A Skeleton in the Family Closet

…came to America. Married girl from South. They visited Hamilton, Ontario, during Civil War but lost contact with Canadian relatives afterward.”

This snippet written on a hand-drawn family tree aroused my attention. Who was this unnamed McCrie kin? When did he arrive in America and where did he settle?

A note on the McCrie Family Tree from Margaret (nee McCrie) Mead

I set out to put some flesh on this skeleton. Then I discovered a surprising twist to his story — he enlisted in a Confederate infantry regiment at the start of the American Civil War.

The Civil War has stirred considerable interest in recent months. Confederate statues and flags have fallen out of favor as symbols of Southern pride, now being viewed by many as symbols of white supremacy and slavery. Finding a Rebel in the family? That seemed like a real outlier for my family … a family that has its roots in the north.

As background, this “Reb” Hugh Ronald was the first-born son of Andrew Ronald and Katherine McCrie — Kathy being the sister of my great-great grandfather William McCrie. Hugh was born in 1832 in Old Cumnock, Scotland, at a farmstead where his father apprenticed as a millwright.

Entry in the Old Cumnock parish register of 1832

When Hugh was three his family moved to Glasgow where his father practiced his trade by the River Clyde. When the family subsequently moved to Ireland in around 1840, Hugh was left in the care of his grandparents back in Old Cumnock, appearing with them in the 1841 census. Some time later his family returned to the Glasgow area, and in 1851, Hugh, age 18, showed up in the census with them working as a flesher (butcher).

In 1858 Hugh emigrated to America. It’s unknown where he first settled in his adopted country. There is only one Hugh Ronald I could find in the American 1860 census, and that was a 25-year-old Scotsman living with a Canadian-born wife and working as a clerk in Buffalo, New York. I can’t find anything to corroborate that this is our Hugh, but the country of origin, age, and occupation fit his profile. If it was him, however, it begs the question of what became of the wife and how to explain the next chapter in his life.

Hugh next appears in Warrenton, North Carolina, where as a salesman he enlisted for a 12-month hitch in Company F, North Carolina 12th Infantry Regiment, on April 18, 1861. North Carolina was moving in the direction of secession in early 1861, but the Confederate attack on Fort Sumpter on April 12th seems to have inspired the state to take over three U.S. forts and an arsenal. A month later the state adopted an ordinance of secession, becoming the tenth Southern state to do so.

In a time of conflict young men’s souls seem to swell with patriotic fervor and martial stirrings. Hugh—in his late twenties—may have been caught up in the frenzy. At least that’s a natural assumption when seeing that he enlisted the week after Fort Sumpter fell. The evidence is more nuanced, however.

Company rolls show that he mustered into service as a Private on May 17th, but within a week was “absent on furlough from sickness.” Subsequent muster rolls show he never returned and at the end of the year was “discharged for sickness” effective New Year’s Day 1862. Hugh may have put some of his persuasive salesman skills to work here.

Hugh remained in the South for at least a couple of years, marrying the Carolinian native Catharine Baker in Warrenton, North Carolina — in the Piedmont region just south of Virginia — in May of 1862, when they were both 29. They had a daughter there, Kate McCrie Ronald, in October of 1863. However by the time they had their next child, Andrew, in 1866, they had moved north and were living in New York state. Considering the note on the family tree that “they visited Hamilton, Ontario, during [the] Civil War,” it’s likely they left North Carolina before the war’s conclusion in 1865.

Marriage Certificate for Hugh Ronald(s) and Catharine Baker issued in Warren County, N.C., 1862

Hugh and his family, which grew to four children (although one, John, died early) lived primarily in Jersey City, New Jersey, with a two year stint across the Hudson river in East Harlem, on Manhattan. He reported his work variously as a clerk and a salesman of dry goods.

There are a couple of intriguing items in the federal censuses. In the 1880 census — when he and his family were living in New York City — his wife Catharine is noted as having “Nervous Debility.” This fell under the column “Is the person sick or temporarily disabled, so as to be unable to attend to ordinary business or duties?”

In the same census, their daughter Kate McRay [sic] Ronald, at age 16, is checked off under the column headed “maimed, crippled, bedridden, or otherwise disabled.” Kate subsequently never married, was never employed, and died at age 40.

Catharine’s younger sister was living with them, as she had in the previous census. She was probably helping to tend to the children and run the household, as the earlier census listed her as a domestic servant rather than a family member.

The 1890 census had a schedule showing “Surviving Soldiers, Sailors, and Marines, and Widows, Etc.” Although Hugh is listed, none of the columns were filled out. The federal government was only interested in Union soldiers, many of whom were eligible for pensions. The individual Southern states were responsible for their own veterans. Hugh was probably ineligible for that too. In fact, given his week’s actual time in service (probably spent in-processing), I’m surprised he self-identified as a veteran.

Hugh lived to see two children get married — at least one was a home wedding — and to enjoy two grandchildren, including his namesake Hugh. He’d been married 38 years when he passed away in 1901 at the age of 69 in Jersey City, near the piers. He left behind his widow and his daughter Kate at home. His son Andrew (with wife Nellie) and daughter Minnie (with husband Alfred Houliston) were raising children in their own homes in the city.

A son of Scotland, and a long-time resident of Jersey City, Hugh’s unlikely and short-lived spell as a soldier in the Confederate army seems an anomaly. It’s open to speculation as to the nature, or legitimacy, of the “sickness” that generated a soldier’s wages without its hardships. Equally mysterious is his presence in North Carolina during the Civil War. There are just some chapters of family histories that remain mysteries.

Hugh is one of those skeletons in the family closet — unnamed, slightly scandalous, and bare boned. Despite our best efforts to put some flesh on his remains, we’ll probably never get a full picture. But at least now we know of another McCrie family branch that immigrated to America … and hope that some day we can reestablish the contact that was lost during the Civil War.

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.

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.

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.

 

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.

The Life and Death of Thomas Hutchings

The eldest sons of four generations — from my dad to my grandchild — have Thomas as a middle name.

I suspect my grandmother Bessie (nee Estall) Schutze gave my dad his middle name in honor of her brother Thomas. Since there were no other Thomases on either side of the family, that appears to be a safe bet. Somehow the name stuck, and we continue to use it as a middle name in the family.

It seems like a good idea to know a bit about the man whose name survived despite never having had children of his own.

Thomas was the third illegitimate child of Sarah Hutchings, a ‘fur sewer’ living in Bethnal Green in London’s notoriously poor, overcrowded, and crime-ridden East End. An Estall family historian believes Thomas’s mother Sarah — in light of her frequent visits to the workhouse to deliver children without a father — was a prostitute. If so, she wasn’t alone: up to one in eight women of the East End turned to the trade to make a living or supplement their meager wages.

Thomas Hutchings’s birth certificate (click on image to enlarge)

Thomas was born in the Bethnal Green Workhouse in July of 1889. He had a brother (or more likely a half-brother) Alfred, who was five years older; and a sister (or half-sister) Harriett who was three years older.

A couple of years after Thomas’s birth his mother married a laborer, William Estall, who was working the shipping docks. And a month after that his mother delivered Thomas’s half-sister Bessie, my grandmother.

[As an aside, with Sarah Hutchings’s possible occupation as a prostitute and Bessie being born only a month after Sarah’s marriage to William Estall, one may wonder whether Bessie was really his daughter. However William was living with Sarah at least ten months prior to Bessie’s birth, and Bessie needed an operation for the same condition that killed her father (an aortic aneurysm), so her claim on the Estall name appears solid.]

Museum House, one of the tenements the Estall family lived in (from Google Street View)

The Estall family lived in multi-story brick tenements around Bethnal Green. At first they lived behind a lunatic asylum on Cornwell Road. Their next home, where Bessie was born, was across the street from the other side of the asylum on Green Street. (The building, Museum House, still stands at the present-day corner of Roman Road and Burnham Street.) Within a couple of years they were living at a place on Russia Lane a police inspector described as among those where ‘there are no worse places to be found.’

Thomas lost his older brother Alfred in early 1894 to diphtheria (though Bessie, then 3 years old, thought he’d been killed on the street by a horse). Thomas, at four years of age, became the eldest son in the family. The streets were the playgrounds of the families in the East End. Thomas and his friend William Morris got lost on the streets when Thomas was just shy of five years old, and a police constable delivered the two boys to the Mile End Workhouse . The children were later returned to their parents.

Thomas and his younger sister Bessie were enrolled in the Globe Road primary school when he was six. He likely was protective of his four-year-old sister, as older siblings tend to be. Bessie would have looked to her half-brother as both a playmate and role model.

More children followed in the Estall family: Lily came after Bessie, then Rosie, then James, and Robert. Seven children and two parents would have strained the tiny living space available in tenement quarters.

Things went from bad to worse. Their mother Sarah took ill after delivering Robert, and she died of acute meningitis on Christmas Eve of 1899 at the age of 39. The family was now motherless. Thomas’s step-father William, who had a history of physical ailments, reported to the Bethnal Green Workhouse infirmary with his family, and the children — less Bessie who was also kept in the infirmary; Robert, who died in his first year; and James, who was adopted out — were sent to the Leytonstone Workhouse School a few miles away. Thomas was ten years old.

The Bethnal Green Workhouse

Thomas, as the oldest of the siblings at the Leytonstone School, likely would have felt responsible for watching over his sisters Lily and Rosie and keeping the family together, such as it was.

After a year and a half at the school Thomas’s step-father William was released from the workhouse infirmary and the family was reunited. With no mother to watch the children, however, William was incapable of making a living while raising the family alone.

William’s solution seems questionable. He had ten siblings, at least one of which was living in Bethnal Green. But rather than turning to them — the children’s aunts and uncles — William decided to drop off the children with a former “wife’s” family in Lewisham in southeast London.

The term ‘wife’ is used loosely. William had moved in with a married woman, Sarah French, a decade before marrying Sarah Hutchings. He had two children by her but moved on when her husband returned.

Perhaps William wanted all of his children to be together under one roof. But nobody in Lewisham was buying it, and when William abandoned them there, they were promptly dropped off at the Lewisham Workhouse.

Thomas was motherless, abandoned, and the head of the remaining Estall family. He was twelve years old.

His sisters were admitted to the Workhouse school, and Thomas was sent off for boarding and instruction on the London Asylum Board’s training ship Exmouth moored in the Thames. He spent 2-1/2 years learning seaman’s duties, then was hired as a deck boy on the coal cargo ship S.S. Turkistan at age 14.

Exmouth Training Ship

After a couple of years at sea he seems to have become a photographer for a short stint before joining the British army in southwest England in 1907 at age 18. His enlistment papers showed him to be 5’8,” 125 pounds, blue-eyed, and brown-haired.

He was assigned to a rifle company and spent his first two years training and on duty in England. In October of 1909 he was assigned to the British Egyptian Expeditionary Force in Alexandria, Egypt.

While there, he was admitted three times to the Army hospital in Cairo. An accident on duty resulted in contusion of his right foot that exacerbated an old injury and left him hospitalized for three months and caused him pain thereafter. In August of 1910 he spent two weeks in the hospital for dysphoria — a profound state of unease or dissatisfaction, which can accompany depression, anxiety, or agitation.

His physical and mental pain seem to have overwhelmed him, and in September, at age 21, while sitting on his barracks bed, he propped a rifle between his legs and committed suicide. He was buried in the English cemetery in Cairo the next day.

At the inquest into his death his acting corporal said “he was very quiet, very careful about money mattters. He did not drink at all. I had not noticed anything unusual about him lately. [Did his corporal not know about his recent hospitalization for dysphoria?] He used to complain about his foot especially after marching. He said he was expecting to purchase his discharge and go to Canada. He was on good terms with the others but was quiet and did not mix much with others.”

The Citadel, Cairo, where the death inquest was held.

So ended the hard and short life of Thomas Hutchings. Though a Hutchings, he went by the Estall surname of his step-father. He apparently had dreams of emigrating to Canada, probably to be with his sisters Bessie and Lily who’d emigrated there in 1906 under the aegis of an orphanage.

My grandmother once mentioned to me that she had a brother who’d died while serving with the British Army and there was a great deal of pride in her voice when she said it. When she had her first son in April, 1912, she gave him the middle name of Thomas, and I’m quite sure it was to honor the recently deceased lad who had accompanied her to primary school, shared the family’s shabby lodgings, and was the closest thing she had to a father figure after her dad abandoned the family.

I consider it an honor to have his name too.

The Big Mac

The Pelikan M1000 fountain pen is large, the largest in Pelikan’s Souverän line. In my tradition of naming pens for my ancestors, this pen is being dubbed the Big Mac.

Photo from The Pen Habit web site

It’s named after James Miller McCrie, my great-grandfather. With a name like McCrie, someone must have called him Mac at some point in life.

James McCrie worked as a foreman at grain elevators in Grand Haven and Detroit, Michigan. These elevators were large, like the pen, looming over their surrounding landscapes and visible for miles around. The Grand Haven elevator’s sharply angled roof line reminds one a bit of the shoulders of a fountain pen nib. And the elevators were filled with the product of waving rows of grain from farms throughout the mid-west, echoed in the green stripes of the pen.

The typical shape of a grain elevator looks a bit like a fountain pen nib

James McCrie was born in Ayrshire, Scotland in 1839, the son of a farmer/teacher. He emigrated with his parent’s and siblings to Canada when he was starting his teenage years in 1852. Under the aegis of his oldest brother he learned carpentry and worked for the railroad in western Michigan. Upon marriage to Anna Anthony in 1872 he began raising a family in Grand Haven on Lake Michigan and started a career as a grain elevator operator for the railroad.

When his children were young the family moved to Detroit where James worked as a weigh master and foreman at the railroad’s grain elevators on the Detroit River. The grain dust eventually affected his lungs, forcing him into retirement in his 60s.

James M. McCrie ca. 1880

According to his granddaughter, “although James worked twelve or more hours a day on the job, he spent his time at home building cabinets, window seats, shirt boxes, etc. He enjoyed woodworking and used his carpentry skills to add conveniences to the household. He often read aloud to the family. His favorite physical activity was walking.” In short, he seemed to lead a pretty quiet life. He passed away at age 72 in Detroit.

This summer I plan on visiting Grand Haven and following James’s footsteps from his home on Lake Avenue to the nearby dunes and Lake Michigan shoreline. If he loved to walk, I’m sure he went this way on many an evening and weekend. There’s also an ice cream shop on the Grand River where the elevator once stood a hundred or so years ago; I’ll pay a cooling visit there too.

The Pelikan I’ve named in his honor is not as quiet as was James, and that’s a shame. The nib has an annoying habit of “singing” when I write in cursive. Beyond the screech, however, the pen is a joy to hold and pleasurably springy to write with, given the nib’s gold content and its massive size — the nib is the size of the last joint on my pinky finger.

I generally ink up the pen with a dark green ink to mirror its green barrel; currently I’m using Diamine’s Sherwood Forest ink. They work well together, but the pen also worked well with an antique Scrip Washable Blue ink so it appears the pen is easy to get along with.

I’m guessing James McCrie was the same way.

L. P. Schutze: Equanimity in the Face of Tragedy

Leonard Paul Schutze was my father’s uncle and the man my dad was named after.

That got me to wondering who Leonard — I’ll call him LP for short — was.

His is a rather sad story, it turns out.

L.P.’s mother Friederike

LP was conceived in Hamburg, Germany, and born in Detroit, Michigan. His mother Friederike (nee Schrotzberger) was four months pregnant when she emigrated to America to join her husband in Detroit; she delivered LP on a winter’s day early in 1881.

LP would be the oldest of four children in the Hermann and Frederika home. He had two younger sisters who died in youth, and a brother (my grandfather Herman) who was ten years his junior. His mom died when LP was eleven; his father married Frederike’s sister Hannah and had another pair of children by her.

L.P.’s father Hermann

LP hewed closely to his father’s example. His dad was a butcher; LP became one too. His dad joined the Masons and was insured by the International Order of Foresters; LP became a Mason as well, and spent his last twenty years in a hospital run by the IOF.

When LP was 21 the family moved to Stratford, Ontario, but he sensed it was time to spread his wings, and three years later moved to California, joining his uncle Fred Schrotzberger in Pomona, 25 miles east of Los Angeles, working as a butcher. The slim, gray-eyed, brown-haired young man married an 18-year-old girl in 1908, when he was 27. The free-spirited Mildred “Pearl” Lloyd lost her mother at age 9 and was farmed out to be raised by various older half-siblings. “It seems Pearl was pretty much left on her own throughout the years and probably more so once she reached age 18; maybe that’s why she married so young, apparently not ready or able to settle down,” according to a Lloyd family historian.

When LP’s father died in Stratford in 1909, his step-mother moved the family back to Detroit, where LP and Pearl joined them from California. In a year or two the entire family, including my grandfather, moved to Los Angeles, which explains why my dad was born there.

Leonard P. Schutze
Mildred “Pearl” Lloyd

LP and Pearl seemed to have a rocky relationship. City directories and censuses show there were years when they lived together, but there were just as many when they didn’t. She rarely lived long in one place. She worked as a dressmaker and filled in her idle hours as a movie extra in the fledgling years of the industry. She enjoyed riding motorcycles. And she had an affair with a married man — a police detective with a wife and two daughters — that ended in 1924 on the corner of Pasadena and 35th avenues in Los Angeles where she shot him dead and then took her own life in the back bedroom of LP’s home a couple of blocks away. She died painfully of strychnine poisoning, leaving a note that read Daddy and I decided to end everything. Life without each other was unbearable.” The story made it into the Los Angeles Times and on the front page of the Madera Tribune.

According to the Lloyd historian, “Leonard loved her very much and buried her as if nothing happened.” Whether that’s a sign of great love and forgiveness or a character flaw is open to speculation.

After losing his wife, LP moved in with his step-mother Hannah and half siblings Hattie and Hugo who were living in a house on Halldale Avenue in Los Angeles. He stayed there for six years, working as a store butcher, but in 1931, at the age of 50, contracted tuberculosis and was admitted to the IOF sanatorium north of L.A. and remained there the rest of his life, dying in 1951 at the age of 70. He never remarried and never had children.

His remains were buried in the San Gabriel foothills in a cemetery close to the sanatorium.

Though my father was named after him, LP apparently wasn’t a presence in my dad’s life. My dad grew up and lived in Detroit; LP was on the west coast. My grandfather Herman probably looked up to his older brother LP as a role model when growing up, but after Herman started a family of his own he moved back to Detroit from L.A. and I don’t know if they stayed in touch.

Though LP didn’t have descendants, his name lived on through my father, and because of that he hasn’t been forgotten by his great-nieces and nephew. Visiting his grave this year, I was struck by how peaceful and scenic his final resting place is in the steeply rolling hills. It’s a fitting end to a man who seemed imperturbable in the face of a harsh life.

Leonard’s grave at Glen Haven Memorial Park