by hand to look at the pages sequentially. Copying down the information, or printing or photographing it, was time consuming. The copies were of poor quality.  And the loans were for about a month, putting time constraints on the research.

With digital technology all those problems went away. There is no fee. You’re not confined to looking at only one parish at a time. It’s faster and easier to skip through the images. And the quality of downloaded images is superb compared to their analog predecessors.

Neil Livingston-Janet McNair Marriage from the Craignish Parish Register

Yes, you can still only find the parish records at a Family History Center. But all in all, it’s goodbye (and good riddance) to microfilm technology, and a welcome hello to digitization. In the near future I’ll post the family’s parish records to the DAEDALUS feature on our web site.

Ghosts of the Past

Old soldiers never die … they just come back to haunt you.

That was the case with Barney Anthony, my great-great grandfather. When my wife and I took a road trip to Michigan this year I wanted to stop at the Michigan Soldiers’ Home in Grand Rapids where this Civil War soldier was one of the inaugural patients when it opened in 1886. As mentioned in a previous blog, Barney joined the Union Army when he was 52 — likely just to collect the signing bonus — and only spent 3-1/2 months in training before being released for “old age,” thereby avoiding deployment.

In his senior years he applied for admission to the Michigan Soldiers’ Home with a laundry list of disabilities he attributed to his military “service,” and in my humble opinion stiffed the state for room and board and medical care. Admittedly, that kind of attitude may be a little judgmental on my part.

The original Soldiers’ Home building, erected in 1886. (From a framed picture on a wall of the current structure.)

The visit to the Home was both sobering and uplifting. My friend Lenny and I walked the halls and visited some of the common areas where former servicemen — many missing limbs — gathered in wheelchairs to socialize. Some were on the covered patio smoking cigarettes or just taking in the early evening air. The servicemen were stoic; the staff was kind and caring. The long-term effects of war were quietly suffered within the walls of the Home and it was a jolting reminder of what we owe people who risked and sacrificed so much.

Well, apparently Barney thought I needed a little attitude adjustment concerning his own service. He wasn’t about to let me leave without a little sacrifice of my own. I’m sure it was his guiding spirit that steered some yokel into backing his pickup truck into the front of my automobile. I could almost hear Barney’s rheumy laugh as the grill on my car caved in and began to look like what I imagined was his gap-toothed grin. Touche, Barney. I’m not likely to forget this little visit into your past. Apparently you still have a few tricks left up the sleeve of that uniform.

But the ghostly lure of Barney and his wife Jane also got us up to the Traverse City area, and that was a good experience. We ate at fish restaurants on the bay, spent a day tasting wines on the Mission peninsula, climbed into an old lighthouse tower, and shopped for Michigan cherry products. It was beautiful. And the people were great: the owner of the cherry store kept her shop open for our late arrival, and a researcher at the public library gave me tips on finding the family in the library’s on-line archives of the Traverse City newspapers.

The newspaper archives yielded an obituary on Jane (nee Hannah) Anthony which answered some long-standing questions. Some of the details in the biography were inaccurate, but it gave a good overview of her life. And, yes, it turned out the obit was hiding on the internet like a ghost hiding in the attic.

We visited the location near Grawn, Michigan, where Barney and Jane lived with their son in their waning years and we stopped by their graves. It was touching that next to them their infant granddaughter was laid to rest. Grandparents would like that sort of thing.

And finally, the ghost of families past was resurrected at a reunion in my sister Sarah’s back yard.

Generations ago the Schutze and Schrotzberger families were closely linked by marriage, blood, and friendship. Over time those relationships faded. A couple of years back, however, one member of the Schrotzberger clan got in touch with me through our mutual interest in family history, and she came to see the family while we were back in Michigan. If there is a heaven, I’m quite sure there would have been smiles on the faces of our great-great grandparents who were the common ancestors of the Schutze and Schrotzberger attendees of the reunion. I know there were plenty of smiles among the current-day clans.

The Schrotzberger attendee, JoAnn, is seated in the front row at left.

 

A Mother’s Touch: the Edison Collier Pen

Some pens are easy to name — a Montegrappa pen with ‘1912’ embossed on it screams my father’s name ‘Leonard’ as he was born that year. An oversized Pelikan pen can easily be tagged as the ‘Big Mac’ to honor a McCrie great-grandfather.

The pen I’m naming after my mother, though, doesn’t visually bring her to mind. The Edison Collier in my collection is brown, whereas my mother was fair skinned with blue eyes. It is a large pen, and my mom was short. It has a blunt stub nib, not at all reflective of my mother’s well-rounded, easy-flowing friendliness.

But in the hand the pen’s resin is silky soft and the pen’s shape is exceptionally comfortable, and that tactile feel is what reminds me of my mom, a presence so warm and natural that it whispers her name. And so my Edison Collier pen has been named ‘Jean.’

Jean McCrie (later Schutze) ca. 1940

Admittedly I wanted a better hook to tie her to the pen. And there is one, though it’s a bit of a stretch. The Collier is made in Milan, Ohio, the birthplace of Thomas Edison. The Edison Pen Company was named after the town’s legendary inventor, who was born on February 11, 1847. My mom’s birthday was also February 11th. Not exactly a slam dunk match, but a strong enough link to validate the connection between Jean and this pen.

The pen feels so good in the hand I use it every day, often to fill in a crossword puzzle or make the day’s to-do list over breakfast. But like my mom, the baby of her family, it can be temperamental. First, a stub nib is not quite as easy to write with as a rounded point nib, though it is by no means difficult. Offsetting the stub nib’s impishness, though, is the sass and personality it gives to one’s handwriting, which assets my mom had in abundance and would have appreciated.

However, an annoying trait was the pen’s ink flow problems, which caused difficulties in starting after uncapping and in running dry while writing. I tried wetter inks to no avail. I initially had a medium point nib and I replaced it with a stub, again to no avail. I flushed it several times with water and a cleansing solution and it still ran dry. Finally, I pulled out the converter and inked the barrel with an eyedropper, and that did the trick. It writes marvelously now, and with the barrel’s large capacity, it shouldn’t have to be re-inked any time soon. Admittedly, the ink flows so well now it tends to leak a bit into the cap, giving me ink-stained fingers when writing with the pen.

As a nod to my mother, I typically use blue ink in the pen to mirror the color of her eyes. I’m currently using Pelikan’s Edelstein Topaz which is a nicely saturated light blue.

The Collier boasts a classic design in a light-weight, reasonably priced (around $150) steel nib pen. The brown swirl in the resin is eye-catching, and the light bulb etched on the nib is a nice nod to its place of origin. More impressive than looks, though, is how its resin feels so smooth, how its considerable girth rests nicely in the crook of the hand, and how its perfectly shaped grip section combine to make this instrument a pleasure to hold. The best pens are the ones you pick up often, and this pen will tempt you to do just that.

Finding Michigan: “If You Seek …”

If you’re searching for information on ancestors who lived in Michigan, as did mine, there are a few free web sites that should prove helpful.

Seeking Michigan: Death certificates or registrations from 1897 through 1952 are searchable by name, location, and/or date. Digital images of death certificates are available in many cases. State censuses from 1827-1874 and from 1884-1894 are also available.

Michigan County Histories and Atlases, a project of the University of Michigan Library: Useful for finding family farms from the last quarter of the 1800s into the early 1900s via the county township maps annotated with landowner names.

Michigan Online Historical Newspapers, a Google resource: Some newspaper archives are available for searching and reading. The selection is limited, but was a rich resource for the Owosso area, where many of my wife’s family members lived.

Obtaining Street Name Changes: A reference guide for finding current house numbers and street names for addresses which changed over the years. Though the resource is for various locations around the nation, there are links to Michigan-specific towns such as Grand Rapids and Detroit. The latter was particularly useful for finding current locations of addresses prior to 1921, when Detroit changed it’s house numbering system.

FamilySearch.org: The web’s best free resource for finding information on ancestors in Michigan, or anywhere else.

It’s Greek to Me: ICARUS and DAEDALUS

Two new features on our family history website — ICARUS and DAEDALUS, the Image Catalog And Retrieval User System and the Document And Evidential Data Archive and Look Up System — allow searching and retrieval of pictures and documents related to our ancestors. Typing a name in a search box retrieves a list of related images sorted in chronological order. Clicking on one of the image names retrieves the selected image along with notes on its source.

Some of the pics and docs are not available elsewhere on the internet.

Screenshot of the ICARUS Photo Search page

You’re invited to try ICARUS and DAEDALUS on our family history site. We still have a ways to go to fully populate the databases but will be working on them over the coming months. If you have any suggestions or observations please let me know what you think in the comments below.