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Arthur Henry & Jennie Augusta (Bennett) Barker

Oscar & Lena Barker 1908

My maternal grandparents, Arthur & Jennie, married 19 March 1905; he was 23, she 20. My Mother, Lena Mae Barker was their second child born 29 September 1907 at Sodus Township, Berrien County, Michigan.  Oscar was their eldest and after Mom they had Forrest, William, Victor. She also had a younger sister, Leatha, who died at age 13.

Arthur Henry Barker
Arthur Henry Barker

The 1910 U.S. Census lists Grandpa Arthur as a Fruit Farmer. He registered for the World War I Draft on 12 September 1918 at which time he was 37 with a wife and four children so ineligible for army service.  He again registered for the draft of World War II but by then he was 61. This record indicates he was 5″9′, weighed 165, had blue eyes, a ruddy complexion with a mole on his forehead, and black & grey hair. Grandma Jennie had divorced him sometime before the 1940 U.S. Census was taken as it listed him as single, however, on 19 September 1948, he married Louise (Brance) Meyers; a second marriage for them both.

His death certificate filed at the Berrien County clerk’s office states cause of death on 15 March 1966 was “carcinoma of sigmoid colon with congestive heart failure”. Sadly, I only have a dim memory of seeing him just once at his farm in Sodus when I was quite young.

Victor Delano Barker

As far as my Barker uncles are concerned, I was closest to Victor who was seven-years older than I. It was because of him I moved in 1951 from Michigan to Wheaton, Silver Spring County, Maryland, just inside the Washington, DC Beltway. I had graduated from Eau Claire High School and was staying at Grandma Barker home in Benton Harbor while looking for work. Uncle Vic and his family were visiting and he suggested I go back to Washington, DC with them and look for work there. I agreed and a few days later left with them. 

I also spent time with Uncle Victor in the years before his death and attended his burial Arlington National Cemetery_Logo@2xwith military honors on Patton Drive at Arlington National Cemetery.  Uncle Victor served under General George S. Patton during WW II but didn’t like him so there is a bit of irony that this was his final resting place! 

Sometime in the 1960s when I was living in Santa Barbara, California, I visited my Uncle Oscar Barker at the pub he and his wife Dorothy owned at Ojai, Ventura County.

Henry L. & Mary Elizabeth (Disbrow) Barker

Grandfather Arthur was the fourth son of Henry L. &  Mary Elizabeth (Disbrow) Barker. On 1 July 1863, they were living at Michigan City, LaPorte County, Indiana when Henry registered for the Civil War Union Army Draft; the record show he was 23, married, and employed as a Teamster. However, I have no information as to whether or not he served in the Union Army and couldn’t find him listed in the Civil War Soldiers and Sailors Database.

The 1880 U.S Census for Sodus, Berrien County, Michigan, taken the year before Arthur’s birth indicate his parents, with their three sons and two daughters, were living on the family farm at Sodus, Berrien County, Michigan. This census record indicated Arthur’s parents, my maternal great-grandparents, were both born in Ohio but, according to the information provided in the census, after marriage they had lived in Indiana & Wisconsin before settling on their farm in Michigan.

Grandpa Arthur was born 24 March, 1881. Sadly, nine-months to the day after his birth, his father Henry died of Typhoid Fever at the age of 44; Great-grandmother Mary was left with six children under the age of 17 and a farm to manage.

The 1990 Census show Arthur is still living with his widowed mother on the family farm and she states both her parents were born in New York. Also, living with them is Mary’s granddaughter Hattie V. Barker. She was born in 1891 in California to Mary’s son, William O. Barker, and his wife, Lizzie T. Venable, who was born in Virginia. On their marriage license William gave his occupation as Goldminer: his residence was North Bloomfield, Nevada County, California; hers was Benton Harbor, Berrien, Michigan. They were married 31 July 1889 by O. F. Landis, Minister of the Gospel at Sodus then went back to California where Hattie was born two-years later. On 17 June 1898, William registered to vote in California at Angels Camp, Calaveras, California.   As of 23 May 2016 I have no more information about why Hattie was living with her grandmother or what may have happened to her parents.

Grandpa Arthur’s grandparents, my 2nd great-grandparents are John H. Barker & Jane McConkey. The 1850 U.S. Census states John was born about 1814 in New York State. His occupation was farmer and the value of the farm was $100 ($33,000 relative 2016 value) and that he could read and write English. His wife Jane who was born around 1817 in Ohio was not literate. At the date of this census they were living in New London, Huron County, Ohio with their three children: Henry age 13; O. Jeanette age 8; Stephen N. age 8 and indicate that all their children had attended school.  I have no date for John’s death but Jane died in 1833 in Sodus Township, Berrien County, Michigan. As of 19 May 2016 I have no further information on the Barker~McConkey lines. 

For more information about the Disbrow ancestry see the Disbrow~Rogers Post.

Grandma Jennie Augusta Bennett was born on August 28, 1884 at St. Louis, Gratiot County, Michigan. Her parents were Joseph M. and Fannie (Briggs) Bennett.

Jennie Agusta Bennett
Jennie Augusta Bennett

The following information about our grandmother was compiled by my sister: Carol Ruth (Tollas) Knapp

My grandmother, Jennie, was one of four children born to Fannie and Joseph Bennett in St. Louis, Michigan. A son, Willard, died in infancy. For some reason, she was adopted by her mother’s maternal grandmother, Narcissa Kemp, who married John Waldron after her first husband, James Bennett died in 1881. Her last name was changed to Waldron.

As Jennie Waldron, she was sent to live at the Lenawee County Michigan State Industrial School for Girls in Adrian, Michigan. Her name appears on the June 11, 1900 roster as Jennie Waldron, 16. This was a school that taught girls domestic trades, and she earned a cooking certificate there. She would never say why she was placed there, and the records have been sealed.

According to a description of the school, “when the board and superintendent were satisfied that girls are qualified, morally and otherwise, and it is to their welfare to leave the Home, places are found for them in the families of the farmers of the state. Great care is exercised in regard to these allotments, and girls can be called in at any time. Each girl receives a salary of from $1.50 to $2.50 per week, and a stipulated portion is returned quarterly to the Home and given the proper credit, the amount being returned to them upon receiving their final discharge.”

When she married my grandfather, Arthur Barker, her name on the marriage license was Jennie [Waldron not] Bennett.  Their children were Oscar, Lena (my mother) Forrest, William, Letha (who died of a congenital heart condition in her teens) and Victor, who was a career Army officer and is buried in Arlington Cemetery.

My grandmother was divorced from my grandfather, and later married his first cousin, William Erastus Tritt, whose mother, Emma Hanna Amelia (Disbrow) Tritt, was the sister of my great-great-grandmother, Mary (Disbrow) Barker. She and William had no children.  

In her later years she developed a dowager’s hump and walked with great difficulty. She came to live with her daughter and son-in-law Lena (my mother) and Alfred Tollas (my father) at 1056 Superior Street, Benton Harbor, where they moved after selling their home in Eau Claire in 1964.  After a stroke, she was moved to a nursing home, where she passed away.

[After she and Grandpa Arthur divorced, she obtained work as] the housekeeper for Maurice Scofield, a prominent Benton Harbor, banker who committed suicide by carbon monoxide poisoning in his car on January 5, 1942. He bequeathed the family residence on Broadway Avenue, Benton Harbor to her.

The 1940 U.S. Census indicates Grandma Jennie lived at the Scofield residence at 486 Broadway Avenue. The house valued at $3,000 ($99,600 real value in 2016) was willed by Scofield to Grandma Jennie after he died two years later.

The last time I saw Grandma Jennie was when we spent a Thanksgiving dinner at her and William’s home in Benton Harbor, Michigan around 1957.

Bucky Bernard, Bob Tollas, Lena Tollas, Alfred Tollas, Unknown Child, Phil Tollas, William Tritt, Jenny Tritt, Frank Tollas, Margie Bernard, Don Bernard, Chuck Tollas
Burton Bernard, Bob Tollas, Lena (Barker) Tollas, Alfred Tollas, Carolyn Tollas, Phil Tollas, William Tritt, Jenny (Bennett) Barker Tritt, Frank Tollas, Margie (Tollas) Bernard, Don Bernard, Chuck Tollas

Joseph M. and Fannie (Briggs) Bennett

Grandma Jennie’s father my great-grandfather Joseph M. Bennett was born on 29 January 1854 at Williams County, Ohio to James M. & Narcissa (Kemp) Bennett. He died on 13 November 1923 at Vestaburg Station, Montcalm County, Michigan with the cause of death being cancer of the lip and jaw.

His obituary stated: Joseph Bennett was born in Williams County, Ohio on Jan. 29, 1854 and died at his home near Vestaburg, Michigan on Nov. 18, 1923 at the age of 69 years, 9 months and 15 days. When a boy he left Ohio and moved to St. Louis, Michigan with his parents, where he was united in marriage in 1882 with Miss Fannie Briggs. To this union was born four children: Mrs. Jennie Barker of Benton Harbor, Mrs. Lottie Snyder of Edmore, Charles Bennett of Belding and one son who died in infancy. Besides he leaves to mourn their loss a loving wife and one brother, Alonzo Bennett of St. Louis, Michigan and a host of friends. He also had brothers James, Edward and Charles. He was a machinist.

James M. & Narcissa (Kemp) Bennett

Great-grandfather, Joseph was the second son born to James M. & Narcissa (Kemp) Bennett who are my 2nd great-grandparents. In 1860 U.S. Census gives their address as Coe Township, Isabella County, Michigan. As their first child, Alonzo, was six-years of age indicates James and Narcissa may have married around 1854. 

During the Civil War, James enlisted from Waverly, Michigan on 29 February 1864 into the Union Army. He was part of Company H, Michigan Thirteenth Infantry which was with General Sherman on his famous “march to the sea” that ended at Savannah, Georgia which surrendered on 16 December 1864. He also participated in the victory march at Washington, DC shortly thereafter. James was hospitalized on 5 July 1865 at Harper Hospital, Detroit, Michigan and was discharged from service there on 18 July.

The following is from Michigan Volunteers in the Grand Army of the Republic:

“The Michigan Thirteen Infantry was organized at Kalamazoo on 17 January 1862 under Col. Charles E. Stuart, Kalamazoo; U. S. Army Captain Orlando H. Moore, Schoolcraft; Maj. Frederick W. Worden, Grand Rapids; Surgeon, Alexander, Dexter; Asst. Surgeon, Foster Pratt, Kalamazoo; Adj. John B. Culver, Paw Paw; Quartermaster George F. Kidder, Kalamazoo.

“In January, 1864, the regiment veteranized, 173 re-enlisting, and returned to Kalamazoo, where it arrived the 12th and was furloughed for thirty days. It returned to Chattanooga on the 12th of April with a large number of recruits, [one of whom was 2nd Great-Grandfather James M. Bennett. (MTB)] and was soon actively engaged in the construction of military hospitals on Lookout Mountain, and in the pursuit of General Forest, until November [1864], when it joined the army under General Sherman and was assigned to the Second Brigade, First Division, Fourteenth corps. It marched with Sherman to the sea and reached Savannah on the 16th of December [1864]. After the city surrendered, the Thirteenth marched with Sherman’s army through South and North Carolina, meeting the enemy at several points and fighting a pitched battle with General Johnson and Hardee’s forces in Bentonville, N. C., the 19th of March [1865], where the regiment sustained heavy loss, the last battle of importance fought by Sherman’s army.

“After General Johnson’s surrender the Thirteenth marched to Richmond, Va., and thence to Washington, D. C, where it took part in the grand review.

“On the 9th of June [1865] the regiment proceeded to Louisville, Ky., where it was mustered out of service July 25, and arrived in Jackson, Mich., July 17, 1865, where it was paid off and disbanded.”

Major battles 2nd great-grandpa James Bennett would have been engaged in were:

  • October 8, 1864:  Florence, Alabama
  • December 17, 18, 20, 21 1864: Savannah, Georgia
  • February 28, 1865 Catawba River, South Carolina
  • March 16, 1865 Averysboro, North Carolina
  • March 19, 1865 Bentonville, N. Carolina

In the 1880 U.S. Census the family was living at St. Louis, Gratiot County, Michigan. This being the first census in which the birthplace of parents are required, James gives Vermont as the birthplace of his father, New York for his mother. Narcissa lists both her parents as born in Ohio. They now are a family of five sons all single: Alonzo (27), Joseph (24) who were born in Ohio & three, James (18), Edward (16) and Charles (8) born Michigan.

After James died in November 1881, Narcissa married John S. Waldron a year later. As the widow of James, Narcissa filed for his Civil War pension in September 1910, a year before she died. Then in October 1916 the right to receive his pension was contested by Elizabeth Emerson. I have no information about Elizabeth Emerson so who she was and how this was resolved remains a mystery.

Second Great-grandmother, Narcissa Kemp, born in 1835 in Richland, Vinton County, Ohio as the third child daughter of Jacob M. Kemp (1811-1881) & Harriet Hoy (1810-1891). Jacob first had a farm in Ohio, then Michigan, and mid-life owned a grocery.  For information about these ancestors see the Kemp~Hoy Post.

Hadleigh Hill Farm

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Our First Homeplace – Margie (Tollas) Bernard

“Smell is a potent wizard that transports you across thousands of miles and all the years you have lived.” -Helen Keller

Whenever I get a whiff of boxwood, daffodils, curry spices, or geraniums I find myself transported back to my childhood home in Michigan. These odors, individually or separately, recall the boxwood hedge surrounding the manor house at Hadleigh Hill Farm in Royalton Township, Berrien County. One field was carpeted with yellow daffodils in spring; its kitchen contained pantry shelves filled with exotic spices; the woodsy odor of geraniums transport me to the four-room cottage where I lived with my parents and brothers Frank, Bob, Calvin, Phil and for a few months in 1944, Chuck.

Me as an Infant
Me and Brother Frank who is 18-months younger.

My Mom and Dad, Alfred & Lena (Barker) Tollas, married 23 May 1931 during the height of the Great Depression; he was 27, she 23. The ceremony was performed by Rev. F. C. Schmidt at the Zion Evangelical Church in St. Joseph, Berrien County, Michigan. Their witnesses were Mom’s brother Oscar Barker and his wife Dorothy.  Their marriage license state that Dad’s occupation was landscaping and Mom’s was factory work. They were hyphenated Americans, Dad first-generation Pommern-Prussian; Mom, third generation Irish.

My Dad: Alfred Ewald Richard Tollas

They both had attended high school and Dad earned a degree in architectural drafting from the Chicago Technical College. (‘Diploma’ was the first word I learned to spell due to frequently staring at his graduation certificate on the wall next to the day-bed where I slept in our combined dinning-living room.) However, he never worked at his chosen profession; the Wall Street Crash of 1929 resulted in few requests for construction blueprints during the dim, dark, work-less years of the depression. Instead, he located a position as the gardener and general handyman on William Woodbridge Dickenson’s Hadleigh Hill Farm estate.

My Mom: Lena Mae Barker.

WW (as Mom referred to Dickenson) made his fortune as co-founder of the Marquette Cement Factory  in Chicago, Illinois just across Lake Michigan from his estate in Michigan. There his imposing manor was situated on the St. Joseph River that ran between the twin cities of Benton Harbor/St. Joseph in Berrien County.

Dickenson House







In addition to the manor, there were stables for horses, milking sheds for cows, a carpentry shop, and a hay barn that housed chicken coops. These buildings formed a U-shaped compound where, at the left front end, was a small dwelling in which lived Mrs. Hayhurst, WW’s housekeeper, and her son Johnny.

At the back of the manor-house a lawn slopped down to the river. On one side was an enclosed English flower garden with a greenhouse that was heated in the winter, and on the other a fenced-in tennis court. The front yard was hedged by boxwood bushes kept well-trimmed by Dad. He also maintained the estate’s vegetable garden, flower garden and greenhouse, fed and milked the cows and tended the horses.

With the help of Albert, the day-worker, Dad harrowed the fields with a horse-drawn plough, then planted field-corn and hay  to feed the animals in winter. They shoveled out the manure from the barns to add to a compost heap used to fertilize the fields. They pruned the apple, pear, peach orchards; sprayed them with sulfur to prevent insect damage; then harvested their fruit in the fall. In his spare time, Dad repaired farm equipment and did carpentry work. In exchange for his labor, Dickenson provided Dad with a two-bedroom cottage and garden plot to house and feed his expanding family. Although I suspect Dad’s wages were slight, he managed to save enough to buy a Ford.

Frank & I and our first Ford

The cottage had no central heating, indoor toilet or running water. On the kitchen counter a water pump located over the sink had to be primed before water could be pulled from a cistern that gathered its contents from both heaven and earth. There was a Stanley Range cooker for cooking, baking and heating water that filled a large, round tin tub on Friday night for my brothers and my weekly bath;  being the only female, I was first to get plunked into the freshly heated water. There was also a storage pantry off the kitchen and it was in this pantry I exhibited my first act of culinary preference and independence.

Except for being an excellent baker of bread, cakes and pies Mom wasn’t a good cook. One morning, I refused to eat yet another bowl of scorched porridge. After about ten minutes trying to coax me to eat, she put me and the bowl of porridge into the pantry, closed the door saying, “When you finish your breakfast, you can come out.” I stayed there hours until she finally relented and released me; the porridge uneaten.

Just before the double Dutch doors between the kitchen and dining/living room another door opened unto a stairway that led down to the basement where there was a coal storage bin sectioned off underneath a small window. In the fall, the coal man would insert a tin ramp from his truck down which thundered our winter supply of coal. The basement had shelves along two sides to hold the canned fruits and vegetables that my mother preserved from our garden and the farm’s orchards to take us through the long, cold, snowy winters. There were also bins for storing potatoes and other root vegetables.

The cottage window sills were always filled with pots of geraniums my father brought home from the greenhouse. I was given the task of keeping them watered and pruned of dead leaves. Sometimes in haste I broke off a still green leaf and its smell reminded me of newly plowed earth. Their blossoms were various shades of red and pink and when the plants died my father would bring home more.

Elsie (William's wife), her mother, Lena Tollas, Jenny Barker, Forest Barker, Alfred Tollas, and kneeling, William Barker, I think the children are those of William & Elsie. This is a side view of our Hadleigh Hill Farm cottage.
Elsie (William’s wife), her mother, Lena Tollas, Jenny Barker, Forest Barker, Alfred Tollas, and kneeling, William Barker, I think the children are those of William & Elsie. This is a side view of our Hadleigh Hill Farm cottage.

A small entry room off the kitchen, where we removed our boots and hung our coats, led to the back yard. At the left of the house was our vegetable garden; beyond that an apple orchard. Once a tornado took out nearly a row of these trees, luckily missing our cottage. Our back yard had a storage shed that contained a chicken coop whose hens provided eggs and an occasional roast chicken dinner. There was also a pigsty whose pigs were slaughtered in the spring to provide us ham, sausage, head cheese and souse.  Our milk came from the estates’ herd of cows and we churned our own butter. In summer, an icebox holding a block of ice kept perishables fresh; in the cold winter-months this was not needed.

An outdoor toilet off the back-yard provided we youngsters one memorable occasion of adult folly: Mom and Dad hosted a New Year’s Eve party attended by aunts and uncles who were seeing in the New Year and sending off to WWII,  William and Victor Barker, my mother’s brothers. This was the only memory I have of alcohol ever being served in our house, perhaps due to the story told about Dad’s overindulgence that night which caused him to lose his dental plates down one of the toilet holes where he emptied the contents of his sick stomach the next morning.

The back yard also contained clothes lines that stretched between the cottage and the shed. In winter, our freshly washed laundry hung in stiff frozen lines until the faint sun thawed and eventually dried it which often took several days to accomplish.

The dirt road to our cottage from Dickenson Lane off the Niles Road that ended at St Joseph/Benton Harbor, was separated from our front yard by a hedge of spiraea which bloomed white in spring. In the middle of the yard was a tall elm tree on which hung a rope and board swing. The ground underneath the swing had a small indentation of bare earth attesting to its frequent use.

When I was born October 7, 1932, Mom & Dad were living on Nickerson Avenue in Benton Harbor and shortly afterward we moved to Hadleigh Hill. I was the eldest of what would become seven and one of my earliest memories was of cold Michigan winters spent sledding down a hill that ended at a large field which in spring became a carpet of yellow daffodils. The first time I read these lines: ‘I wander’d lonely as a cloud / That floats on high o’er vales and hills, / When all at once I saw a crowd, / A host, of golden daffodils / . . . .Ten thousand saw I at a glance, / Tossing their heads in sprightly dance’, from William Wordsworth’s poem The Daffodils, I immediately focused on my golden field where the sight of thousands of golden trumpets in bloom heralded the end of winter. Every year when I spot my first daffodil I bend down, close my eyes and inhale deeply of its scent to mark the beginning of another spring.

This daffodil field was met at its furthest edge by a small forest that contained a ravine which led to a sandy beach on the St. Joseph River where Dad frequently fished for bass and trout. This was also where my  brothers and I learned to swim. In the forest grew wild grape vines which, Tarzan-like, we would grab onto and swing in an arc along the edge of the ravine.

Where we learned to swim and my Dad fished
St. Joseph River That Borders Hadleigh Hill Farm.

In March 1934, I was christened at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church on Napier Avenue, St. Joseph by Rev. F. C. Schmidt.

My Christening Photo

Years later, I had my comeuppance at this same church when about eight or nine.  That morning I and my brothers attended Sunday School in the basement of the church while our parents were at that morning’s sermon upstairs. Our session ended and while waiting for our patents fetch us,  I circled my arms around a post in the center of the room and began swinging around it faster and faster. Just as our teacher tried to stop me, I lost my grip and slammed onto the floor.  When I fell my teeth clamped down on my tongue causing a gash which began to bleed profusely. I was rushed to the local hospital emergency room where the gash was sutured; however,  afterward my tongue began to swell preventing me fully closing my mouth or chewing food. I was put on a liquid diet of juice and eggnog until my tongue healed. This was doubly aggravating occurring as it did just before our annual Thanksgiving dinner; instead of eating turkey dinner with all its trimmings, I was appeased with numerous helpings of chocolate pudding and ice cream.

Me Holding Calvin

Every noon, Dad came home for lunch. Just before he arrived Mom would send Frank, Bob, Calvin and me into the dining/living room, latching the bottom Dutch door between it and the kitchen to keep us out of her way. With the top door open, she could keep an eye on us while she prepared lunch. One day, when he came home, Dad opened the bottom door but didn’t immediately latch it shut. Calvin, who was nearly two, toddled after him and before he could be stopped, tugged on the electric cord attached to the coffee pot and its contents poured over him.

Calvin's Grave
Calvin’s Grave at Riverview Cemetery, St. Joseph, Michigan

I had just turned six, and although this was a most traumatic event for a six-year-old to witness, my only memory of that day is of my mother holding Calvin on her lap wrapped in a white sheet while she rocked him back and forth in the wooden rocking chair. Calvin died the next day. After his funeral at the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, Calvin was buried in the family plot at Riverview Cemetery in St. Joseph.

I, and when they were old enough, Frank and Bob, attended Royalton Elementary School, a two-room building located one-and-one-half miles to which we walked every day from our cottage no matter what the weather. I started Kindergarten just after I turned five in October 1937. Mrs Bussie was my teacher. One room was used as a classroom, the second served as a recreation room in winter when play outdoors was prohibited by snow several feet deep and nose-pinching cold. With the exception of the one year my cousin Beverly Krause lived in the area and joined me, I was the only person in my class for the six-years I attended, so I was both the best and worst student in my grade. What made this all-grade classroom unique was if I failed to learn a concept one year, it was made available to me when the teacher was explaining it to those in the year behind me.

Royalton Elementary School. This is Now the Berrien County Center for Children Which Treats Sexually Abused Youngsters

One summer afternoon, after I learned to write the alphabet, my mother made me take a nap on her and Dad’s bed. I wasn’t tired, so to pass the time until she let me out, I took a safety-pin and diligently and proudly scratched the entire alphabet, in capital letters, across the solid walnut headboard. Mom was not pleased with evidence of my newly acquired skill.

Our school was a sturdy brick building that years later I learned WW, in a spirit of noblesse obliges, had had built to educate young people in the area. The main classroom had tall windows lining one side, a cloakroom the other. On the sill of one window was a pencil sharpener where I often stood sharpening pencils while gazing out the window daydreaming. A door at the far end of the room led to an anti-room that contained a furnace. At the back of the classroom, a door led to a hall with toilets on each end, one for boys and one for girls that contained the first flush toilets I’d ever seen.

One day when I was having difficulty learning to spell ‘February’, Mrs. Martin made me sit alone in the furnace room until I memorized it. About five minutes later I became bored so opened the back door, left, and walked home. Later that day, Mrs. Martin drove to our house looking for me which proved to be quite embarrassing because the incident was repeatedly told by Mom to numerous relatives while I stood squirming at the revelation of my inability to spell.

When I was eight, I was hired to work in the manor house kitchen; taught how to scour stainless-steel sinks using Bon Ami powder with a damp cloth then polished spotless with a soft towel. The kitchen smelled of a strange spice which, the first time I ate at an Indian restaurant in Washington, D.C. some thirty-years later, I realized were curry spices. I earned five cents an hour learning to make the sinks sparkle and I suspect initial training to eventually replace Mrs. Hayhurst when she retired.

This was the idyllic setting of my childhood. I looked upon the grounds, forest, river, tennis court, greenhouse, sledding hills, fields and animals as mine. My brothers and I never questioned our right to explore and enjoy this private playground. And, to my delight, there were always books to read which I would do endlessly into the night until it was too dark to see words on the page. I never gave second thought to whether we were rich or poor, there was always enough food to eat and adequate clothing to wear.  However, my innocence about our financial and class status was to end with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the Japanese on December 7, 1942.

Me Holding Phil in Front of our Hadleigh Hill Cottage.

We heard the news of the bombing while at Grandma Tollas’ home in St. Joseph celebrating my brother Bob’s sixth birthday. When I awoke the following morning, I felt a deep, unnamed fear grow in the pit of my stomach as I watched Mom and Dad huddled next to the radio listening to the news. The volume was so low I couldn’t make out what was being said but felt something terrible had happened to threaten my safe, secure world.

Kingsley Avenue. Back Row; Frank, Me & Bob in front of whom is Phil with various cousins.
Kingsley Avenue. Back Row: Frank, Me & Bob in front of whom is Phil with various cousins.

Shortly after my youngest brother, Chuck, was born in January 1944, the Tollas family home in St. Joseph was sold. When my father received his share, he showed us the four crisp $100 bills he’d received and I knew we were now wealthy! However, I soon learned the truth when in the spring of that year we were forced to pack our personal belongings and move from the estate. With the country at war, every able-bodied male was called upon to either join the military or work in an industry that aided the war effort. My father’s age and large family made him ineligible for the military and his work on the estate didn’t offer deferment, so he eventually obtained employment as night watchman at the Industrial Rubber Company in Benton Harbor. Because Dad could no longer attend to his duties at the estate, we were forced to vacate our home at Hadleigh Hill Farm.

Eau Claire House

We moved into a barn a few mines away that had recently housed animals. My father bought this place using his small inheritance as a down-payment. The farm had ten acres, mostly clay, rendering it useless to grow crops but then we had no equipment to farm with and no money to purchase what was needed. The barn consisted of one room that was two stories high sited beside a creek that frequently flooded preventing us from reaching the main road that led into the small town of Eau Claire a mile away. On the other side of the creek a natural spring provided drinking water we carried in buckets to the house

We moved with little more than our clothes, kitchen-ware and bedding to sleep on. The furniture in our former cottage belonged to WW and it took quite some time to buy replacements. Our new home had recently housed animals from the adjacent farm and smelled of manure combined with the peculiar odor of bedbugs that were its long-term residents. Their blood-filled bodies had a smell that haunted me for years.

Endnote: Although she never lived there, my sister Carol (Tollas) Knapp, a correspondent for the St. Joseph/Benton-Harbor Harold-Palladium, wrote an article in the 1900s about the demise of Hadleigh Hill Farm. She reported that several years earlier, the manor house had burnt to the ground and untended the land returned to its former wild state of hardwood and pine tree forests, overgrown brush and wild grass. However, she related that the estate had recently been bought by two developers and renamed River Trace Estates. The site was being turned into a luxury urban development of 39 one-acre lots priced from $45,000 to $115,000 each.

Published: 04/19/2016