A Woman Before Her Time

November 11, 2010

We’ve talked about Ruth as my grandmother. We’ve talked about Ruth as a daughter, a sister, a mother. And we’ve talked about Ruth as a talented craftswoman and teacher.

What we haven’t talked about is Ruth as a career woman. It’s important that we do, because through much of her adult life Ruth was very involved in the business world. She definitely was a woman before her time.

“I attended Linbloom High School (in Chicago),” says Ruth, in her 1990 video interview. “But when I was 15, I quit school and went to work. I worked for Strauss and Schram Mail Order House.”

I wondered if she had wanted to quit high school?

“Well,” answers my grandmother, in a matter-of-fact tone that certainly does not imply martyrdom. “My mother thought it was time. They needed the money. My first wage for the week was $8.18. It was actually $10, but they (employers) took money out because I went to (continuation) school one day a week.

“I cut stencil because I knew how to type and those stencils were used for mailing purposes. I worked there until after I was 16, then I didn’t have to go to school anymore.”

This school—continuation school, according to Ruth—was a type of vocational training. She also attended night school where she learned shorthand and typing.

This is interesting.

I wonder if Ruth’s mother encouraged, or even pushed, for such continued education? Or was Ruth full of gumption and pursued this on her own?

Either way, the skills she acquired allowed her positions much more prestigious than the laundry and housekeeping jobs her mother held at that same age.

Ruth also did her networking. She got her second job via her step-father’s sister’s husband (that almost sounds like a third degree connection on today’s LinkedIn, doesn’t it?)

“My aunt from my step-father’s side—her husband worked at Vierling Steel Works and he got me a job there,” says Ruth. “I ran the switchboard and took dictation until they sold out and the new owners got all new office help.”

Somewhere, someone has a picture of Ruth in her young working days. The picture, so I’ve heard, shows Ruth and several women hanging out for a smoke. I’d love to see that picture! Yes, even grandmothers were once young and radical.

Anyway, as we well know, in 1929, when Ruth was almost 20, she started working as a switchboard operator for C.A. Burnett Packing Company. And there she met George.

I wished I’d thought to ask my grandmother what it was like to meet George at the office? Did they have office romance policies back then? Were there such things as anti-nepotism rules?

Apparently not at the C.A. Burnett Packing Company, because even after they were married, Ruth continued to work there with George until their first child was born in 1933.

Let’s jump ahead now, to 1946.

George and Ruth, together with their daughters Carol and Judith, were now living in Henderson, MI, and were the proud owners of Larson’s Grocery and Market.

“I helped Grandpa in the store for a while,” says Ruth in the video. “But then we decided we needed a lot of things and Grandpa wanted to do some remodeling. So I got a job.

“First I worked nights at a factory. I just worked there from October until that next April.

“And then I got a job as bookkeeper for Michigan Iron & Metal and Babbitt Coal Company. I took care of both sets of books. Then Babbitt Coal went out of business and I worked for Michigan Iron & Metal for 14 years.”

Funny how those things go. As a child, I never thought about my grandmother being a working woman. Or a business woman. Or anything.

She was just my grandma.

And a very special one at that.

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Henderson: Then and Now

October 18, 2010

Grain elevator, Henderson, MI

According to an Owosso Argus Press article, when my grandparents George and Ruth Larson moved to Henderson in 1946, it was a village of about 250 people. A small community, yes, but a community nonetheless.

Henderson’s history goes back even further, of course. Wikipedia tells us it was originally known as Hendersonville and a post office opened there in 1868. This Shiawassee County History site shows an interesting undated photo of the village. I wonder if the Main Street building closet to the railroad cars is George and Ruth’s store? I wonder how old this photo is?

Small as it was, in days gone by Henderson was a thriving community. There were stores, a grain elevator, a school, a church and a post office.

These days the village isn’t quite the same. The elevator, shown above, is boarded and vacant. Instead there’s much larger operation located south of the village limits. The only store left is a floral shop and it looks like the others have been converted to residential dwellings.

The 2005 census shows Rush township, where Henderson is located, as having a population of 1469 people. I spoke on the phone with Debbie, clerk for the township, and she estimated Henderson’s population today is probably only 150.

“It’s just a small little burg, kind of run down,” says Debbie. “It’s nothing like it used to be.”

I imagine Henderson is indicative of many areas of Michigan. Every time I return to nearby Owosso, my hometown, I see grim reminders of the economic pain brought on by an ailing auto industry. When I drive the winding six miles on Chipman Road from Owosso to Henderson, I see houses I remember from my childhood, many of them now rundown. I also see newly built mega-mansions invading the farmland and monopolizing riverfront acreage.

My step-mother Jan confirms this. She describes the area as having become one of “upper class and lower class, with nothing in between.” She speaks of hundreds of homes that are foreclosed upon and vacant.

Looking for good deals on Henderson-area property?

I checked out the real estate and came across a couple fixer-uppers. On Bingham Rd., there’s a 600 sq. ft., 2-bedroom, 1-bath on .5 acres  for the bargain price of $10,000. On Ridge Rd., there’s a slightly larger 850 sq. ft. house on .9 acres for $40,000.

Bargain prices for the buyer, yes. But unfortunate for the sellers, who likely paid more for these properties in years past.

The store today, Henderson, MI

George and Ruth’s grocery store, now a residential property.

The store today, Henderson, MI

Photo by my sister Rebecca

The store today, Henderson, MI

George and Ruth built the enclosed fire escape stairway. I remember finding it so intriguing as a child. Whenever we heard the whistle of oncoming trains, my grandmother opened the fire escape door so there were plenty of spectator windows. On its left is the living room window where for years my Great-Grandmother sat. On the right is a window for a back bedroom.

Henderson, MI, Post Office

Photo by my sister Rebecca

Just two doors down from my grandparents’ store, we regularly walked to the post office. It was such a highlight! I still remember the fascinating dippy bird the postmaster kept on the counter.

Methodist Church, Henderson, MI

Although my grandparents were Lutheran, Ruth participated in many community events sponsored by Henderson’s United Methodist Church, a Main Street presence still today.

Seeing this church brings a tug to my heart. I remember so well the excitement of attending mother-daughter banquets here. I remember sitting in the church pews for the entertainment program and then moving to the basement where pillow mints and the most creative place settings awaited each of us. To a small girl, dressed in her Sunday best, this was comparable to a high school prom.

What are your memories of Henderson? What do you know of Henderson today?

Triggering Special Memories

October 7, 2010

George Larson in Larson's Groceries & Market in Henderson, Michigan
You know how the certain feel of a place takes you back in time? Or a random scent instantly triggers a memory?

There’s an old, general store near us and whenever I walk across its creaky floor I’m reminded of my grandparents’ store in Henderson, MI. And, once, just once somewhere else, I caught a whiff of something that instantly took me back to the bathroom of their apartment above that store, a room with pink tiles and the unique scent of soap combined with my grandmother’s toiletries.

These triggers are special. They’re two of many that bring a flood of memories of the grocery store owned by my grandparents George and Ruth Larson. It was an old-fashioned, family-owned kind of store in an old-fashioned-family-kind-of-village. Only now as an adult, do I realize how much of my childhood is in that store.

Isn’t the above picture cool?

It was taken in 1950 (well before my time), and it shows the store four years after they bought it. That’s my grandfather George, dressed meticulously beneath his grocer’s apron. Yes, he’s wearing a tie. But look, he’s also got his sleeves rolled up—he was finally able to let loose after all those years in a Chicago office.

In a 1990 video interview, my grandmother Ruth describes the store during those early years of their ownership. She says at first it was like “an old, country store.”

“There was just one long counter with stocks behind on shelves. We had one of those things to get things down that were way up high,” says Ruth, as she’s reaching with her arms. “And to slice the cold meats, you had to do it by hand.”

Little by little, George built new island shelves, added a glass meat counter and an ice cream freezer.

“And he built the walk-in cooler. He went up to Midland (MI) and brought the insulation home,” Ruth says matter-of-factly of my grandfather’s ingenuity. “He built all that himself.”

Larson Grocery & Market, Henderson, MI; family and friends

This photo was taken in 1948, two years after they moved to Henderson.

In back (l-r), are family friends Roy Pederson, Ruth, and Frieda Pederson. In the middle are Carol (George and Ruth’s daughter, and my mother) and Nancy Pederson. In front are Coyla (Jeanie) McCargar (my mother’s best friend and later her sister-in-law) and Judith (George and Ruth’s daughter).

Note the architectural details on the false store-front.

Ruth Larson and her daughters Judith and Carol

This is the only photo I have of the apartment above their store. Taken in 1952, there’s Ruth on the left, and her daughters Judith (playing piano) and Carol.

Check out the handsome Navy-dude in the picture on the piano! That’s my dad, and the next year, in August 1953, he and my mom (Carol) were married.

Larson's Grocery & Market, Henderson, MI

Taking down the false front in 1954.

George Larson in Larson's Grocery & Market, Henderson, MI

Here’s the store in 1958, with the island shelves George built. And look, the tie is gone!

As a child years later in the 60s, I remember running my hand along plastic tracks on the front edge of each shelf where George had carefully inserted product prices. I remember dragging the inserts all the way from one end of the track to the other, bunching them together along the way.

My grandfather, gentle and quiet man that he was, simply said to me, “Please don’t do that.”

George Larson at his desk

"Head man at his desk!" by Ruth Larson

This picture, and the caption my grandmother wrote on the back, says it all.

Here’s my grandfather at his roll-top desk. Perhaps this piece of furniture, more than any other, best represents their store. If you look closely at the very top picture, in the right corner you can see the open doorway into a back room. Here in this room was the “head man’s” desk and here’s where he kept his detailed books.

When my grandparents sold their store, they gave the desk to my mother, who later gave it to my brother.

Here’s another furniture piece from the store. I remember this bookcase sitting along side George’s desk in the back room. I remember my grandmother pulling out glasses, often old jelly jars, and giving us drinks of water. Such a simple thing, but something I always loved.

I now have this bookcase in my home.

Wicker rocking chair from Larson's Grocery and Market

This rocking chair, which I also now have, is one I remember being in the back room. In the video, however, my grandmother says they also used it in the store. Sure enough, if you look closely at the very top picture (maybe even magnify your screen, ctrl +), you can see the chair back against the white wall, underneath the two advertising posters. It had dark cushions then.

“There was a big, square register in the floor,” describes Ruth. “The rocker sat there. In the wintertime, when people would come in and they’d be cold, they’d go and sit in that rocker.”

I wish I’d thought to ask my grandmother if these furniture pieces came with the store. I wonder how many people warmed themselves in this wonderful chair? Or how old the books are that originally were kept in that magnificent desk?

George Larson Family, circa 1936

George Larson Family, circa 1946

So here it is, 1946, and we have this very proper family from big city Chicago—George, his lovely wife Ruth, and their dearest daughters Carol and Judith, all dressed to the nines and posed for a formal portrait.

In 1946, the George Larson family was rooted deep in their big city life. Their extended families lived in surrounding communities. George, 47, was well-established in his career with C.A.Burnett Packing Company, the same place he and Ruth first met nearly 20 years earlier. Ruth, 37, had set up their home in the bungalow they owned on Ada Street. And Carol, 13, and Judith, 10, were in eighth and fifth grades, respectively, at Timothy Lutheran School.

But all was not well in the Windy City.

“Grandpa wasn’t feeling too well,” my grandmother Ruth tells me in our 1990 video interview. “He was having problems with his stomach and the doctor told him he shouldn’t be working in an office. He should be moving around more and get out of the city.”

“He was a bookkeeper,” explains Ruth. “Besides doing all the bookwork, he used to go around and pick up all the checks from these different companies that slaughtered with us. One of them was Oscar Meyer and Co.”

Then, one weekend a family visit to Michigan changed all that. It changed life not only for George, but for the whole family as well. According to Ruth, this change came “quite in a hurry.”

“We were up in Michigan visiting Grandma & Grandpa Larson on the farm and Esther and her husband Lloyd, who had a store in Gaines,” Ruth tells me in the video. She’s talking about her inlaws who farmed in Imlay City, MI, with George’s brother Clarence, and also George’s sister Esther, who lived in a small town about 50 miles away.

“They got the Flint Journal all the time and we looked in there and this store in Henderson was listed,” Ruth says. “We drove out there once and looked at it while we were there on vacation. I think that was over the Labor Day weekend. Grandpa decided he wanted that store. We didn’t have enough money to put down on it because we were just there on vacation. So Uncle Clarence let us have $500 to put down on the store.”

In the video, I ask how much they paid for the store. A nosy question, yes, but I’m thinking of posterity.

My grandmother doesn’t remember.

“But it was less than what we sold our house for because we sold our house for $11,500. I think the store was about $10,000,” she says.

“And of course, the apartment was upstairs. We had to have our furniture brought and we had the baby grand piano. That was easier to move because they just took the legs off of it, see.

“The furniture got there before we did. Six rooms of furniture and all our clothing and that. It cost us $117 to move from Chicago to Henderson, MI,” Ruth laughs.

“The people had called us to tell us the furniture was there,” Ruth continues without a pause. “We stayed at Aunt Esther’s and Lloyd’s in Gaines for a few days and the people in the store asked if they could put up the piano and play it—I guess their daughter could play piano. The rest of the furniture was all in the back room.”

I remember my grandmother’s furniture well. She had many very nice, quality pieces. Imagine the curiosity it aroused for those store owners! And think of the buzz going through the little town of Henderson as they wondered about the family coming from Chicago!

“Finally we took over the store,” remembers my grandmother. “I think we moved in October, around the 25th of October in 1946.”

George Larson Family

George Larson Family, circa 1950s, in their apartment above the store.