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.