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William Theodore "Bill" McNitt was born to Walter McNitt and his wife, Ella (Coon) McNitt, on May 9, 1883 on his family's farm in Wright Township, Ottawa County, Michigan (just a few miles northwest of Grand Rapids). His grandfather, also named William, had settled upon this farm when he moved to Michigan in 1849, but later he moved to Walker Township in Kent County and eventually turned the Ottawa County farm over to his oldest son Walter.
Bill's birth record (his name was mistakenly recorded as Walter, but later changed)
Bill's birth certificate - issued after the corrections were made
Young Bill only spent his first year on the farm before his father moved the family into the city of Grand Rapids. Walter was following a growing trend of movement from outlying farms into the city, as the population of Grand Rapids grew from 32,016 in 1880 to 60,278 in 1890. The family first lived on Broadway Avenue and then Turner Avenue on the west side of the Grand River, northwest of the main downtown commercial district, but by the middle of the 1890s they had moved to the residential area along Division Street just south of downtown. Walter initially ran a meat market, then was a partner with his brother Ellsworth in the McNitt Brothers livery stable at 142 Kent Street (later renamed Crescent Street), and later purchased and hauled produce (especially apples and potatoes) from surrounding farms to city stores and markets.
Two pictures of Bill age 12 and one of his sister Grace age 3, ca. 1895
Walter and Ella's marriage was a troubled one from early in Bill's life. Ella felt that Walter did not contribute enough toward the support of her and their son, so by 1888 she began taking in boarders to earn some money to support herself and Bill (and later Bill's sister Grace who was born in 1892). After Ella began earning money of her own, Walter allegedly reduced his support for his family even further.
Ella also accused Walter of being extremely jealous and verbally abusive, even in the presence of the children. Bill remained with his mother throughout this troubled time, but Grace went to live with Ella's sister Alice Almy in Walker Township (northwest of Grand Rapids). By the middle of the 1890s, Walter and Ella were no longer cohabiting together and in 1899, when Bill was sixteen and Grace was seven, they divorced.
Bill, sister Grace, mother Ella, and aunt Alice Almy, ca. 1902
Even after the divorce, Grace continued to live with Aunt Alice while Bill stayed with his mother. The 1900 census shows Bill and Ella living on South Division with Bill (age 17) working as a clerk in a confectionary store while Ella supported them by renting out furnished rooms. Ella's paternal aunt Sally (Coon) Pearson and cousin Stella (Pearson) Brock lived in another unit at the same address and Sally worked as the housekeeper for the rooming house.
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