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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Throughout my research, I try to keep in mind that the lines on maps were just fields, lakes, and rivers to our ancestors. Not every significant boundary was marked with a Welcome To or a Now Entering sign back then. Crossing a boundary was just taking another step in a long journey.
By the same token, national identity, in some cases, was just a matter of which part of their lives our ancestors decided to cling to, past or present. Did a person’s national identity change as soon as they crossed the border? What about after they live in a new country for 10 years? Twenty years? At what point does an ancestor claim their new nation?
Take my Porterfield ancestors.
In the 1940 census toward the end of his life, George Porterfield, my 2nd great-grandfather, lived in Flushing, Michigan. He is listed as having been born in Canada, his father in Scotland, his mother in Canada. The citizenship column on the census indicates that he was naturalized as an American at some point. So I guess he was Canadian with some Scottish influences.
In the 1870 census, George was living with his family in Sanilac County, Michigan, across Lake Huron from Ontario. He was 11 years old at the time. His father Charles Porterfield reported that they emigrated from Canada around 1864 when George was 5, and that Charles himself had emigrated from Lanarkshire, Scotland, when he was 20 or so. He was a Scot living in America via Canada. His son George probably had little memory of Canada. So then he was American with strong Scottish ties.
George’s mother, Sarah Peasley Porterfield, passed in 1912 in Shiawassee County, Michigan. On her death certificate, she is listed as being born in Canada, likely near London, Ontario, but her father William Peasley was born in New York and her mother Delilah Pear Peasley was born in Vermont. So I guess Sarah identified as Canadian with strong American influences.
Looking further back, the Peasley line was living near Salem, Massachusetts, at the time of the witch trials. My 7th great-grandfather John Peasley married Mary Weed Martin, the granddaughter of Susanna North Martin, who was executed as a witch in 1692. That’s 4 generations of American ancestors before Sarah Peasley and her family settled in Canada. I’d bet they identified as American.
Looking at this line, I wonder if the Peasley-Porterfields ever considered themselves Canadian. Yes, Sarah was born in Canada but her parents had long histories in New England. She married a Scottish immigrant. And they had children in Canada but they didn’t stay long enough for any of them, including my direct ancestor George, to remember.
Their time there seems more like a blip. An effect of geography: Ontario lies between New England and Michigan, so in order to get to Michigan the family had to plant themselves temporarily in Canada.
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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This is Part 4 of my series of interconnected short stories about my grandparents’ wedding day. You can start from the beginning here, but you don’t have to do all that reading to follow along in this story.
Nelson had wanted his brother’s shop in Flint– the one he helps out at– to provide the flowers for today, but decided to ask his sister, Jennie, to fill the order instead. Her shop was much closer. She and Merrill ran the large greenhouses just over on Coutant Street in town. His brother got his flowers from Merrill, so either way Nelson was still supporting his family’s small empire of dirt and bulbs.
He imagined his sister earlier this morning, her hair hanging loose and inches above her narrow shoulders. The bob she wore remaining perfectly quaffed despite the hard labor required of her job. Every day, she wore her uniform of a simple white cotton blouse and a powder blue A-line skirt around the shop–presentable, but easily washed when the inevitable dousing of water or dirt occurred.
Nelson knew his older sister’s routine. She surely would have helped her husband with the day’s load and it would be a large one today being so close to Mother’s Day. She would put the flowers he had purchased in the space behind the driver’s seat, so she could check on them from the passenger’s seat, making sure they didn’t tip on the ride over. Then she and Merrill would fill up the truck with the rest of the orders. Knowing Jennie she hummed a hymn as Merrill drove them to each stop, and, eventually, to Minnie and Fred’s home tucked back from the road where Nelson stood now.
As Nelson walked closer to the kitchen, the combination of smells of the flowers, whatever was cooking in the oven, and his own nervousness made him feel sick to his stomach. He stepped through the narrow threshold of Minnie’s kitchen, the cloying aroma of flowers fell away to a thick smell of ham. He saw the backside of a man, Minnie’s father, stooped over the oven door, basting the ham with either pale maple syrup or dark pineapple juice. Nelson said hello and then wondered if he should start calling the older man Pawpaw like Bernice did. But, Mr. Porterfield . . . Pawpaw being 74 with ears to match didn’t hear him. Nelson knocked on the counter to announce his arrival in the room. Pawpaw turned his head to the left, gave a quick nod to Nelson, and went right back to ladling juices over the ham using a large wooden spoon.
“Grab me a knife, young man, would you? Before my daughter walks in and insists each part of this hog go into separate tins!” In order to hear himself, Pawpaw tended to shout. Pawpaw? MisterPawpaw? He felt absurd even thinking about calling another man Pawpaw.
“I was just wondering, sir, if you had any preferences on what I should call you. That is, now that I’ll be a part of your family.”
“Yes! It’s the second drawer to the left of the sink!” Pawpaw said, pointing to the only drawer that was ajar in a horizontal row of identical white drawers.
Nelson opened the drawer further to find long, thin cracker tins wedged neatly into one another in order to fit the space. None of the tins had lids, but every last one of them was full to brimming with silverware, sorted according to their use. It looked like one of those children’s games where a picture is cut up into squares with one piece missing and you’re supposed to move the pieces around until the picture is whole again. The empty space in the drawer contained a small rolling pin. He found the carving knife in a tin along the left of the drawer.
After carefully handing off the knife to the other man, Nelson looked around the rest of the large kitchen. He’d been in the house twice before—to plan for the wedding and to bring his and Bernice’s parents together to meet—but he was struck again by the conscripted order of the room. He knew if he were to open the steel cupboards he would find a similar display of perfectly aligned coffee and cookie tins spaced evenly apart. He knew this because his mother had asked Minnie about her caliber of cleanliness when they had visited. Minnie just said it was the only way she could think of to “ward off her husband’s tendency toward clutter” and looked over at her husband with a playful air. To which Mr. Wilson, in his low growl of a voice, responded, “Don’t let her fool you; she’d never tolerate being married to an untidy man.”
Minnie’s smile stretched to her dimples as she said, “It’s true. Fred comes back behind me and cleans up what I missed.” Then she placed her hand on his forearm and moved the conversation toward the new pastor of their church. Later that night, after the dishes were washed and the playing cards were put back in Fred’s rolltop desk, after the Harburns said their thank yous and their goodbyes, after they got in the car waving to their hosts on the porch, Nelson’s mother leaned back toward Nelson and marvelled out of the corner of her mouth about the time and energy it must take that couple to maintain the pristine condition of the old porcelain sink or the perfect bunting-shape of the tea towels on the rack underneath it.
And today standing in the middle of it once again, Nelson thought, the towels, the sink, the whole kitchen looked as if it hadn’t been used since that day months ago, except for one glaring difference: the cutting board on the hoosier bowed under the burden of plate upon plate of cakes, cookies, and tarts.