Harriet Melvina Herr Story

Whatever It Takes!
Memories of Harriet Melvina Herr (1852 -1938)
By Dorothy Joy Liscum

From Germany in 1831 came a family of 3 sons and a daughter – people who wanted a new start in a new land.

The father Fidel Herr and the mother Mary Ann, brought the young people to the Detroit area where land could be obtained for a nominal sum.

It’s not known where the older couple, the parents settled, but the son named for his father, Fidel Jr., bought a farm near Plymouth Road or Ann Arbor Trail in the area then known as Perrinsville.

They had all looked at the area around and near to Detroit, but because it was wet and swampy and would need a lot of preparation before any crops could be planted, they decided to go out further and search for better farming land.

Two brothers looked still farther going west and south from Fidel Jr.’s farm and found some land that was sandy and seemed well drained so they decided to get that land.

Their sister, Clarissa, kept house for Joseph and Enos in a log cabin built by these brothers.


None of the three ever married. Their farm was at Cowan Road, near Newburg Road in Wayne County.

They all worked hard – and in later years, a 2-storied brick home was built and the log cabin was torn down.

Before leaving the log cabin, this I must let my readers know that the fireplace was designed to accommodate a large log brought into the house through the front door, across the living room to the fireplace. Here the forward end of the log was fired from the existing bed of coals and as it burned, the opposite end was pushed gradually into the fire, until all was consumed. Naturally someone had to watch this fire, but the brothers considered this method easier than cutting the log into sections fitting the inside of the fireplace.

Fidel Jr. married a 16-year old girl named Joanna Willsey and they lived in a log cabin on his farm in Perrinsville. There was very little money in the household – Joanna was able to make only six flannel diapers for her first child and cut up her wedding dress to make other clothes for the child.

Her children arrived at regular intervals, Theresa called “Tet,” Harriet Melvina (called Viny), a son named John, another daughter named Marietta (also called “Met.”), a son named Wm, and last a daughter named Jessie.

As a young man, John enlisted in a company going to help fight in the Civil War.

He did not write many letters home, and after not hearing from him for a long period, his father instituted a search through a third party, who was recommended to him, as being able to trace young men in the war. John was at last found to have been ill with diarrhea, a common ailment among soldiers, and because he either got no medicine or it was too late when he got it, he died according to a letter received from another soldier who knew him.

The log cabin the family lived in had two floors. The second story floor was of logs, laid side by side, and all the children but the youngest at the time slept in the upper room. It was warmer than the first floor – and too the children could be sent up there when company came.

My grandmother Viny told me they nearly always had bread made of corn meal, besides corn meal mush for breakfast, corn meal being less expensive than white flour. However,
when there were guests for meals, Johanna, Viny’s mother, evidently did have some white flour to use, and would make biscuits to serve the guests.

The children being relegated to the upstairs while the company was fed, would hope desperately that some of the biscuits would be left for them to eat at the children’s meal. They could look down between the logs in the second floor and would watch the plate with the biscuits. If any were left, it was a happy time – but often there were no biscuits left for the children.

Theresa married Minot Weed who had been in the Civil War. After the war was over, they moved to the Kalkaska, Michigan area to a farm. They had one daughter who died as a young woman.

Harriet Melvina met a good looking young man at Nankin Mill and later married him. His name was James K. Joy, son of Bennett Joy, whose home was at Grand River and Telegraph Rd. Bennett and family having come there from New York State.

James was next to the youngest of a family of 12 children. When he and Melvina married, he bought a farm on Plymouth Road, two miles east of the city of Plymouth.
He did not have enough cash to pay for it so he worked hard to make payments to the previous owner.

There were two parts to the farm – one part was on the south side of Plymouth Road, and the other on the north side and the larger. After a few years the smaller part was sold that on the south.

James and Viny had a daughter born in 1873 named Lydia Olivia, then in three years a son named Mark.

These children attended school at Newburg, and then went to Plymouth High School.

However, the boys were only 8 and 6 years old when their father sickened and died of typhoid fever

This left Viny with three children to raise, and a farm to pay for – she had to practice all kinds of economies.

She hired a man to do all the heavy work on the farm until the boys were old enough to do it.

One of her economies was to cut a pencil in half, and each boy got a half to do his lessons.

Also they ate sandwiches spread with lard for school lunches. After all butter could be sold or traded for groceries so it was not used much at home.

Lydia finished high school and took teacher’s training and became a teacher.

Jim and Mark worked on the farm and Viny, their mother, kept house for them, until Jim, who was courting a neighbor girl, Ella Beckhold, after 3 years, decided on marriage.

Then Viny, who believed strongly, that 2 women could not live in the same house, moved to Plymouth – there she bought or rented a 2-story house near the railroad tracks, and took in boarders.

In order to make the most of her location, Viny rented rooms to two shifts of railroad men, the day shift would rise, eat breakfast and leave, then Viny would whisk around to the bedrooms, pull off the sheets the day workers had slept in and put on the sheets that the night workers had slept in the day before and make the beds for those who would any minute come in and want to get their sleep before night fall.

When these men got up and had their meal, Viny would hurry around and remake the beds for the day men who would be coming in any time to go to bed.

No one knows how she did it, but she did it for a number of years, perhaps 5 or 6 – when she changed her habits, sold the boarding house, bought a neat little white house on Ann Arbor Trail, and keeping one steady boarder, she moved to an easier life.

Her daughter, Lydia, still teaching, moved in with her, also, and things were better for Viny.

Lydia had a suitor, a railroad worker, James McNabb, who had invented a gadget for use on the railroads. He was a good looking man and he admired Lydia greatly

She, however, was very hesitant about consenting to marriage, as he was nine years younger than she. The old belief was that the men should be older than the girl he married, and Lydia was very sure their marriage wouldn’t work. He finally convinced her he was only interested in her, and always would be, and they married. She was 34 and he was 25.

They, Lydia and James, moved to Biddle Street in Detroit and after a year, they persuaded Viny to come and live with them.

She felt she would have nothing to do there, but did go – and being Viny, she went out and found herself an occupation that kept her busy for years.

She called on folks selling magazine subscriptions. She got acquainted – told folks about her son, the farmer, who raised exceptional potatoes. cabbages, apples, and chickens!

She then took orders for the farm products, along with the magazine subscriptions, and sending Jim the orders, he and his wife Ella got them ready and Jim delivered them.

Viny also took orders for dressed chickens for Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day,
sometimes as many as 25 for each of these days.

Jim would kill the chickens, Ella would dress them and then on the day before the holiday, he’d deliver the chickens to the delighted customers that Viny had found. He’d also bring in apples, potatoes, cabbage, and carrots. There were no freezer or refrigerators on the farms in those days – however, it was usually cold enough to preserve the chickens for the three days necessary before serving them on the holiday. Ella was especially worn out after cleaning and dressing 25 chickens in a day.

A monumental job! Jim would be worn out after his day in the city delivering the farm products.

One Christmas, while Viny was selling subscriptions, the company she worked for, put out a brochure, saying anyone of their salespeople who sold a certain large number of
subscriptions, could earn a gold watch made by a well known reliable company.

Viny worked very hard that year and earned two of them, giving at Christmas, one watch to Jim and one to his brother Mark. Jim and Mark carried those watches proudly the rest of their lives, Jim living to 96.

After Viny gave up the subscription business – she was still living in Detroit with Lydia and her husband James.

The year 1910. was to be a red letter year for her. Her son Mark and wife Bertha Ostrander, who already had a son and a daughter, in January, brought triplets into the world, two girls and a boy.

In 1910, multiple births were rare beyond twins. No incubators were invented or any other mechanical aid – so it was a world shaking event.

The children were born in a farm house on 7-Mile Road near Northville and weighed from three to four pounds each and were so tiny.

With baby’s normal clothing so much too large for them, it was necessary to adjust, or resewn, the clothing prepared for the one baby that was expected.

The news media wrote about the triplets, came over and took pictures of the children sleeping on pillows in a very warm room.

The January 10th birth date meant .that home fires had to be kept going day and night, never allowed to get below the warm temperature needed by the babies.

Many friends, relatives, and strangers sent gifts. It was a frantic household, with everything centering around the babies’ health and welfare.

Viny came and stayed and helped greatly. The other grandmother, Mrs. Ostrander, also came and helped.

By July the babies were so nearly normal in size and development, everyone was happy about them.

That July, Jim’s wife Ella, gave birth to a fourth child, a boy, named Charles, so Viny came over and assisted Ella for a month.

When Lydia gave birth in early September to her first child, a daughter named Edna Joy, later called Joy, so Viny then went to help Lydia.

So in that year of 1910, Viny became grandmother to 5 children. When the triplets were two years old, diphtheria was more or less epidemic and the one boy named Everett got the disease and passed away. At age five, one of the girls, Lewanda, also passed away with a kidney ailment.

The remaining triplet Lydia is living in Plymouth, Michigan with her husband at this writing.

In the remaining years of Viny’s life, she became more frail and yet using the best of her strength, she visited at her children’s homes and helped them in every way possible.

Ella always worried when Viny came to her house, thinking she would overdo – Ella had five children, and a big garden, lots of work, canning, sewing, and caring for the younger children – with three meals a day for 7 or 8 people. So Viny’s help was appreciated and needed.

Frail as she was in her later years, Viny lived to be 86 and then just slipped away one day.

She left her three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren as follows:

Lydia Joy married James A. McNabb
Edna Joy McNabb married Richard Brown

James Joy married Ella Beckhold
Dorothy Joy married Dale Liscum
Marian Jane Liscum married R.C. Harper
Lois Joy Liscum married William Dexter
Warren Joy married Ora Goers
James C. Joy married Marian Gustafson
Carol Avis Joy married Norman Balone
Ruth Joy married Leo Douglas
Paul M. Douglas married Judy
Charles Joy, not married
Roy Joy married Marie Goodman

Mark Joy married Bertha Ostrander
Leon Joy, died at one year old
Leona Joy, died at 19 years old
Everett Joy died at two years old
M. Lewanda Joy died at 5 years old
. . Lydia Joy married Burton Greenman
Viola – deceased
Fred Geng
Estelle Joy Geng

We are indeed very fortunate and thank our family member, Lois Dexter, for providing
us this early narrative account of Herr family in Michigan, which her mother, Dorothy Joy Liscum (1902 – 1996) wrote based on stories her Grandma Viny Herr told her as a young girl.

Some clarification, however, is needed:

Parents, Fidelius Herr (1782 – 1862) and second wife Mary Anna Hauser (1793 – 1868) brought children, “Fidele, 21, Marianna, 4, Barbara, 7, Theresa, 18, and Johanna, 21, over from Baden on the good ship General Hamilton which docked in New York Harbor on October 25, 1831.

Traveling onto Nankin Township, Michigan, father Fidelius staked the 80 acres family farm out on the Rouge River, near the intersection of Newburgh and Warren Roads in Westland, Michigan.

Fidele Jr., Theresa, and Johanna were children by first wife, Maria Anna Schmidt who had passed away in Achern in 1817, and Marianna and Barbara by his second wife, Marianna, who came to America..

Another daughter Karoline (1803 – 1876) did not emigrate on the first voyage but later came over with her husband, Anton Wunsch, in 1838 to settle at Plymouth, Michigan and later Ada, Kent County, Michigan.

The three younger children, two sons and a daughter, Dorothy talked about were Ignatius (Enos) (1831 – 1912), Joseph (1834 – 1916), and Clarissa (1835 – 1911).

They were born later in Nankin Township, never married and lived on the a farm they had acquired apart from the family homestead Fidele Herr Jr. inherited from the parents. .
Viny’s parents Fidele Herr Jr. and 18-year old, Joanna Euphemia Wilsey (1826 – 1910) married on January 1, 1844 and they had children:

John H. Herr, a cannonaire private in Company G, 1st Michigan Light Artillery who died August 31, 1864 near Kennesaw Mountain GA on Sherman’s march to the sea.

Theresa Hannah Herr (1848 – 1935), who married Minot Weed.
Marretta C. Herr (1850- 1922) who married Alburtus Barnes, and,

Melvina Harriet Herr, or “Viny” as Dorothy called her grandmother, the baby of the
Herr family and heroine of this story.

2 replies on “Harriet Melvina Herr Story”

I enjoyed this article very much. Aunt Vina as she was known in my family stayed with my great-grandparents Bennett and Anna Dean in Detroit from March/April 1902 until after the birth of their son Howard. Bennett Dean was a son of Lydia Joy Dean, a sister of Vina’s husband James and I have a portrait of Aunt Vina, she would have been my GGG-Aunt. There are entries in Bennett’s diaries such as: “Aunt Vina Joy and Lydia called to bid us good bye (Monday June 4). Lydia is going to California for her health and Aunt Vina to Kansas, start tomorrow morning.” “Aunt Vina is back from Kansas and called this evening. (June 27, 1906)” I also have a letter she wrote in 1932 to her niece Edna Dean Mason, and a couple of Joy family reunion photos from 1925. I am working on a history of Nankin Mills in the early days. Do you have any more information about exactly when Vina met her future husband there? or any other family stories about Nankin Mills?

“Thank you for your very nice comments. The article was based on an original document written by Malvina that her grand daughter sent me a few years ago. Vina was a typical feisty stubborn Herr but very lovable I believe.”


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