You know what’s funny? During the two years I’ve lived in the mitten, it’s been incredibly easy to point out all the things that I’m unfamiliar with—winter sports, “Michigan left turns,” even living in a metropolitan area—but rarely do I stop to think about the roots that I have here.
That’s right, y’all: my family hails from Michigan.
Now, before you get overly-excited or confused, let me clarify. For those of you who don’t know me, I was born and raised in southwest Virginia. My grandmother, on the other hand, grew up in Palmyra, Michigan, and comes from a line of Michigan-reared ancestors. By the time I was born, my grandparents lived in Kentucky, and everyone else in my not-too-extended family had scattered all over the place. Thus, my unfamiliarity with Palmyra and the memories my mother’s side of the family had acquired over the years.
So, why the sudden urge to visit?
I was at a loss of how to spend a recent Saturday. I knew I wanted to take a road trip, but I didn’t want to drive all day to get there. I like visiting places I’ve never been before, but I felt like all of my close-proximity options had been exhausted—until my mother suggested that I visit the Palmyra/Adrian area to see where my grandmother had grown up. Of course! Why had I not thought of that?
I made a few phone calls, threw together a hasty itinerary, and the next morning, hopped into the car with my husband to make the hour-and-a-half trip to Adrian. The day was muggy but gorgeous, and the southbound drive along acres of farmland painted a picturesque setting of summertime. Upon arriving in Adrian, we passed cute shops, restaurants and an old train that regularly hosts dinner shows while running along a closed track. Everything was an historic landmark, and I couldn’t help but wonder what it had all looked like many years earlier.
Our first stop was the home of my grandmother’s cousin, George, and his wife, Beverly. Having never met the couple (at least not recently enough to remember), I was excited to spend the afternoon with two people who could act as tour guides, yet explain everything from a relatable perspective. Leaving from their home (built on a piece of land that has been in the family for generations), we embarked on a drive around Adrian and its neighboring town, Palmyra.
During the drive, George and Beverly explained how Palmyra and Adrian flourished with industry during the 20th century. In recent years, many manufacturers shut down to relocate, but residents in the two towns continue to thrive today through opportunities provided by farming and local colleges. Our trip revolved around that earlier timeframe, and I was lucky enough to visit many of the places that my ancestors once considered integral parts of their daily lives. Over the course of the afternoon, we saw neighborhoods and houses where my great-grandparents used to live, passed the old paper mill where my great-grandfather once worked as a superintendent, and made our way to the site where my great-great grandfather’s lumber company stood before burning down in 1949 (the business manufactured baseball bats for the Detroit Tigers, as well as hammer handles and supplies for the military during World War I). Most impressive, however, was the sight of family names popping up wherever we turned. Everywhere we went, it seemed, there was another “Ehinger” or “Loveland” painted across an old warehouse or new barn. Granted, those are the names of my great-grandparents’ generation and my (current) distant relatives, but I felt a sense of pride all the same. My family was—and is—an influential part of that community, and finally, I could see it with my own eyes.
Among all the places we visited that day, my favorite was the old Loveland celery farm. Although the celery disappeared into a field of grass long ago, a large, white house still stands at the top of the hill. This house, which sits next to an antique greenhouse and a guest building that’s coated in several layers of paint, is where my great-great-grandparents used to live. Daydreaming in that quiet spot underneath a circle of large shade trees, I imagined how the home had looked sixty years earlier, when my grandmother married my grandfather in the parlor of the home, wearing a dress that she would one day pass down to my mother. It was the first time I had ever visited, but I suddenly felt right at home.
A few more stops led us to Palmyra’s old masonic temple, a modern house that used to serve as a blacksmith’s shop, and the church that many of my family members attended over the years. We listened to George’s stories about getting into trouble as a child as he simultaneously pointed out his childhood home, and we visited schools that were remodeled past recognition of what they were when my grandmother’s generation attended. As the afternoon grew late, George and Beverly treated us to dinner at a place where all the locals knew each other, then took us back to their house, where we parted ways for the evening. Driving home, I thought about how far family spans—through generations and geographically—and how crazy it is that we have so many relations that we know nothing about. But for now, at least, I feel like I’m a little closer to grasping some of those blurred connections. All it took to see things more clearly was some one-on-one with the people who lived the story I had always wanted to hear.
– Jennifer Bowman, Contributing Writer