Life on Sheldon Street, 1923-1927

From the unpublished autobiograpy of James McNitt, 1992

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James McNitt's text Bill McNitt's annotations
At a guess I was 8 or 9 when we moved to 35 Shelby Street. This was an older two family house. We occupied the upstairs and rented out the downstairs. Lighting was by gas. There was a gas heater for hot water. Heating was done with a pot-bellied coal stove in the large dining room, which ran into the front living room with only a short section of wall separating the two rooms. There were two bedrooms with an adjoining double closet through which one could walk from one bedroom into the other. The family first appears at this address in the 1923 city directory.  The house was slightly west of Division.

Currently there is a duplex at this address, but it was built in 1992.

In later years the gas lights would be replaced with electric. It was my job to go down two flights of stairs into the Michigan basement to haul coal up in a shuttle. A Michigan basement is one hollowed out only part way under the house, with no walls except for the impacted dirt. In the back there were shelves for the canned fruits and vegetables put up in season, and sometimes canned venison from Dad's hunting forays.
For quite a while I shared the front bedroom with Glenn, now working in a sales job for Swift & Company. Walter had gone on to a sales job with the Fordson Tractor Comany in the Detroit area. This was run by William Ford, Henry Ford's brother. The Swift meat packing company was first founded in 1855 in Eastham, Massachusetts. It was finally in Chicago, Illinois, that Swift and Company was incorporated in 1875. In addition to meatpacking, Swift sold various dairy and grocery items.

Between 1917 and 1922, the Fordson was for tractors somewhat like the Ford Model T was for automobiles—it captured the public's imagination and widely popularized the machine, with a reliable design, a low price affordable for workers and farmers, a widespread dealership network, and a production capacity for large numbers. 

William Ford did not run the Fordson Tractor Company, but William Ford & Company. was the tractor distributor for Muchigan and northern Ohio.  Undoubtedly Walter worked for William Ford's distributorship rather than directly for Fordson. 

Glenn had a bout with ear trouble, with resulting agony and sleepless nights for both of us until it ran its course. It left him with a perforated ear drum, which would one day keep him out of the armed forces.
In later years he was overcome by gas while taking a bath. Fortunately a friend, the earlier mentioned Forrest Tirnm, was in the house with him, discovered his plight and rescued him before it could kill him. It was discovered that a bird had built a nest in the vent, blocking it off.
The neighborhood was a pleasant one, perhaps slightly seedy. Across the street and down a bit was a Spiritualist church. It seems to me that I once attended a service there, but if so, it left no impression. At the end of the street, where it ran into Division Avenue, was the Liberty Theater. There for a dime on Saturday afternoons children could see a comedy, a chapter of a serial, and a movie, usually a Western. All these of course were silent. The Liberty was a brick and stucco theater built in 1916 and seated 614. It closed in the 1950s.
On the corner was a vacant lot where the neighborhood boys played their games, baseball, football, duck on a rock, king of the hill and others. I once organized a complete track meet, with a large stone for the shot put and a pan cover for the discus. In my back yard I set up a nine-hole golf course, with tin cans buried in the earth for holes. This was condoned by my parents, but when I tried to extend one hole into the front yard, the extension was strongly discouraged.
I was enrolled at Sheldon School, about four blocks from home. Across the side street from the school was the South Congregational church, where my mother attended services while I went to Sunday School.

Sheldon Apartments Current church at the corner of Sheldon and Delaware. James McNitt missing a few of his teeth

  • Sheldon Apartments (formerly Sheldon School) in 2011
  • St. Luke AME Zion Church (formerly South Congregational Church) in 2011
  • Dad in elementary school years, missing a few teeth 
The school was at 1010 Sheldon SE - the corner of Sheldon and Delaware. The building is now owned by the Grand Rapids Housing Commission and has been turned into low-income senior citizen apartments.

South Congregational Church moved from 101 Delaware SE (corner of Sheldon and Delaware) to the corner of Madison and Alger in 1949 and remained in existence until 2001.  Its historical records are preserved in the Congregational Library & Archives, Boston, Massachusetts.  See the finding aid.

When South Congregational Church moved from 101 Delaware, it sold the building to St. Luke AME Zion Church, the oldest African American church in Grand Rapids (founded ca. 1863).

In the fourth grade, when I was 10, 1 started wearing glasses. This was uncommon for children in those days, and there were jibes of "Four-eyes" or "Specs" from the other children. Several pairs were broken over a period of time. On one occasion a jump rope caught the corner and pulled them from my face.
An unpaved alley ran behind the house. A double garage faced on the alley. I used this road as a shortcut when going to the grocery a couple blocks away. One day, sent on an errand by my mother, I was flipping a half dollar in the air when it fell down the inside of a row of cement blocks in an unfinished garage. I returned home and tried to dig some money out of my piggy bank to replace it, but was discovered.
Dad bought a lot on Bass Lake, about 35 miles north. One weekend he took several men from the railroad, and with their help put up a cabin. At first it was only the bottom half, with a tent stretched over the top. Later the top half was added. There were two bedrooms, with two additional beds on the screened-in front porch. At times all the beds were occupied. Water was supplied by a pitcher pump over the kitchen sink. It frequently needed priming. Kerosene lamps were used until later years, when the REA (Rural Electrification Agency) made it possible to install electric power.

The Merrill sisters - Leena Merrill, Emma McNitt, and Myrnie Merrill - at Bass Lake The Merrill sisters - Leena Merrill, Emma McNitt, and Myrnie Merrill - at Bass Lake Bill McNitt and friends setting out to fish at Bass Lake Bill McNitt and friends setting out to fish at Bass Lake Bill McNitt and friend at Bass Lake with the day's catch Bill McNitt and friends share a meal at Bass Lake

  • The Merrill sisters - Leena Merrill, Emma McNitt, and Myrnie Merrill - outside the cottage at Bass Lake, 1923
  • The Merrill sisters - Leena Merrill, Emma McNitt, and Myrnie Merrill - outside the cottage at Bass Lake, 1923 (note the tent over the top)
  • Two photos of Bill McNitt (left) and friends setting out to fish at Bass Lake, 1923
  • Bill McNitt (left) and friend show off the day's catch at Bass Lake, 1923
  • Bill McNitt (right) and firends share a meal at Bass Lake, 1923 (These may be the friends from the railroad who helped build the cottage)
Bass Lake is in Montcalm County, east of Howard City.
Some years Mother and I spent most of the summer here, with Dad coming up on weekends. I learned to swim and to row the flat-bottomed rowboat. So susceptible was I to sunburn that I wore a thin shirt even when swimming. We had many fish dinners from the supply of bluegills, sunfish, perch and bullheads, even an occasional black bass. Sometimes we had froglegs as well. In the early days there were only a few cottages, but as more and more were built the lake became fished out. With someone accompanying me in the rowboat, I once swam across the lake, using an awkward sidestroke. It was about a quarter mile, quite an accomplishment for one more interested in books than physical accomplishments.

James McNitt at Bass Lake  James McNitt with his great aunt Emeline Woodin Francisco at Bass Lake

Dad at Bass Lake, ca. 1923; Dad with his great aunt Emeline Woodin Francisco at Bass Lake, ca. 1923

By the time I was growing up, this cottage had been sold to another family. My father knew the family and rented the cottage for a week or two many of the summers of my childhood.  When we were there in the 1950s and early 1960s, the cottage still had an outhouse and the only source of water was still the pump at the kitchen sink.
We probably had others, but the only car we had that I remember was a Dodge touring car. It was open at the sides, but isinglass curtains could be fastened on during inclement weather. Aunt Leena drove a Star four-door, made by Durant. One day when we were riding with them to Lansing, we hit. a stretch of loose gravel, skidded and turned over. Mother sustained a gash over her eye, but the rest of us were unhurt.

Leena Merrill going for a drive with her sisters Myrnie and Emma and her father Roando

Leena Merrill going for a drive with her sisters Myrnie and Emma and father Roando.

For more information about the Star touring car, see Wikipedia or the Durant Motors Automobile Club site.
In downtown Grand Rapids at the Grand Rapids Herald plant, movies were shown on Sunday afternoon. Priority was given to newsboys, but others were allowed in the spacious auditorium. I recall bringing home the news as posted on a bulletin board outside that Ex-President Wilson had died (1924). The Herald was the morning newspaper in town.  It closed in 1959.
There were friends around; Clarence Bosma (with whom I once had a fight, which I lost), Bob Jones, next door, Dick Suggitt and others. For a few years the Sebrights lived downstairs from us, with three daughters, Clarice, around my age, Margaret and Mildred, a bit older. Thus I wasn't lacking in female companionship.
For the most part, though, I was a loner, playing games by myself.  I remember the game of Oz, with travels through Munchkinland, the Emerald Forest, etc.  Another favorite was a small auto race car game.  A marble rolled down an incline in the center landed in holes with various instructions for advancement or delays.  I developed a baseball game, complete with a league and complete rosters of players with batting percentages and other statistics.  A  dart fashioned from a kitchen match with the head removed, with a needle inserted at one end and paper wings at the other, was thrown at a target with hits, walks, outs, etc., shown on it.
In addition I was a voracious reader, drawing armfuls of books from the library. Early favorites, the several Oz books, also the Brownie books, later the Bobbsey Twins and the Tom Swift series, then on to H. G. Wells, O. Henry and more adult books. Glenn bought for me Ivanhoe and The Ten Boys from Dickens. I had a subscription to American Boy magazine which I eagerly awaited each month. Dad doesn't mention which library he frequented.  In addition to the Grand Rapids Public Library's main builiding downtown, by 1925 there was a free-standing branch on the west side of the river and 19 branches in public schools.  The branches in schools were open to the general public and staffed by city librarians. 

The closest branch to Dad's house was at South High School (0.4 miles).  The South High branch library was open six days a week from 8:15 a.m. to 9:00 p.m. during the school year and 12:30 to 9:00 p.m. during school vacations.  Visits to the main library downtown and its vast collections (1.6 miles from home) were probably less frequent.

As of 1927, the library and its branches had 300,000 volumes and a circulation of 900,000 volumes annually.

The American Boy was a monthly magazine published by The Sprague Publishing Co. of Detroit, Michigan from November 1899 to August 1941. At the time it was the largest magazine for boys, with a circulation of 300,000, and it featured action stories and advertising for the young boy.

Dad by now had gone to work for the A. & P. at 652 Wealthy Street. He would remain here for several years. I occasionally helped out a bit there.

William T. McNitt in his A&P grocery store

William T. McNitt in his A&P grocery store, ca. 1926

A&P is a grocery store chain. The first city directory to show this as his occupation is dated 1925 and the last is 1927, although he is listed as a store manager in 1928 and may have still been with A&P.
Glenn went on to college at Trinity College in Hartford, Connecticut.  His first semester was interrupted by an appendicitis operation.  While he was in the hospital he was visited by the Archbishop of Canterbury.  Because of his operation and perhaps for other reasons he did not go on beyond the first year.
Walt invited me over to Detroit to go to a baseball game. In a slug­fest the Detroit Tigers beat the New York Yankees 18-12. This was in the era of Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig on the Yankees, Charlie Gehringer and Harry Heilman for the Tigers. Babe Ruth did not hit a home run that day, but many others did. Walt took me to a chicken dinner afterwards, but due to nausea brought on by the excitement and the various snack foods consumed at the game, I was unable to eat a thing, much to his chagrin.
My collecting activities were confined to cigar bands, cigar smoking being more prevalent than it is today.
In the sixth grade I was a member of the spelling team, and took part in matches with other schools, which we either won or tied. Too many teams were left in contention for the city title, so a written exam was held. I did not shine in this, correctly spelling only 89 out of 100; this however was better than any of my teammates.
We had several dogs during this period, few of whom I remember clearly. There was Barney, a Kentucky Red-bone. There was another, afraid of his own shadow, who was struck by a trolley car, took off howling, and was never seen again.

James McNitt with unknown dog James McNitt James McNitt and unknown dog

James McNitt holding a cat

Dad and unknown dog at 33-35 Shelby in Grand Rapids, ca. 1926; Dad with an unknown cat in Grand Rapids, ca. 1926

My only spanking came when I remonstrated too strongly at the size of a helping of an unloved vegetable doled out to me. I was sent from the table to await a vigorous spanking by my mother with a carpet slipper.
Eventually I moved up into Junior High School, housed in the same building as South High School. Seventh and eighth grades were classed as Junior High; ninth and up as High School. It was only about five blocks from home, only slightly farther than the elementary school, or "grade school" as it was termed then.

 Postcard of South High School in 1925

Postcard of South High School in 1925.

South High School was located at the southwest corner of Hall Street and Jefferson Avenue SE. The Gerald R. Ford Job Corps Center of the U.S. Department of Labor currently occupies the building.
No particular memories of Junior High remain. Since we remained in the same house, the switch in schools was not too pronounced. I seem to remember one teacher, Miss McNeal (Mrs.?). Our debating group was awarded a decision by the student judges, and she objected to it.  I objected to her objection, which brought forth personal criticism. This same teacher once kept me from a class outing after school for some minor infraction of her rules. Otherwise, I was a slightly better than average student.

Ina McNeal

The South High School yearbook for 1931 shows this teacher's name as Ina M. McNeal.  Census records show that she was unmarried.