Tuesday, May 27, 2014

52 Ancestors: #21 Owen James Henn (1878-1962) of Burnside, Michigan

Climbing My Family Tree: Owen James Henn, 1899
Owen James Henn -1899
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This is my latest post for the “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks” challenge initiated by Amy Johnson Crow of the No Story Too Small blog. For more information about the challenge and links to the other blogs participating in the challenge, please click on the badge in the right margin.

Owen James Henn, my great-grandfather on my father’s side, was born November 14, 1878 to John and Elizabeth (O’Brian) Henn in Burnside Michigan. He was the middle of five children, born five years after his parent’s marriage.  He had two brothers and two sisters: Otto Henn (1875-1946), Ella May (1876-1942), Floyd O. (1880 – 1943), and Olive “Ollie” E. (1884-1938). By the time Owen was born his father was a farmer, although the property to become known as the Henn Family farm (one mile south of Burnside, MI) was not bought until the next year.

I am going to refer to him as “Owen James” even though he went by “Owen” throughout his life, and even though it's clunky, because there appears to be at least one “Owen” per generation in the Henn family, albeit with differing middle names. Using both his first and middle names will help us keep track of what generation we’re speaking of in the long run.

On August 11, 1896, C. J. Dandel organized the Burnside Cornet Band and Owen James and his brothers Otto and Floyd became charter members of the band, which traveled around to local communities playing concerts through 1904. Owen became the leader of the band.  (He’s wearing his Burnside Cornet Band uniform in the photo above.)  On August 10, 1901, they played at Novesta Corners, MI, and Cass City, MI.  Thereafter, though they had stopped practicing and regularly playing concerts, the band members met annually at least through 1931 (as per the Cass City newspaper), and I get the impression from family references that they continued to meet annually for life.

Owen lived at home and worked on his father’s farm until he was 22, when he married Myrtie Mabel Wilcox (21), whose relatives farmed the property kitty-corner to Owen’s father’s farm.  Myrtie was a teacher. Owen James and Myrtie attended the Brown City Baptist Church. They lived to share 52 years together and had eight children: Ervin John (1902-1992), Hazel Annette McArthur (1902-1962), Earl Owen (1904-1904), Lowell Floyd (1905-1984), Owen Carl(1906-1988), Irma Jane Sutton (1911-2006), Frank Elwyn (1913-1995), and Lucille Elizabeth Robson (1915-1993.) In 1904, they had to deal with the sorrow of the death of a child when baby Earl Owen died. It was normal then to give a deceased child's name to a later born child, particularly if the dead child was named for someone the parents still wished to honor. So the name “Owen” was also given to the next son born after the baby died, my grandfather, Owen Carl Henn ["Carl"].

As they started out their married life, Owen James continued to work as farm labor on his father’s farm. But by 1915, he had his own farm (see land record  for Burnside Township below); his father had bought each of his children a farm, to be paid into the estate after his wife died.  Over the course of his lifetime, Owen James became known as one of the “big” farmers in Burnside. He owned 200 acres and worked his uncle Phil’s 140 acres and his brother Otto’s land (115 acres), and along with his brother Frank, he pastured “Uncle Tony’s land” (perhaps Anthony Esper, husband of Ella Mae Henn, Owen James’ sister).

Climbing My Family Tree: 1915 Land Record for Burnside Township Michigan
1915 Land Record for Burnside Township Michigan
Owen's land is just below the space between the 'N' & 'S' in BURNSIDE printed across the middle of the page.
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When he registered for the draft for WW1 in 1918, at 39, Owen James was described as being of medium height and medium build, with brown eyes and black hair.

During WW1, emotions -- and paranoia (manifested via the Espionage and Sedition Acts of 1917 and 1918 and vigilante groups reporting every perceived disloyalty to government enforcers) -- were running strong in this country against Germans and other non-Americans and recently immigrated Americans,  and most immigrant families in this country were being particularly careful of how they acted and spoke. Owen James and Myrtie were first generation Americans: Owen James’ father had emigrated from Germany and Myrtie’s parents had emigrated from Canada. Richard Rubin, in “The Last of the Doughboys” describes an America where immigrant Americans and their families had to prove their loyalty repeatedly in many ways. There were several Liberty Bond campaigns focused directly on immigrant Americans, including one campaign wherein the posters were loaded with patriotic symbols and the words: “Are You 100% American? Prove It! Buy U.S. Government Bonds.”

It was in this atmosphere that Owen James sold some cattle and took the money to the bank and bought some Liberty bonds, and when, a month or so later Dolph McNary canvassed the neighborhood selling Liberty Bonds, he told McNary that he didn’t want to buy any, instead of saying that he had already bought some, because he didn’t think it was anyone else’s business whether he bought any or not, according to my grandfather, as told to Grand-Aunt Lucille. McNary told the whole neighborhood that the Henns were pro-German, and his son repeated it all over school and started calling the kids the “Kaisers”. Later that was shortened to calling my grandfather “Ki” and the nickname stuck far longer than the memory of why it was imposed did. Fortunately for the family, the threat of being accused of being disloyal did blow over eventually.

Owen James was one of the last farmers to give up farming with horses and start using a tractor.  My grandfather told a story to Grand-Aunt Lucille, that when a Moline Tractor dealer opened up in Brown City, the dealer wanted to sell Owen James the first tractor as it would be a huge boost in sales if he could say Owen James bought a 2-wheeler tractor, or walking tractor, from him (which, as I found out, is a single-axel tractor, self-powered and self-propelled, which was used to pull and power other farm implements while the driver walked along side it or rode on the attached piece of equipment– see picture below).  Owen James didn’t want it and said so, but the dealer kept pushing the price lower until he finally said he’d take it. After he paid for it outright, Owen James took it across the street to the International dealer and traded the Moline for an International, and took the IMC tractor home. I guess he really didn’t want to be used as anyone’s advertisement! I didn’t have enough of a description to find a picture of the IMC tractor but the Moline tractor was likely the one pictured here.

Climbing My Family Tree: Moline Two-Wheeled Walking Tractor, 1920
Moline Two Wheel Walking Tractor, 1920
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Although he farmed all his life, Owen James also had a teaching certificate.  Additionally, he served as the Burnside Township Clerk for ten years and at some point was justice of the peace, according to his obituary.

You have to remember that when Owen James and Myrtie started their life together they didn’t have electricity or indoor plumbing, or even a car.  They used to tell their daughter Lucille that when cars were first on the road, whenever they heard one coming, they’d go outside and watch it go by. One day there was a car coming from each direction and they were going to have to meet! This was such a big event that they remembered it until they died.  Can you imagine?

On January 20, 1923, Owen James bought his first automobile, a  1922 Chevrolet Touring Car (see picture below); Grand-Aunt Lucille remembered it as having curtains that were put in or taken down depending on the weather (she still had the receipt!). About four years later he bought another, more beat up, ’22 Chevy Touring car for parts. The beat up one is the car all his kids learned to drive with. His 1931 driver’s license describes him as age 53, white, male, 5’5”, 150 pounds, with black hair and brown eyes.

Climbing My Family Tree: 1922 Chevrolet Touring Car Advertisement
Advertisement for 1922 Chevrolet Touring Car
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[Note: In 1922, $1 was worth $13.05. The average wage in 1922 was $991 (today's equivalent $12,930), a gallon of gas cost 25 cents (today's equivalent $3.26)  and the average house cost $8024 (today's equivalent $104,691); in 1925, a pound of bacon was 47 cents, a pound of bread was 9 cents, a pound of coffee was 50 cents.]

In 1927, Owen James took in a sick uncle, Philip Henn, who had never married, to help him get well, and he and Myrtie gave up their own bedroom for him. He never left the bed again, until he died three years later, still in their care.

When radios started being sold to the public, those in rural areas with no electricity would buy them and power them with car batteries brought into the house, and it was listened to with headphones as the radio didn’t come with speakers at the beginning. Myrtie’s uncle Albert had one of those. Grand-Aunt Lucille recalls that her father, Owen James, eventually got a radio after they came with speakers, but it was still hooked up to car batteries in the living room of the house. She said that “Dad and the boys all had to be home by 7:00 PM each night to hear the Amos and Andy show", a popular radio comedy that ran live shows nightly from 1928-1943. (Here’s a six minute sample of The Amos ‘n Andy show, recorded on the eve of the 1928 election – mislabeled 1929: http://youtu.be/16vmYLXKdn8; there are recordings of other Amos ‘n Andy radio shows on YouTube as well that run about thirty minutes each. And here’s a short, interesting article on the show: http://www.otr.com/amosandy.html.)

Owen James and Myrtie didn’t get electricity until 1935. All of their children were nearly grown by then.  The first four had homes of their own and the youngest three would be married with a year. It was a time of changes and of losses.  In 1938, Owen James’ youngest sister died, at age 53, only five days after contracting pneumonia.  It had to be hard a hard time for him.

When he registered in the Old Man’s Draft for WWII, in 1940, Owen James was 62 years old. He did not get called up in either World War.

His wife, Myrtie passed away in 1953, after a short illness. Owen James lived 9 years longer. He was active until the end, when he, too, died after a short illness. Approximately a month before he died he wrote a letter to his daughter Hazel, who was in Chicago at the time, explaining that he was going to Lucille’s to watch the Rose Parade on television and would stop by Hazel’s house to water the plants. He died on February 8, 1962, at age 83. Funeral services were held Saturday in the Carman Funeral Home, the Rev. Erwin W. Gram, pastor of Brown City Baptist Church, officiating. Burial was in Burnside Twp. Cemetery.

Grand-Aunt Lucille’s book (Members of the Flock) says that she and he watched John Glenn orbit the earth together just before he died but that happened two weeks afterwards. However, ten months before, the Russians had sent Yuri Gagarin into orbit around the earth. Just think, in his lifetime he used horses to farm, then the first tractors, saw the first cars, got electricity for the first time in his home at age 57, saw airplanes cross the skies for the first time, and just before his life ended saw a man go into space.  Wow!

[P.S.: I just noticed that Owen James' father, John, was the Census enumerator for the 1900 census! Dolph McNary was the enumerator for the 1910 Census, and Owen James Henn was for the 1930 Census.]

I’ve discovered, to my dismay, that either not as many historical Michigan newspapers are online as I found in Ohio for Mom’s side of the family, or they are more difficult to find. I’d like to find local newspaper stories on Owen James. I figure he had to have made the paper through the Cornet Band and through being Town Clerk, at minimum.

I’m shy on stories and records after 1940 and would like to fill in the last 22 years of his life better.


Federal Census  1880, 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, 1940; draft registrations for WWI & WWII; CASS CITY CHRONICLE, FRIDAY, SEPTEMBER 18, 1914, p. 1 & FRIDAY, AUGUST 28, 1931., p.1 (Rawson Memorial Library Collection. http://newspapers.rawson.lib.mi.us/search/); "Michigan, Marriages, 1868-1925," index and images, FamilySearch (https://familysearch.org/pal:/MM9.1.1/N38F-DHW : accessed 27 May 2014), Owen Henn and Myrtle Wilcox, 02 Sep 1901; citing Romeo, Oakland, Michigan, v 3 p 523 rn 187, Department of Vital Records, Lansing; FHL microfilm 2342519; http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Two-wheel_tractor;http://thecostofliving.com/index.php?id=148&a=1; http://the.honoluluadvertiser.com/article/2006/Jun/18/op/FP606180308.html; "The Last of the Doughboys", by Richard Rubin; “Members of the Flock” by Lucille Henn Robson

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