The Merry Inn Bar

My father told me his Aunt Eva James Burns and her husband Ralph Burns had their hands in many businesses. Ralph was invited to drive in the opening parade of the Mackinaw Bridge, the bridge that connects the lower and upper peninsulas of Michigan, because his company supplied concrete materials that were used to build it.

Ralph Burns’s obituary* states that he retired from Catsman, which was a conglomerate “of real estate, coal, fuel oil and concrete companies” owned by millionaire Samuel Catsman. I would assume this is the company that supplied concrete to build the Mackinaw Bridge but I have not verified.

The Burnses had a small conglomeration of their own, investing in a market, restaurants, and bars around the Flint area. Here is Aunt Eva at the MerryInn Bar that had been on Franklin Street. It became a gay bar with the same name in the early 2000s.

*Obituary of Robert Burns, Flint Journal (Flint, MI), 26 Nov 1987, personal records.

T. S. Kelly Feted Sunday

The mundane news items small-town papers used to print make me laugh sometimes, but this was a lovely find. To be surrounded by three generations of family and many, many cakes sounds like a wonderful 83rd birthday to me. He must have been very loved.

T. S. (Thomas Sherman) Kelley is the brother of my great-grandmother, Martha Kelley James, who had passed in 1937. The Mrs Carl Homan mentioned at the end of the article is my grand-aunt.

“T.S. Kelly Feted Sunday,” Council Bluffs Nonpariel (Council Bluffs, IA), 11 Oct 1949, p 10, col 5. Accessed on
T.S. Kelly feted Sunday

Sunday afternoon in the T S Kelly home in Glendale acres, Mr Kelly was honored at a post birthday anniversary dinner party. He noted his 83rd birthday anniversary on Oct 5.

A basket dinner was served at 1 o clock to more than 40 guests seated at two long tables. The tables were centered with decorated birthday cakes.

Attending besides his children, were nine grandchildren, 13 great grandchildren and special guests were his brother and sister in law Mr and Mrs J H O Kelly and his nieces, Mrs Carl Homan and daughter, Nancy.

War Injuries

The following [WARNING] anatomically explicit and graphic document resulted in the money that my 3rd great-grandfather, Thomas Wilson, would use to move his family from Canandaiga, New York, to a farm he purchased in central Michigan. He built a farm that supported his son, his grandson, and his great-granddaughter who was also my grandmother. The farm was sold, and his descendants moved to the largest town east.

ACT JULY 14, 1862
Brief in case of Thomas Wilson, A Priv[ate] of Company L, 24 Regiment, N[ew] Y[ork] Cav[alr]y
Post Office Address of Applicant:
Gypsum, Ontario Co, NY
Enlisted Jany 18, 1864, Discharged July 14, 1865
Declaration and Identification in Due Form
1 Rolls say wounded July 9/[18]64
2 Capt while in service certifies to gen of right thigh, received in the trenches before Petersburg from a shot by the enemy July 9/64

3 Dr Chapin, July 19/67 finds gsn of right thigh splintering the bone, passing across pubis of right side and out through cellular tissue and substance of penis at the root. Urine passed through the opening. The consists of injury of muscles inserted at the pubis rotating the leg and inability to retain urine more than one or two hours. Too much lameness to allow work of more than half a day.

Admitted M[ar]ch 11, 1867 to a Pension of 4.00 per month, commencing July 14th, 1865.

[Thomas Wilson’s Civil War military records, author’s personal files, received from NARA, Oct 2011.]

Honestly, I could have lived without knowing that about my forefather’s reproductive parts, but the description certainly demonstrates the terrible wounds Civil War soldiers had to endure if they were lucky enough not to die on the battlefield. Imagine the number of soldier’s that came through hospitals with similar injuries.

Life Goes On

I ventured into the 1950 census for the first time today. I jumped around different states before I decided that the most fruitful search I could start at this early point in the process was to look at records from my hometown.

While looking for family, I found Myron Bueche, the owner of my local grocery store chain; Esther Way, the former high school music teacher whose portrait was stolen my senior year; Marion Crouse, the board of education president and person for whom an elementary school was named; Earl Partridge, the man for which the street I grew up on was named; Jennie Bump, my grandaunt and the local florist; and many familiar last names such as Scharrer, Gillam, and Breiler, whose descendants would become my neighbors, fellow class members, and friends.

I also found close family members, and learned how their lives had carried on after the last census. The first close family record I found struck me.

Accessed through Record details at the top of the photo.

In 1950, my great-grandparents Fred and Minnie Porterfield Wilson were taking care of their grandchildren, Don and Ralph Keller. I had known that their parents and sisters had been killed in a horrific car accident just three years before, but I hadn’t considered where the sons had landed after they recovered physically.

I’m not surprised that Fred and Minnie took them in, of course. But having not known them personally, this information tells me more about the kind of people they were. At retirement age, they took on the task of raising their daughter’s boys, helping them through tragedy and rehabilitation. Giving the boys hope and stability after terrible losses so early in life.

This census record is just a reminder that I come from good people. And that these words on paper cannot possibly contain the fragile emotions in that household at the time.

Olivia or Lavinia?

My 2nd great-grandmother’s name is different in almost every record in which she appears.

“Four Pioneer Residents Dead,” The Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, IA), 7 Feb 1917, p.5, col. 5. Accessed on
1913 Council Bluffs, Iowa, City Directory. Accessed on
Iowa, U.S. Marriage Records, 1880-1945, for Lena James and Samuel Hurd, Year 1893, Vol 370 (Keokuk-Ringgold). Accessed on

Lavina, Lavinia, Lovina, Levina, Lena, Olivina, Olla, Olive, Olivar, and the inscrutable “M”. I eventually found a newspaper article that may account for the inconsistent names.

“Mrs. Louis Clayton James,” The Daily Nonpareil (Council Bluffs, Iowa), 6 May 1890. Accessed on

Though the reporter gives some color to my great-grandmother’s words for dramatic effect here, it’s probably safe to assume she didn’t talk like the Queen of England. Based off this description, the assorted clerks and census takers writing down her name had a hard time figuring out what she said.

I got a clearer idea of her name when I received her death certificate.

State of Iowa Certification of Vital Record ordered through the Pottawattamie County Department of Health. Personal records.

I know it’s hard to make out, but according to her daughter, Mamie Greer, her name was Olivia. Viewing mentions of her in newspapers and city directories throughout the years, she was either Olivia L or some spelling variation of Lavina O.

The Woman Who Died More Than Once (Updated)

For a few reasons, I’m thinking about relatives I’ve never met. This post is an updated version of a post from 2015 about my grandmother, Mary Louise Romine.

In 1951, my father was 7 years old and his brother and sister, the twins, were 6. They were living in Vassar, Michigan, and then Millington. Mary Lou worked as a cook in a restaurant; their father Ralph worked as a bartender. They both drank a lot.

Because of their work schedules, Mary Lou had family friends take care of them. A little babysitting became a lot of babysitting. Those friends got tired of taking care of them, so the kids were shipped to their Aunt Eva’s house. She took care of them until one day Ralph picked them up and took them for ice cream at Harriman’s Dairy. After that, he dropped them off at the juvenile home. Most likely it was a legal arrangement the kids weren’t aware of.

Eventually, social workers placed the kids in three different houses full of strangers: foster families. I imagine on his third or fourth night in the new house my dad realized his parents weren’t coming back for him. That was Mary Lou’s first death.

In 1983 or so, a call from a stranger marked Mary Lou’s second death. It went something like this:

“This is [my dad’s] Aunt Loretta,” a woman said by way of a greeting. “I’m calling to tell him his mother is sick with cancer and is asking for him. She doesn’t have much time left.”

“I’m sorry to hear that, but where was she all the time [my dad] wanted and needed her?” my mom said. Mom had known Dad since high school, so she knew the family history.

“Oh, I don’t know nothing about that! Will you tell him?”

Mom agreed. Later, Dad said he hadn’t known he’d had an Aunt Loretta. From then on, Dad believed his mother was gone. Mary Lou’s second death.

In 1989, another phone call. No one remembers who told him she had died, either his half-sister Delana or her daughter. It went something like this:

“Hello, this is your sister/niece.”

“What can I do for you?”

“I thought you should know your mother died last night.”

“Thanks for telling me. I’m sorry for the people who care for her, but I am not one of them. Goodbye.”

In 2013, I connected with a relative of his sister and niece on Facebook. We got together for dinner one night. I was nervous; she was the first relative on that side of my family I had ever met. I wanted it to go well. I wanted her to answer questions I’ve had simply with her presence. At some point during dinner, I started describing my dad, her grand-uncle, but she stopped me mid-sentence. She told me she’d met my dad at a wake, Dad’s mother’s, in 1989. I didn’t know he’d gone to her funeral.

My mind reeled to think what I was doing that day. I would have been 15, preoccupied by marching band practices and pool parties at friends’ houses. Too young to understand his need to leave his past alone, to give his sons a less complicated family life.

I know facts about my grandmother now. I know Mary Lou was born in Parma, Missouri, in 1918. She was the oldest daughter of Clayton Romine and Elizabeth Lewis. She married Del Smith in Missouri in 1934 and had three children. She moved to Flint, Michigan, sometime around 1940 and eventually became the head cook of Higgins Restaurant on Corunna Road. She had three more children with my grandfather, Ralph James. She was with Rollie Fletcher and James Harvey as well. She died on November 18, 1989, near Otisville, Michigan, and she was buried near Clio.

From r to l: Mary Lou, Delana Smith, Nathaniel Lewis, Donna Smith, child, Elizabeth Lewis, child

I’ve been given pictures of her. She is the woman on the far left of the picture in the polka dot dress. She is the woman who died not twice, but three times. She is the woman who profoundly hurt my father, but she is also the woman who directly shaped my father’s attitude toward his own family, made him want the opposite of what he had. She is a key reason I had a stable and loving childhood, and for that I begrudgingly thank her.





Family Coincidences

I’ve been reviewing my records for my mother’s sister, my Aunt Marilyn, lately because we sadly lost her earlier this year. My mother wrote a beautiful tribute of her life, so this post will not be a complete profile. It’s probably been ten years since I last looked through this stuff and I was surprised to discover a coincidence between my aunt and me.

Marilyn Jane Harburn was born in Flint, Michigan, on July 16, 1935 to Nelson Harburn and Bernice Wilson.

She lived in Flushing, a suburb of Flint, throughout her childhood but moved to Chicago briefly after school. While there she married Jim Plainer in November 1955.

US Presbyterian Church Records 1701-1970, Illinois, Chicago, Lake View Presbyterian Church, 1891-1970. Accessed on 2 Apr 2022

All of that I knew before, but I don’t think I’d ever really looked at her wedding register. Her home address — 3531 Broadway — is included on it. I’m very familiar with that street as I’ve lived in Chicago for 20 years now, so I looked up that address.

Chicago – Google Maps

Turns out her apartment (A on the map) and the church she got married in (B) are just around the corner from my first apartment in the city (C). In fact, the grocery store that now stands where her apartment was is where I shopped for the four years I lived on Waveland. I had no idea until yesterday of that coincidence.

Even more of a coincidence, I have a good friend who is very involved in First Presbyterian today.

What are the chances that we both moved to the same neighborhood of a large city in another state 45 years apart?

My mom, my grandma, and Aunt Marilyn circa 1979

A Career of a Lifetime

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when someone could start a career after high school and stay with that career until retirement. I say that because I’m in my mid-40s and am going on Career Change #3 due to rapidly changing technology. Career longevity just isn’t as easy to attain or as respected today.

Clearly that wasn’t the case for my maternal 2nd great-granduncle, Samuel Porterfield. He was a farmer in Shiawassee County, Michigan, when he married his first wife, Abbie Niver, in 1887. He and Abbie had a daughter soon after, but unfortunately Abbie passed away in 1895.

By the time Samuel remarried in 1896, he was a minister in Elsie, Michigan. From there, his family transferred between several Free Methodist churches around the Lansing area, and even back to Sanilac County where he had been born in 1866. He was appointed briefly to a church in Flint, but seemd to stick mostly to small towns. I know today pastors have little say in which church they are sent, but I’m not sure how it worked then.

Going through the records of the larger Porterfield clan, it’s clear the family expected his nieces and nephews to be married by him. He married my great-grandparents, Fred Wilson and Minnie Porterfield, in 1906 even though he lived three counties away at the time.

The Flint Daily Journal (Flint, Michigan), 28 Aug 1916, p 9, col 1

In 1935 he was the pastor at a church in Macomb County, Michigan. But by 1940, the reverend was retired and living in Clinton County where I believe he began his career. He died just four years later at the age of 78.

Rev Samuel Porterfield and Mrs. Bina Porterfield, circa 1930

That’s over 40 years of serving various communities from the age of about 22 to 69. I can’t imagine having the same job for that long. I admire his dedication and how he clearly knew what he wanted to do from a young age.