Early Life in Marne and Grand Rapids, 1913-1923

From the unpublished autobiograpy of James McNitt, 1992

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James McNitt's text Bill McNitt's annotations
To begin at the beginning, I was born on April 9, 1913, on Franklin Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan to William and Emma McNitt. They say that when my older brothers, Walter and Glenn, came home from school, I was in a market basket behind the stove. They were singularly unimpressed.

 Emma Sarah Merrill McNitt holding a baby, probably her son James.

Emma McNitt holding an unidentified baby who is thought to be her son James.

The family is listed at 840 Franklin Street SE in the 1912 and 1913 city directories as are Emma's father Roando Merrill and her sisters Myrnie and Leena.  This was on the south side of Franklin Street just over a block east of Eastern Avenue SE.  The house has not survived - the one standing on that site today was constructed in 2003.

Most of the Grand Rapids addresses mentioned in this history are on streets a mile or two south of the downtown business area and within a few blocks of South Division Avenue.  

My earliest memories are of a few years later. We had moved to the small town of Marne, renamed about that time from Berlin because of the war hysteria. I was enrolled in the local school, and can recall carrying my lunch and eating it there.

The McNitt family James McNitt on the lap of his mother Emma James McNitt (front) with children named Letitia and Louis Thomas Plowman, Ida Maurer, James McNitt, and Evelyn Maurer James McNitt riding a pig Thomas Plowman, Emma McNitt, and James McNitt Walter, Glenn, and James McNitt with their grandmother Ella Coon McNitt  The three McNitt brothers - Walt, James, and Glenn Marne school in 1931 

  • The McNitt family, ca. 1915 (Walt, Glenn, Grandpa Bill, Dad, and Grandma Emma)
  • Dad on the lap of his mother Emma, ca. 1915
  • Dad playing in the snow with friends Letitia and Louis, ca. 1916
  • Dad is third from left in this group of cousins - others are Tom Plowman, Ida Maurer, and Evelyn Maurer, ca. 1916
  • Dad riding a pig, ca. 1918
  • Tom Plowman (left) with his aunt Emma McNitt and cousin Jim, ca. 1917
  • Walt, Glenn, and Jim McNitt with their grandmother Ella Coon McNitt, ca. 1918
  • The three McNitt brothers - Walt, Dad, and Glenn, ca. 1918
  • Marne School in 1931 - the high school was upstairs and the lower grades were downstairs
Judging from the Grand Rapids city directories, the McNitts probably moved to Berlin/Marne (12.6 miles northwest of Grand Rapids) around 1914 and were back in Grand Rapids by 1919. 

The Merrills remained in Grand Rapids, but moved to 339 1/2 South Division and then in 1919 to 107 Logan Street SE (just over a block east of Division). 

That same year we moved back to Grand Rapids. Due to the difference in the school system, I had to start all over, this time at Fountain Street school. The name of the street we lived on escapes me, but it was only a block from where the Grand Rapids Public Library now stands.

Fountain School in Grand Rapids as it appeared in 2013. 

Fountain School, 2011

The city directories for that era do not show a Fountain Street School, so he probably means Fountain School which is located at 159 College Avenue NE - closer to Lyon than to Fountain Street. This building is still in use and currently houses the Grand Rapids Montessori Public School.

The place where they lived in downtown Grand Rapids is not recorded in the city directories. The 1919 directory shows the Cody Court address referred to below.

One day when leaving from school, I went out the wrong door and became lost. Fortunately I had enough sense to stop an American Laundry driver and ask him for help. He took me right to my home.
I wasn't old enough for the war to impress me. When Uncle Elmer came home afterward, I was there with the others at the train station. This must have been 1919, as he was sent to Russia after the armistice to serve with the Polar Bear contingent in the role of a medic.

Elmer Merrill before leaving for the war, with James, Walter, and Glenn McNitt   Elmer Merrill and his father Roando, probably before going overseas. Soldiers in front of an Army hospital (Elmer Merrill in doorway) Union Depot in Grand Rapids.

  • Elmer Merrill in his Michigan National Guard uniform with Dad, Walter, and Glenn McNitt, possibly upon his return from his service in Texas during the Mexican border crisis
  • Elmer Merrill and his father Roando in his U. S. Army uniform
  • Soldiers in front of an Army hospital (Elmer Merrill is standing in the doorway)
  • Union Depot in Grand Rapids
Uncle Elmer was Dad's mother's brother Elmer Merrill. Elmer served in the Michigan National Guard, which was brought into Federal service in 1916-1917 during the Mexican border crisis.  After returning home from that service, his Guard unit was drafted into the regular Army soon after the U. S. entered World War I.

 Although Dad does not specify which train station, most rail traffic in that era used Union Depot at the corner of Oakes Street and Ionia Avenue SW.

The Polar Bear Expedition involved a contingent of about 5,000 United States Army troops (many from Michigan) that landed in Arkhangelsk, Russia as part of the Allied intervention in the Russian Civil War and fought the Red Army in the surrounding region during the period of September 1918 through July 1919. I have found no confirmation in military records that Elmer Merrill was part of this expedition, so any stories he may have told Dad about service in Russia may have come from his friends rather than his own personal experience. There was quite a delay in the return of American troops from Europe after the end of World War I, however, and Elmer's unit did not arrive back in the U.S. until April 1919.

It wasn't long before we moved to Cody Court, just a couple blocks from where my Grandfather, Roando Merrill, and my two maiden aunts, Myrnie and Leena, lived at 107 Logan Street SE. Dad worked at the time for the Grand Rapids and Indiana Railway. This entitled us to a railroad pass, and I made a few trips with my mother, and occasionally my father, to Kansas City to see Grandmother McNitt and to Pellston, Michigan to see an old family friend, Mrs. Betts.

  James at North Park James  

The Merrill home at 107 Logan SE, Grand Rapids James McNitt on the back of Pluto at the farm of his great uncle Arthur Merrill in New Jersey

  • Dad at North Park, ca. 1919
  • Dad in unidentified location, ca. 1921
  • The Merrill home at 107 Logan SE.
  • Dad riding on Pluto, a draft horse, during a visit to a farm, ca. 1921.
The 1919 city directory shows the address as 573 Cody Avenue (just east of Division).  Neither this house nor the Logan Street house occupied by the Merrills for more than forty years is still standing.

I remember frequent visits to Great Aunts Myrnie and Leena in this Logan Street house during my childhood, including gatherings of the entire family every Christmas Eve. Our family would usually spend the night there and return to Holland on Christmas morning.

Grandmother McNitt was Ella Jane Coon McNitt (1862-1938).  After her divorce from Walter McNitt, she married Ernest G. Meyerl and moved to St. Joseph, Missouri. After Meyerl's death she settled in Kansas City, Missouri.

Possibly Mrs.Betts is Effie Grant Betts (1887-1971), wife of Thomas Betts, who appears in census records as living in the Pellston area.

Walter and Glenn in the meantime were growing up. Being 9 and 7 years older than I was, they didn't have much to do with me. They had their own friends, Forrest Timm and the Stover boys - Virgil, later to become my doctor, and Maynard, later my dentist. I occasionally played with their younger sister, Rhea. Walter and Glenn graduated in the same class from Central High School. Glenn had skipped a grade and graduated two days before his 17th birthday.

 Grand Rapids Central High School graduation program, 1923 Grand Rapids Central High School graduation program, 1923 Walter McNitt in the Grand Rapids Central yearbook. Grand Rapids Central High School Glenn McNitt and his friend Forrest Timm

  • Cover and inside page of the Grand Rapids Central High School graduation program for 1923
  • Walter McNitt in the yearbook (Glenn graduated early so he may not have been classified as a senior when the yearbook was being compiled)
  • Exterior of Central High School
  • Glenn McNitt and his friend Forrest Timm
Walter and Glenn graduated from high school on Friday, June 22, 1923, as part of a class of 268.
Sometime during this period I became involved in selling Mentho­Nova salve which I tried to peddle door to door. I suspect relatives bought most of it, but I finally sold enough to win the award, a pair of roller skates. I was disappointed when they came in that they had wooden wheels rather than metal.

Mentho-Nova salve

I was attending South Division school then.  My only memory is of having the palm of my hand beaten with a ruler for talking in class.  I reported this cruelty to a policeman, but he took no action. This school was at the northwest corner of South Division Avenue and Bartlett.  It is no longer standing.