Saturday, May 24, 2014

The Children of Charles and Emma Garver

Previously I wrote about Charles and Emma Heilman Garver, my husband’s great-grandparents.  They had nine children, all of whom survived to adulthood, and all but one of whom remained in Michigan for most or all of their lives.  They are shown in this 1930 photo, standing behind their parents:  Alta, John, Bea, Forest, Florence, Roy, Mabel, Walter, and Ray.  I love to trace all the children in a family, not just one.  It’s called “cluster research,” and it gives me a better understanding of the family if I step back and look at the bigger picture...

Walter Garver dug ditches for his father-in-law as a young man—a photo survives.  He and his wife Hazel (Alwood) Garver had fifteen children, fourteen of whom survived to adulthood—one is my mother-in-law.  Walter was a farmer, raising hogs and milking dairy cows, but he also worked for the WPA during the Great Depression on a road-building crew.  He died at age 80, marrying a second time shortly before his death in 1971.

Clara Mabel Garver married Andrew McClellan Leeth when she was 17.  They moved to Colorado at the suggestion of Mac’s doctor, due to Mac’s tuberculosis, but eventually they returned to Michigan.  They had three daughters and a son, and she died in 1969 at age 76.

Forest Garver (pictured below) served in Europe in World War I.  Several photos survive.  On the back of one picture, he calls his flat standard-issue helmet “my little tin lid.”  He later married Aletha Allen and they had three children.  He worked as a repairman in a Flint, Michigan auto factory in 1920, but was a farmer by 1930.  He died in 1978 at age 82.

Florence Garver married Arthur Kever in 1916.  They were dairy farmers and had three daughters.  She died at age 79 in 1976.

John Jacob Garver married Naomi Burton and they had a daughter and a son.  John was a factory worker, and died young—compared to most of his siblings—at age 60, following a heart attack.

Ray Lester Garver drove his sister Clara and brother-in-law Mac to Colorado.  Ray remained there, marrying a Michigan girl named Martha Hutchinson.  He died in Colorado in 1986 at age 84.

Beatrice Garver married John Acre in 1904 when she was 16.  John worked as an auto mechanic.  She and John had two daughters and four sons.  She died in Michigan in 1981 at age 77.

Roy Russell Garver, the youngest son, helped his widowed mother run the farm after his father died in 1931.  But he contracted measles, and the complications that followed took his life.  After he died at age 26 in 1933, his mother was forced to give up the family farm.

Alta Garver, the baby of the family, married James Beattie; it was said in the family that it was love at first sight.  The marriage lasted 63 years.  They had eight children, two of whom died young.  They spent most of their lives in Michigan, where they had a grocery store called Beattie’s IGA Market in Marine City.  Alta was a member of the Order of the Eastern Star, a Masonic organization, serving as “Worthy Matron” (presiding officer).  She and James eventually retired to Florida, where Alta died at age 94 in 2009. 

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


Howard (not his real name) first contacted me late one spring a few years ago.  He was 70 years old; he had found me via my website; and he wanted to hire me, by the hour, for a twofold project he had in mind.

Howard’s father had died when he was fourteen; he wanted to learn more about him, and have something to pass on to his grown children about their roots.  He also wanted help in putting his memoirs together.  “I’m not good at expressing myself—I can’t untangle my thoughts and make them flow together coherently!” he told me.  And so we started.

Howard seemed brilliantly intelligent, but quirky.  I soon learned he had two PhDs and a number of patents to his credit, and his father and grandfather each had a number of patents as well.  They were all mechanically gifted, but not so gifted at human relationships, I discovered, as is often true of the highly intelligent. 

Over the months that we worked together, I got to know Howard.  His memoirs were a pouring out of the great pain and losses of his childhood and youth.  Many of the stories that he told me, he had never told anyone.  He emailed them to me, randomly and as the spirit moved him; and I edited them and worked them into a cohesive memoir of his early years.  At the same time, we explored the German-Polish roots of his father and the French-Canadian roots of his mother.  He lived halfway across the country, so we never met, and spoke on the phone only once, briefly. 

I said to my husband one day, “There seems to be such an urgency to Howard’s efforts… I wonder if he’s sick?”  Sad was the day that I got the answer to that question:  Howard told me he had Alzheimer’s.  He wrote to me in an email, “I figure I have maybe two good years left, so if there’s anything else I want to do, I’d better move pretty darn fast.”  I cried in the car on the way to work that day.

The months passed, and one research project led to another, and the memoirs kept growing—but the tone was changing.  Gone was the pain and bitterness.  Now Howard was remembering the happier times, the better things.  The original plan was to write a memoir of his entire life—but when the early years had been brought out into the light and written about, it became clear that this was going to be the story of his childhood and youth.  And as it turned out, Howard wasn’t doing this for his children as much as he was doing it for himself—to let go, and to heal.

Besides, Howard was becoming exhausted.  After working through the spring and summer and into the fall, his emails became less frequent and more labored and off-task.   By the time I mailed three copies the finished binder (almost 300 pages) six months after we started, he rarely responded at all.  But we had done it—accomplished our goals.  Howard’s story, and that of his ancestors, were preserved for future generations.

Monday, May 12, 2014

An Amish Settlement That Didn't Last

Recently I did an ancestry binder for a young Amish dairy farmer who is a friend of mine.  I discovered that one of his great-grandfathers founded an Amish settlement.

My research for this binder coincided with my reading of a wonderful book called The Amish in America: Settlements That Failed, 1840-1960 by Amish historian David Luthy. The book, published by an Amish publishing house in Aylmer, Ontario called Pathway Publishers in 1986, turned out to be more than the story of 100 Amish settlements that didn’t last; it was also the most useful Amish genealogy book I’ve ever come across—a real keeper.  And lo and behold, there on page 36 was the story of the Amish settlement at Stuttgart, Arkansas, which was begun by my friend’s great-grandfather, a man named Noah Bontrager. 

I used to think that the Amish lived in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Indiana, with smaller settlements in a few nearby states like Michigan and Illinois.  But in truth, there are—or have been—Amish settlements in nearly every state in the union, as well as several countries in Central and South America.  Some lasted, but many didn’t, for various reasons—mostly because of cheap land that turned out to be poor for farming, or good, productive land with no economical way to transport their produce to market.  Or sometimes it was due to squabbles within the settlement, or just as often, the lack of leadership—which for the Amish, means a bishop, two ministers, and a deacon.  Without a minister, no church services could be held; and without a bishop, no baptisms or marriages.  A visiting bishop could do only so much for so long.  Without a ministry team, a young settlement would soon die.

But getting back to my story:  Noah E. Bontrager was born in 1874 in Lagrange County, Indiana and married Anna M. Yoder there in 1896.  They had seven sons and three daughters.  By 1916 he was a bishop in the Amish church.  By 1918 the family was living at the Amish settlement in Centerville, Michigan, where his WWI draft card says he is medium height and build with brown eyes and black hair.

Luthy’s book tells the rest of Noah’s story.  In 1927 Noah, age 53, led a group of seven families who left their homes and families in Centerville to start a new settlement in Stuttgart, Arkansas—most likely looking for cheaper land and milder winters.  The other six families were those of his son, Samuel; his brother, Eli; his nephew, Jacob, who was a minster; his son-in-law, Lawrence Yoder; and two families named Schwartz. 

Luthy says that their first winter in the south was mild, and their first spring was beautiful.  By May they had strawberries in their gardens, the roses were blooming, and peaches hung from the trees.  But this was followed by summer which were much hotter than they were used to—hard on the men, and even harder on the draft horses—and unlike Michigan, with its cool summer evenings, there was little relief at night.  Rain was sparse—until autumn, when dry weather was needed to harvest their rice crop—at which time the rain wouldn’t stop.  As the weeks went by and they waited for weather dry enough for threshing, more and more of their grain was lost to migrating birds.

In 1928, Lawrence Yoder lost five of his horses from sickness.  Then his wife had a baby who died, and the mother died soon afterwards.  When his young son Ervin died a few months later, Lawrence returned to Michigan.

In 1930, the settlement’s founder and bishop, Noah Bontrager, had a fatal heart attack; he was just 56 years old.  The following year, his widow returned to Indiana, where her beloved husband was brought by train and reinterred. 

The settlement didn’t last.  (“Failed” seems like such a harsh word!)  As Luthy tells it, the other five families struggled on, but as the Great Depression got worse, the local bank in Stuttgart closed its doors—taking the settlers’ money with it.  The five remaining families had not been joined by any new ones since they came 1927, and when their minister, Eli Bontrager, left in 1932, that was the death knell for the colony.  By 1938, the last holdout, Jacob Bontrager, had left Arkansas.

[Image credit: – George Burba – used with permission.]