Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Tough Times Shape Tough People in Depression-Era Michigan and Canada

With thoughts of the Dust Bowl family stories going around in my head, my thoughts have turned to another classic Depression saga - that of my great-grandfather, Homer R. Shafer, and his wife, Mary Ethel.

Homer was apparently a very astute businessman...or at least he considered himself one. He and Mary Ethel were married in 1903 and 2 years later my grandmother, Helen Viola Pauline Shafer was born. By the time Homer and Mary had been married for 20 years or so, they had four children and were living in a huge old Victorian mansion, pictured below, that they rented on the well-to-do island of Grosse Ile, south of Detroit, in middle of the Detroit River. Helen and her siblings told many stories about the horse-riding they did, the farm animals they had, and the generally wonderful times they enjoyed in their years on Grosse Ile.

In fact, I remember stories told of how the house was full of old furniture and other possessions when they first moved in. The kids had a great time exploring and, as they got settled, they started finding crisp dollar bills hidden in odd places. The prior owners had apparently hidden them, then forgotten where they put them.

Homer was a real estate agent and fancied himself a real estate developer, too. He purchased a large plot of land in Windsor, Ontario, and subdivided it into many lots, intending to create a large development. Things didn't go as planned, however, and the Depression intervened. Unable to pay the property taxes, Homer eventually lost all of the property except for the one house that had been built on it. He and Mary moved there from Grosse Ile, and lived there for most of the rest of their lives. The picture below is of Helen and her husband Ted, taken in front of her parents' home (the Windsor, Ontario, house) in 1934.

The Grosse Ile house burned down in the 1940's.

The Windsor, Ontario, house was still there in 2002 (photo above), when I visited it with my mother and her 2 sisters on a family history trip through Canada and Michigan. It now sits completely surrounded by tiny little homes that look like they were built in the 1940's. The house is still well cared for and the attractive yard is full of big trees and well groomed gardens.

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