September 17 – October 14, 2009
By Rodger M. Wood
My recent trips back home for my 1959 Catholic Central High School class reunion and cousin Karin Copenhaver wedding took me to places and people I hadn’t seen in over forty years.
I wrote about the reunion trip in another article so here, I’ll write about my visit with my dad’s family at Karin’s wedding, a trip to the old Gilchrist neighborhood, old St. Mary Church in downtown Detroit, Belle Isle, and the great visit I had with my Uncle Harold Herr three sons, David, Charles, and Jimmie Herr and their families.
The photo folder starts with a good panorama view of Detroit, where I proudly lived from November, 1940 to November 15, 1969.
My first twenty -three years I lived in the house at 15800 Gilchrist. Many a day I sat on the side porch steps of that house and the front curb, with my young buddies, Ted and Gary Walton, David Ross, Mike Moriarty, yes the actor, worrying about the Russians, and fantasizing about playing baseball for the Detroit Tigers, We passed many a youthful moment discussing heavy duty topics during a time when the world turned out to be very calm and peaceful.
My friends and I spent many a hot summer days playing baseball on the four corners of Gilchrist and Pilgrim, 500 Flies and Grounders and football in the street, and on the lawn, our favorite game, Mumbly Peg, which required we performed various tasks successfully with pocket knife to win the game.. .
With Dad’s help about May, 1950, my brothers and I planted the saplings, which grew into the three big Elm trees that now tower on the Pilgrim side of my old house.
Looking at the house from Gilchrist, the upper window on the right was my brothers and my bedroom window, and on the left, my parents. Many a hot Indian summer night (in those days houses were not air conditioned), I can remember falling a sleep to the sounds of the trains, and police and fire sirens.
The train sounds resounding through the open window in the quiet of night were comforting but the police and fire sirens always disturbed me, particularly when my parents were out for the evening.
Once, I can remember huddling down in our bedroom with my mother, who told me to keep quiet so our 80+ Aunt Louise ringing the doorbell downstairs on the side porch underneath the window, would not know we were home. Aunt Louise was a supposed older friend of my Grandmother Zazi, who I suspect now was actually my great aunt in spite of my mother’s insistence that she was not related.
In the winters, as a small boy, probably about 4 or 5, I often sat in the bays of the two first floor front windows watching the snow come down, wondering if it would ever stop, and if we were going to be snowed in the house for awhile.
I used to crawl through the milk shoot at the right side front side into the kitchen of my old house after school when my mother accidentally locked me out or I forget my house key.
Across Pilgrim Avenue, Teddy and Gary Walton’s house at 15790 Gilchrist, Mike Moriarty’s house at 15784 Gilchrist, David Ross’s house at 15785 Gilchrist, next to Linda and Kenny Large big corner house
were my haunts. I used to stand at their side door and call them out to play or walk to Isaac Crary School.
Up to age six and I started school, Teddy, Gary, Mike, David, and Linda were my only world. I played, and went places with them most every day.
As a five year old visitor to the Christian Scientist Church on Grand River and Outer Drive, I was told to go upstairs to the balcony away from my little friends, Teddy and Gary Walton by a bible class teacher, who objected to my presence there when I told him proudly, “I was a Roman Catholic.” That act of discrimination stuck in my mind my entire life. Dr. Walton was so upset my treatment that day, he never returned to that church again.
15703 Biltmore was the home of my buddy Jack Cross, with whom, Doug Merrick, and I palled around a lot in the upper left front side den of the house. We played poker, drank our first coffee, and smoked our first cigarettes in a trailer back behind the house by the garage. Jack’s mother Esther used to treat us to an a delicious spaghetti dinner on Saturday night once in awhile. I used to talk to Jack’s dad, Norman a lot about school as he was an English teacher at Cooley High School.
Jack, Doug and I loved walking over to the White Castle hamburger joint at Southfield and Fenkell ,
where we ate a lot of delicious 12 cent hamburgers.
Mike Moriarty and I used to go to the movies at the Norwest Theater at Grand River and Oakfield Avenues.
Mike was determined to be an actor and used to study the actors‘ techniques, especially Jimmy Dean, who he modeled himself afterwards in high school drama at U of D High School, Dartmouth, and the big time theater and Hollywood movies that he would become later famous for in life.
A Neisner Dime Store, and Cunninghams Drug Store, were also at the corner of Grand River and Southfield. I sold the Detroit News on the street corner and in the newsstands so that the regular newsboy, a crippled boy, Tommy Johnson, could spend the Christmas Holidays with his grandparents in West Virginia.
I used to walk to cathecism and mass at St. Mary of Redford Catholic Church at St. Mary and Grand River Avenues. I was frightened to death in a confessional there when kindly Father McHugh heard my first confession. I was also baptized, received First Communion, and Confirmation at that church. I can remember being inspired by Bishop Fulton J. Sheen preaching about life is worth living from the pulpit and the seemingly immense size of the church when my mother and brothers attended. It was filled at every Mass and I remember how the wooden kneelers torn my knees up during the long prayer for peace at the end of Mass..
Another special trip for me and my young buddies was to make the long walk to the Kreges Store at Greenfield and Grand River. We loved walking through back street alleys looking for treasures in the trash cans, walking through the store, just looking, unless we had a dime or quarter to spend on stamps for our collection, Bowman or Topps baseball cards, Archie comics, or a 5 cent lemon or chocolate coke at the soda fountain.
When we were about 11 years old, Grand River was also our avenue to a bigger world. We could catch a bus at Gilchrist and Grand River and ride past Greenfield, Schaeffer, Livernois, West Grand Boulevard,
to downtown Detroit for 10 cents one way. It wasn’t long before we saw the towering buildings beckoning us to a day of adventure at JL Hudson Department Store, ice cream at Saunders, and carefree times at other stores. Sometimes, we got off at Trumbull Avenue, and walked down to Brigg Stadium, where we saw our beloved Tigers play a ball game. On the way back, we knew we were out of the downtown area when we saw the foreboding Detroit Police Station pass by on the right of the bus.
About 1835, our third great grandfather, Fidel Herr walked the 15 miles, down Michigan Avenue, which is parallel to Grand River, from his homestead at Warren and Ann Arbor Trail to St. Mary Church in downtown Detroit, behind the Old City Building and across from one of the Casinos in Greek Town. He wanted to have his confession heard at the old German Catholic Church, but was turned off and never returned to Catholicism after a priest asked him to pay the “French Tax” before hearing his confession.
One of our third great aunts, Mary Barbara Herr married Anthony German at the altar of St. Mary in 1850.
Anthony and Mary Barbara ran a candy store on Michigan Avenue in downtown Detroit until about 1905.
Their only child, a daughter, was a school teacher in the Detroit school system for many years.
My dad’s mother, Grandma Zazi lived near Michigan and 2nd Avenue, and my father was born in a house near 16th Street and Michigan Avenue.
On Sundays I was going to a Detroit Lions game, I met my friend Doug Merrick after his church service
at the downtown First Methodist Church at Woodward Avenue and Grand Circus Park and we’d walk over to Briggs Stadium from there.
I went to the David Whitney Building across Grand Circus Park for my orthodonist appointments with Dr. Bruce Foster every two weeks for eight years until I went to the Merchant Marine Academy in August, 1959.
I loved going down Jefferson Avenue to Belle Isle, where Joanne and I often fished in the Detroit River or canoed on the inlets with our friends. As an adult, I played baseball in the Federal League on the diamonds fronting the Windsor side of river. I can remember swimming in the Detroit River there once when I was about 15.
My dad and mom met each other at a dance at Ramona Park, which was located on the mainland next to the Belle Isle Bridge.
My mother and I used to go to the Detroit Yacht Club on Belle Isle to meet her friends, who would take us yachting on Lake St. Claire, and other festivities and banquets related to mom’s clubs, the Rosedale Garden Progressive Club and the National Farms and Garden. I won a bird identification contest there once when quite young.
I took the wedding photos at my cousin Karin Marie Copenhaver and Gary Tomsik’s wedding on September 19, 2009 at the Wixom Community Center. My dad’s sisters, Aunt Dot and Aunt Virginia, Karin’s mother, my cousin Lynn Ellen Copenhaver, her sister, Janice, cousins Patti, Suzie Q, Jackie and Gordie Selinsky, Norma Jean, and their families were there. I enjoyed visiting with all of them and wished I had not waited so long to get in touch, but making amends, we all promised to see each sooner next time.
The grand finale to the reunion trip was seeing my favorite Uncle Harold Herr’s three sons, David, Charles, and Jimmie and their families at Jimmie’s house in Novi. On that Sunday. my Uncle Harold and Aunt Margaret would have been proud to see how their children turned out. They are a big happy family, who care about each other, have values, and fun together.
David Herr, the oldest son, is the spitten image of his father Harold, and further back, photos I have seen of his second great grandfather, Fidel Herr Jr.
The Herr boys and I talked endlessly about our memories and common genealogical roots. Jimmie’s wife, Brenda is a great cook and fed us to the brim with a sit down dinner. Jimmie’s sons, James (with wife Elizabeth), Jarrin, and grandson Gavin Herr were there. We had a great time and I invited all the Herr to visit us in Virginia sometime soon.
Again I got nostalgic from this trip – I sometimes wonder why I didn’t visit family more when I was younger, but then, I think I was more sold on myself than I should have been. My parents tried to keep me in touch but you know how it is with a 20 – year old. I just didn’t have the time. Now I hope I can make up for lost time.