Many of my Harburn relatives got married in Angola, Indiana, in the early 1900s. As life-long residents of Flint, Michigan, I always wondered why my grandparents and their siblings drove the two hours through southern Michigan, crossed the border, and got hitched in the furthest northeastern corner of Indiana.
It was especially bewildering because my grandparents, according to all sources, were not travelers. They moved exactly twice while they were married: from a farm into town, then down the street. They liked their town, church, neighbors, and home just fine. Thank you very much.
I’m sure I’m behind the times here, but I just learned about Gretna Green marriages, also known as marriage mills. Named after a town just over the English border in Scotland, Gretna Green became a haven for young English couples who did not want to jump through the hoops the English parliament made young couples jump through, including waiting x amount of time and spending x amount of money at the church for the ceremony. Scotland, on the other hand, allowed simple ceremonies with little political bureaucracy to hinder young lovers.
After I learned the term, I looked up “Gretna Green locations in the United States” and discovered that Angola was a common marriage location for people in southern Michigan. In fact, by the 1950s, Steuben County, where Angola is located, was issuing 1,000 more marriage licenses a year than Marion County, where Indianapolis is located.
Now my grandfather was 33-years-old when he married it 1934, working in his parents’ florist shops. My grandmother was a school teacher. I don’t think they were hurting for cash so much as wanting a quiet and simple ceremony. They had a huge family. Having known them personally, I can’t imagine they’d have wanted a big fuss.
Sources: 1. HistoricUK.com. [https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofScotland/Gretna-Green/: Accessed on 15 Jul 2020. 2. Indiana Genealogy Society, Publications. [http://www.indgensoc.org/publications/email_alerts/2018/2018_02.pdf: Accessed on 15 Jul 2020] 3. Nelson Harburn and Bernice Wilson marriage certificate. Indiana, Marriages, 1811-1959, Steuben: 1934-1934, Volume23, Image 78 of 324. Accessed on FamilySearch.org 19 Jul 2020.
When I started my family research in 2009, it was all lopsided. My mother’s family had annual reunions and shared churches and a huge piece of paper with all of our names on it in trim little boxes. I remember one year at the family reunion someone had tacked up the family tree on a wall of the church’s banquet room. Photos of most of the family were taped up next to their entry on the tree. I watched as my relatives would bring their son or granddaughter to the chart and show them the box in which their name was written and then trace their branch up the chart. Inevitably, they would turn to the room, and the older person would point at various people the child knew and tell them their relationship.
“That’s your great-aunt Margaret, Nicky. She’s your papa’s sister. See her over in the flowered dress talking to daddy?”
It was nice. If anyone felt insecure about their place in the family, they could look to the large tree drawn on the wall and know that they belong. It felt as if the ties between us were tangled beneath the grid of tables filling the room.
My favorite photos of them are of when they were young. Seeing my grandparents, my aunt and uncle, my parents before kids and divorces and funerals. All of the lifetimes they had before I knew them.
That was my mother’s side. The known side. My father’s side was hazier.
Dad grew up in foster care from age 8. He knew his brother, sister, half-sisters and half-brother, parents, aunts, and uncles lived in town, but he also knew he barely spoke to any of them, let alone lived with them. He knew his mother’s last name because it was written on his birth certificate. (We would later discover that last name was incorrect.) There were no photographs of these people, no stories. Occasionally Dad would mention something about his childhood—how his mom made the best blackberry cobbler or how the horses at the job he held in high school always seemed to buck when it was his turn to clean their stables, but he never lingered long in those memories.
I started researching his family with very little to go on. The first names of his mother and siblings. Found out dad had close family members living all around where he grew up. Found out I had deep roots in two unfamiliar states: Iowa and Missouri. I was lucky there was a huge network of researchers on that side of my family who posted to Ancestry. It didn’t take long for me to discover photos of my grandparents.
That first glimpse was a lightning strike. There was no doubt they were family. Seeing their familiar faces was like meeting ghosts who had haunted my childhood home. I even found a photograph of my dad as a boy. In all the shuffling around of his childhood, he hadn’t held onto his keepsakes.
These are my favorite photos of my dad’s side. The unknown side. That light I’d felt when I’d seen my grandparents’ faces and recognized my dad, my brothers, myself in them is what keeps me researching my family tree.
(The featured photo of this post is my maternal grandfather (in the hat) with his younger brothers, c. 1918.)
It seems like at the end of every episode of Finding Your Roots or Who Do You Think You Are? each guest tells the host or the person holding the camera that they have a different sense of themselves after finding out they are Arcadian or they are related to William the Conqueror. It’s my favorite part of the show because I came to those same conclusions, although there were no cameras to capture it. I felt that same inner light when I learned who my people were and how I got here. A certain kind of relief comes with the knowledge that who you are isn’t entirely your responsibility, that the chapter you are writing of your life isn’t the first in the book.
I definitely started my own research looking for my place, trying to find out where I belonged, and I quickly learned that I owe my entire existence to Henry Ford. Before the auto industry, my foreparents were scattered in Upstate New York, Ontario, the boot-heel of Missouri, and Council Bluffs, Iowa.
My New York relatives, the Wilsons, were the first to settle near Flint. They were farmers who were pushed out of the Rochester, New York, area due to a population boom and a land shortage. Thomas Wilson moved his family to New Lothrop, Michigan, using the money he received fighting and being injured in the Civil War. By 1920, all of his grandsons were employed in the factories or in auto-related businesses in Flint.
The Harburns, my Canadian family, immigrated to Flint in 1919. Having been farmers of flowers in Hensall, Ontario, they moved to Flint to become the official florists of the Ford Motor Company. It was just after Teddy Roosevelt and his conservationist movement took hold in the United States. The auto industry was getting flak from residents of the city for polluting the Flint River. Ford Motor Company hired my family to refute the conservationists’ claims. The Harburns were given a deal on a small white house just a little downriver from a car plant and grew the flowers for the company’s corporate events. The company hoped to prove the purity of the river with my family’s success. Unfortunately, it worked. Growing up, I only associate that river with stink. Swimming there was always considered a feat of daring; eating fish from there was downright nuts.
My Missouri folks, the Romines, had been struggling for decades to make a living by farming near Parma and Malden. It was the Depression when my 2nd great-grandfather moved up to Flint because of Ford’s promise of jobs. Once my 2nd great-grandfather was established, my great-grandfather followed, leaving behind his young family and marrying his second wife. Abandoned by her father, my grandmother left her own family in Missouri to find her dad. This abandonment was the end (thankfully!) of a long pattern in the Romine line.
The Jameses had been living in Council Bluffs, Iowa, since the 1870s. All but two of the eight siblings stayed there. My grandfather followed his older sister to Flint in 1941 after going through a bitter divorce and being fired from his job as county engineer in FDR’s Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). His sister owned several bars in Flint, and he was made a bartender in one of them. That’s how he met my grandmother, who worked as a cook in a restaurant that catered mostly to factory workers.
Henry Ford. As far as I know, I have no relation to him, but he was absolutely responsible for putting my grandparents in the same place at the same time. Before learning this, I’d never thought twice about cars or the role the grubby factories we passed along the highway played in the history of my family and virtually every other family near me.
The first time I traveled to a different country I was a junior in high school. Friends had decided they’d rather take the train from Flint, Michigan, to Toronto, Canada, than rent formal wear and a limo and go to prom and invited me to come with.
Being a geography nerd, I fantasized about the trip in the weeks before we left. The only Canadian I’d met before was my grandfather (but he’d been an apple-pie-eating American for decades by the time I came around) so my imagination went wild. I learned from an episode of the Brady Bunch that Hawaiians welcomed travelers with a garland of flowers. So I figured a similar ceremony would greet me when we crossed the border: mounties knighting me with hockey sticks, customs agents anointing me with maple syrup, a dexterous moose pinning a maple leaf brooch on my REM sweat shirt; that sort of thing. I was pretty disappointed when we crossed the St. Clair River and I didn’t even hear a cheer.
The greeting came after we stepped off the train. Hello, strange money. Hello, taxi drivers whipping down Yonge Street using the “wrong” lane. Bonjour French words burbling at the bottoms of signs. When we arrived at the subway station, a man standing on a milk crate was spouting off about the evils of America to anyone who would listen. The Greedy States of America, he’d said, lewdly rubbing his fingers and thumbs together. I pulled my jacket a little tighter as I walked with my friends past the train station pundit, through the crowded platform, and toward the first subway station I’d ever encountered. That was the moment I first realized I had transformed into a capital-F Foreigner. How I had become something so political and mysterious just by sitting on a train playing cards mystified me.
We struggled—my friends and I—to follow the instructions written on the subway fare machine even though they were in English. After a while, a man in a beret approached us: “I can see you are in need of some orientation.” He enunciated each word, then he explained in a very practiced way how to buy a ticket and board the right train.
After a short subway ride, we found our hotel and proceeded to ramble around the city for the next four days completely in awe at the cultural differences we saw. Those differences were, of course, minute—only impressive to a group of 17 year olds who had never known another way of life.
On Sunday we found ourselves stepping into a train on another smoky platform. I felt like I was boarding a spaceship to go home and tell my people all the wonders I’d seen.
I didn’t know it at the time, but my grandfather Nelson Harburn and his large family had made the same journey to Flint on a Grand Trunk train 70-odd years before me. The difference was that they had birdcages and trunks, hat boxes and linens with them. They were crossing the St. Clair River for good.
Up until the day they left, the boys in the family had worked in the fields around their house in Hensall, Ontario, to keep the farm going for the new owners. Meanwhile, the women packed up the house, emptied the cellar, and sold the furniture. I imagine they talked about their new lives in the city as they worked. When the family came together for dinner, the women asked the older brothers, who had visited Flint before, to tell them again about the car traffic, the groceries, the department stores.
George, the oldest Harburn sibling, and his new wife were waiting in a little white house for their arrival. Flint, at the time, was a burgeoning industrial hub thanks to the automobile industry. Factory managers practically hired men off the street. My great-grandfather William was probably the one who’d contacted General Motors. In 1919, the conservation legacy of nature lover Theodore Roosevelt still dominated, and the auto industry was in trouble over air pollution. William Harburn farmed and distributed flowers for a living. He or George negotiated a deal to start a farm across the river from the main factory to prove there was no environmental threat. In addition, the Harburns offered their flower inventory to the company’s many social events and landscaping needs. GM agreed, giving them land and a company house.
The new home had only three bedrooms, but the Harburns didn’t complain. They arrived in Flint excited all the same. Imagine 12 people—two married couples!—crammed into a house in the city. Imagine all of the cultural differences the family would have encountered all at once: Canadian to American, country to city, independent to corporate.
And the Harburns, relatively speaking, had it easy. They arrived with a house and a purpose. They spoke the language. They had the safety of their motherland waiting just across the river with open arms.
Click here to see a copy of the record immigration officials took the day my grandfather arrived in Flint.
All relevant sources can be found here.
A short biography of my grandfather can be found here.
My grandpa slid me a paper plate
of peanut butter and pickle
sandwiches so I sassed back butter you can’t cook like Grandma
He grinned like a pack
of wolves, dumped it
in my lap
and growled butter Tough
Grandpa Harburn (in hat) and his little brothers, about 1920 in Canada
The Harburn clan in 1925 in Flint, MI: Grandpa (back row, 2nd from right)
Grandpa and Grandma on their wedding day near New Lothrop, MI, May 5, 1934
The only grandfather I knew passed away in 1978 when I wasn’t quite 4-years-old. As with most people’s childhood memories, I have doubt as to whether what I remember of him is true or whether I fabricated him from the family stories I’ve heard.
I am confident I attended his funeral. I was too young to understand what was happening, but I remember my mother sobbing next to me; I’d never seen her so upset. I grabbed a tissue from my tiny suit jacket and offered it to her. She smiled sadly as she took it. That smile told me what I needed to know to feel safe again.
Memories of Grandpa that I’m not sure about:
Grandpa sitting in his recliner near the living room window reading a newspaper. Lawrence Welk waved his baton on the tv, his trademark bubbles falling diagonally across the screen. Grandma was shouting accusations at him about not cleaning up after himself. She did not see him roll his eyes, turn down his hearing aid, smirk at me, and go back to reading.
I was spinning around on a merry-go-round in the park near their little house with the car port in town. My brother was eating an enormous scoop of ice cream that was seconds from falling into the dirt. Years later, my brother confirmed that Grandpa took us to the park after church most Sundays as an excuse to buy us ice cream cones without my mother knowing. Mom didn’t like us to have sweets.
Grandpa and Grandma in their kitchen arguing over whether my brothers and I wanted pickles with our peanut butter sandwiches: Grandpa for, Grandma against. He cut our sandwiches on the diagonal and used a brand of peanut butter that had a logo of a boy with a pompadour and freckles. I still cut my sandwiches diagonally in his honor.
These memories probably make Grandpa sound more mischievous than he was. Grandpa was a quiet, humble man most of the time. His parents owned a farm just outside my hometown in Michigan where they grew flowers for florist shops. Before the 12 of them immigrated across the St. Clair River in 1919 my great-grandfather owned another flower farm near Hensall, Ontario. Flowers were the family business until auto factories in the area started hiring in droves.
Mom loved visiting her grandparents’ (my great-grandparents’) farm. She remembers watching the fish in the man-made pond at the side of the house. She loved the sight of the differently colored flowers in the fields.
Every fall, Grandpa dug up his dahlias— his favorite flowers— in the small garden at the back of the house in town and stored them for winter, and every spring he’d bring them back out and replant them. Grandma would see mud tracks leading through the house and out the back door and she’d be livid, yelling that he wouldn’t rest that night until every speck of fertilizer was scrubbed out of her carpet.
James Nelson Harburn left us at the ripe age of 77, but, being his youngest grandchild, I only got 3 years and some odd months with him: not enough time for me to know him well or vice versa. His 114th birthday just passed. Happy birthday, Grandpa! You are remembered and loved.
As much as I dislike cutting off my genealogy addiction, I cut all ties to my websites during the holidays. Sorry Ancestry, Geneanet, and Findmypast; I just don’t have time for all of your glorious info. The practice pads my wallet for the expenses of the season. It doesn’t make sense to pay for a service during a month that I know I won’t use it. (I have 36 Christmas parties and a trip to Tijuana this month! There’s no way I’m getting to research Great-Uncle Pablo.) I’ve also learned that it’s good for me to back out of researching for a while; it often results in my spotting something I hadn’t seen before. But the lack of subscriptions does create a hole in my routine, so I try to focus on chatting with relatives when I see them.
After Thanksgiving dinner this year, my mom brought out her mother’s jewelry box. Inside was a small plastic bag containing my grandfather’s Freemason pin. My brothers and I had no idea he was involved in the Freemasons. Probably like most people, I don’t know exactly what being a Freemason entails, and I haven’t the foggiest what a member in the 1920s like my grandfather would have done as a member. But the revelation made me want to find out! Unfortunately, like I said, I’ve tied myself off of that information, at least until the New Year.
My grandfather’s involvement didn’t last long; my grandmother didn’t cotton to the idea. She thought being a part of an organization that didn’t have Jesus as a central tenet was sacrilegious. So Grandpa stepped down, but kept the pin. I wish I could ask him about it. What he liked about meetings? What different people he met? Would he have even been able to talk about it with me or is it like Fight Club?
For any of you cheap skate genealogists: When you sign-up for a website, put a monthly reminder in the calendar app in your cell phone. Have it remind you about 5 days before your subscription renews each month, that way you can decide if you want to renew or not, and if you decide to cancel the charge can be processed in time not to charge you. Put your username and password in there too!
In the span of a breath, everything changed. The bees chirped. The birds buzzed. And I sat reading a letter next to a gnarled tree. Alone.
I had watched as Eleanor packed our things, only leaving six chickens, the contents of the root cellar, my clothes, and my razor and strop. What precious little I had in my life without them. I held my chin steady as she picked up my youngest, adjusted her bonnet, and walked down the drive. She took my sons and my daughters with her. All ten of them pitied me as they lifted their valises and hefted them onto the stagecoach. I saw a joy inside each of them waiting to be loosed like the voices of a chorus during Easter services. My children were eager to start their adventure.
I picture them as they were in the stagecoach before Charles set the horses in motion. Helen, oblivious, demanded a gum drop and Sarah, my young lady, bent down to Helen’s ear. “Not now,” Sarah whispered. “We’re saying farewell to Papa.” My quiet Aileen held Felix’s hand. Mary Ellen, Langham, and Millicent sat lined up in a row, their legs dangled over the edge of the stagecoach platform. Standing up front, lanky William soothed the horses after the jostling and ruckus of loading their things. I said a silent prayer asking the Lord to watch over each one of them. I knew once they left my sight I was powerless to protect them.
Charles held the reins tightly and gave me his most solemn good-bye. The steeliness in his eyes reassured me that he knew what I expected of him. Man of the house. Settling a family in the frontier wouldn’t be easy, especially without their father; I hoped in that moment that I had sufficiently prepared Charles for the months ahead: the river crossings, the Indians and thieves, the unpredictable weather. All forces set on punishing my loved ones for aspiring to a better life. The thought of it has brought me to my knees more than once these past months.
Eleanor, my faithful wife, was the only one of them that looked peaked. I worried after they departed if I had witnessed the specter of illness on her face. Now, with this first letter, I know what I saw that day wasn’t illness. It was a secret. It was fear.
She had stepped onto the stagecoach that day knowing she was with child. I will meet my new son or daughter when I join them. They arrived the first week of July and I did not lose a one, praise God. Now all that’s left is the selling of the farm, the wait for warmer weather, and my own journey west.
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