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.
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.
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.
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?
There was a time when every sports page in Michigan splashed the uncommon name Harburn across its front page. My granduncle, Ivan, was the amateur champion.
Ivan represented an amateur boxing club in Flint that was somehow affiliated with the auto factories. He was the featherweight champion for all of 1933, appearing in over 30 newspapers around the state. But his reign was to be short-lived.
The idea of a Harburn man fighting confused me at first. I don’t remember the Harburn men being especially brawny. I know from naturalization papers and draft cards that none of the Harburn brothers were taller than 5’8” or weighed more than 150 lbs.
(All images from the Detroit Free Press, 19 Feb 1933 through 8 Feb 1934, accessed through newspapers.com 19 Feb 2022)
I don’t know the stories of most of the family photos I have because my father didn’t know his family. My mother’s family were the stoic Midwestern types who didn’t linger much in the past. And my mother was born late in my grandparents’ lives so by the time she was interested in family history and genealogy, many of the older generations were gone.
For that reason, going through Mom’s family albums or discovering pictures on the Internet of Dad’s family always involves some sort of filling in the blanks on who is in it, where and when it was taken, and why.
I like it because it feels like a lot of convincing happened before the camera clicked. Jane’s If-I-Have-To look and William’s self-conscious stance.
I also like it because they look so modest and genuine. It’s like they were comfortably visiting with the camera person, who I imagine was one of their ten children, maybe having some nice potato salad, talking about the doings of the last church social, and then a camera is pulled out and Jane pulls her cardigan a little tighter around her shoulders before heaping her hands in her lap, and William seems to be waiting for the click so he can go grab the last piece of Apple Brown Betty sitting on the far picnic table.
As far as when and where it was taken, all I have are educated guesses. William passed in 1940 at the age of 73, and he seems solidly in his late sixties here, so I think this was taken sometime in the 1930s. They seem to be sitting in a park. The background of the photo slopes up. At the time they lived in Flushing, Michigan, a suburb of Flint, which happens to be my hometown. The only park I know with a rise like that is Flushing County Park near the high school.
Based on their clothing, this might be a get-together after church. William made his living in dirt and gardens; he grew and sold flowers to the florist shops in town, several of which were owned by his children at various points. My point is if this were a casual social event he’d be wearing overalls. Jane is wearing a thick cardigan, but the trees behind them are robust with leaves, so perhaps it is late April or early May.
Like I said, it’s a guessing game. Those I could ask are long gone, unfortunately. Still, the photo does a good job of providing clues.
Lately I’ve noticed my grandpa following me on my walks. I see him lurking in gardens and near trees in my neighborhood. He likes to show himself just as I’m walking out of the halo cast by street lights.
And then I remember I’m wearing my Grandpa hat.
Two summers ago, during the fever dream that was the beginning of the pandemic, I stumbled into a real brick-and-mortar haberdasher in Traverse City, Michigan, and couldn’t resist the chance to reinvent myself. At first, I only considered buying familiar types of hats: baseball caps and beanies.
Those types of hats are for fuddy-duddies, I thought, looking at an aisle of fedoras, homburgs, and pork pies. Well, 47 isn’t exactly young.
A half hour later, a taller hat, dark gray, wool, with a short brim that flipped up in the back caught my eye. A trilby hat. It was more slick somehow than a common fedora, which sits low and has a thicker brim comparatively. I liked the cut of its jib. After buying it and bringing it home, it sat at the top of my closet for a year until one night early last month. I wouldn’t say it was raining exactly; it was somewhere between a mist and a spray. I needed something to keep my hair dry and the rain out of my eyes. Then I remembered the trilby.
I take walks right after work, and it gets dark in Chicago by 4:30 pm in December so the streetlights were shining bright that night. I passed under one and my shadow stretched out across my neighbors’ yards. The shape of my hat on top of my shadow comforted me. But I didn’t know why.
After a few more walks, I realized the hat topping my shadow reminded me of my grandpa, Nelson Harburn. We have similar body types, though I’m a bit taller. According to my cousins, I even look like him. But that’s not why I was comforted.
The thing is Grandpa H passed away when I was four. I have memories of him wearing hats at church, but can I trust them? I don’t actually know if he wore hats, let alone the trilby I am associating with him. But on that walk his memory came to me immediately. You know? I hadn’t thought of him in weeks and then I see my shadow and a warmth spread through my body.
Maybe my association of the hat to him is the kind of fused-together memory that happens when impressions of people are based on photographs. Like, I saw so many photos of my grandpa wearing trilbies that it was easy for my memory to plop them onto his head.
Or maybe, as the photo suggests, he didn’t wear hats at all. Maybe trilbies remind me of him because they are a symbol of his generation. As one of the few family members I’ve actually met, he is a foundation of all who came before him for me. Maybe I just needed to attribute something to him, and why not a hat? He was born in 1901, and the trilby was a popular hat for men of his age to wear during the 1960s and 70s. If my memory is correct, the photos I would have used to build my memories of him would have been taken in the 60s and 70s. It makes a sort of sense.
In any case, it was nice to feel him with me on that cold night in this isolating time. I keep wearing the hat on my walks, wind permitting, as an invitation for him to join me. As long as it sparks my memory, I suppose it doesn’t matter much if he wore one.
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