When you work with your hands, you  become more deeply connected with yourself.

—Julia Gold, co-founder Michigan Folk School

It has the feel of a modern youth hostel, this second Airbnb of the weekend near the U of M stadium. I feel too old to be here. But then, I did miss the whole travel across Europe with a backpack and a dollar thing.

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Feeling “too old” is a contrast to the rest of the weekend, exploring with my sisters the places our forebears occupied in the first half of the 20th century, and the graves of the even older generation. We are the youngsters now.

First stop was the University of Michigan campus our father attended. Walking these streets he walked, shopping in the oldest undercover arcade in the country (built the year he was born), eating in the re-creation (in a different location) of a student hangout he may have eaten and drank in. (We did have to acknowledge that he lived at home and had to do farm chores; he may have gone to class and no where else.) Also, the Walgreens, which was the Kresge’s where my Aunt Lena (Donald’s wife) worked as a young woman.

We visited the former School of Forestry—now called School for Environment and Sustainability and before that School of Natural Resources—where our father got his bachelor’s degree, and years later, a master’s, and years after that was honored with a scholarship in his name as an outstanding alumnus. Our mother worked there as a secretary during the war under Dean Dana, our father’s much beloved major professor. The building is named for him now, and has been greened with a mix of the old and the new. My parents walked these halls and climbed these steps.

Next stop was Forest Hill Cemetery where our Staebler great- and great-great grandparents—who came to America from Germany—are buried.

The main event and reason for the trip was the grand opening of the Michigan Folk School on the farm where Lloyd, Donald, Helen, George, Ruth, and Melvyn came of age, raised to adulthood by Albert and Ella.

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Uncle Donald, who lived on the farm for more than 100 years, didn’t want to sell it to the developers who continue to gobble up land in this area, building obscenely large houses and subdivisions and condos. He persuaded Washtenaw County Parks & Recreation (WCPR) to purchase the farm and preserve it (a story I’ve told before, here is one link with links to others), and now they are partnering with the folk school. The story just keeps getting bigger and better.

I feared, mixed with joy that the farm will live on, I would be sad. My memories of these six siblings, their spouses, and their mother (sadly, I never knew my grandfather) run through my life like Fleming Creek that runs behind the barn. I visited the farm as a child, played with the kittens, climbed to the hay mow, walked down the cornrows, skated on the pond, explored the attic. I have come to know my aunts and uncles as children and as young adults during World War II as I read their stories and letters and study old photographs, aspiring to weave their lives into a narrative for the generations who will not know them.

But I wasn’t sad. Oh, there were some tears, but most were gratitude for what is happening in this sacred place. For the attention to preservation of the integrity of the place. For the knowledge of what came before in the more than a century that my family lived on this piece of earth. For the intention to tell their story and the story of family farming in the 20th century. Even the new parking lot “in the cornfield” is located away from the buildings so folk school participants have to walk from their smart car down a curving path, leaving today behind and entering a past way of life. The new teaching building also will be far removed from the farmhouse and the old (cleaned out and shined up) shop and  chicken house my uncles and grandfather built. (WCPR is keeping the house, at great expense: $100,000 to mothball it for now.)

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It will look like the above photo instead of the one below.

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Uncle Donald’s shop, before and after renovation.
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(Above) Family reunions. Donald’s 100th birthday gathering on the left. (Below) Some of Donald’s drawings: found, preserved, on display.)

Both the founders of the folk school, Jason and Julia Gold, and park planner Kira Macyda are dedicated, heartful, beautiful people. I speak for my sisters and cousins in expressing deep gratitude for their preservation work as they bring our heart home to new life.

Wearing name tags boasting the name “Staebler” at the event, opened doors of conversation and respect from folk school teachers, park staff, and other attendees. I wore my pride on my sleeve. (The blacksmith is going to make me a fireplace poker!)

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My cousin David told me a story of serendipity.

A Detroit attorney named Sue Shink stopped by the farm a couple decades back to ask Donald if she could put a garden plot at the edge of the property. She listened to Donald’s storytelling and his interest in saving his land from becoming a condo farm. She told him about opportunities to preserve it. His land preservation application was rejected, but she eventually quit lawyering and was elected a Washtenaw County Commissioner. She represents the Commission on the WCPR board, where she still works to fulfill Donald’s wishes, even far beyond what he knew to dream. In fact, it was her idea to put new buildings away from the historic ones, preserving the integrity of the original farm. Every decision about the park must go through the Board, and thus through Sue Shink. Thank you!

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Sue Shink, ribbon cutter on the right; and Kira Macyda holding the end.

Donald knew, of course, of the park’s plans, and spent many hours with Kira telling stories as only he could and passing on photographs and documents. Because he lived so long after the purchase was made, with a life lease, there was plenty of time for WCPR to look into the future before development began. Serendipitously, during the waiting time, the Michigan Folk School was looking for a home. What more perfect place than the future Staebler Farm County Park.

I wish he had known about the partnership. If there is sadness for me, that is it. The park will preserve the land in perpetuity; the school will preserve a way of life. He and his siblings would be thrilled.

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With Julia and Jason Gold

Following the dedication, my sisters and I visited Cherry Hill Cemetery and the graves of our Goodell great-grandparents. My Goodell ancestors came to this country from England too many generations ago to count without removing shoes.

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Then on to another of the properties WCPR purchased and preserved: Parker Mill, behind which Aunt Lena and Uncle Donald met at a hot dog roast, and where grain from the farm was taken to be milled. The mill wheel turned with power from the same creek that runs through my family’s farm. Multiple signs at the mill remember those who lived, loved, and worked there. That perhaps the Staebler Farm Park will have the same makes me weepy even now as I write this.

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We ended the day at Donald’s favorite dining out place: Metzger’s German Restaurant.

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The next day, after delivering Jo Ann and brother-in-law Peter to the airport, Rebecca and I went to the Yankee Air Museum at Willow Run airport, where our mother went to work as a secretary. Working at the forestry school seemed frivolous to her; she wanted to do something to help get the war over with and her husband home. My aunt Ruth worked there too, and they drove to the plant together in my father’s car each day. Both Donald and the eldest brother Lloyd also worked there as instructor and engineer respectively.

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In 1942, 15% of the work force were women. Restroom facilities had to be added for them. There was no housing in 1942 for the huge influx of workers. They slept in tents in the mud. When housing was built, along with an entire village including a church and a school, my mother worked in the housing administrative office. At peak employment in 1943, there were 42,000 workers, 40% were women. Women were trained in separate facilities, so deep was the bias. Many men refused to train them because their wives forbade it.

Rosie the Riveter originated at Willow Run, as women were pressed into service building bombers. We learned that any woman who worked there—and at other bomber plants around the country—in any capacity, was a Rosie. And, as the daughters of a Rosie, my mother’s daughters and Aunt Ruth’s daughter are Rosebuds! And Ruth’s sons are Rivets.

Sunday’s visit to the Yankee Air Museum and my next stop on the pilgrimage on Monday were research for my war letters writing project. My cousin David—who has been the family hero in interfacing with the parks department, lawyers, accountants, and Donald—took me to the University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library where two boxes of the documents, letters, photos, and farm ledgers for the past 100 years live on a shelf for research purposes. Oh, this family of savers!

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The most important find were letters Uncle Donald and Aunt Lena wrote to each other when Donald was in Europe for six months at the close of the war in Europe. I didn’t know they existed! He went to England from Willow Run—where he was part of setting up the training program for B-24 mechanics—to train returning GIs to be mechanics. The Bentley will scan some 200 pages and send me PDFs. There was a book in the gift store of the air museum, “An American Family in World War II,” based on letters between one son and his family. Amazon says: “The more than 800 letters are the only known collection from an entire family.” They haven’t met me and my collection of twice that many from multiple family members! My determination to put these lives between book covers is stronger than ever.

This was fun: A newspaper clipping depicts a parallel family member who had an Airbnb! Well, it was called a halfway house, but still.

All six children are in these three photos at the one room school they attended.
F
amily: can you find them? (The younger three are easy, of course.)

 

One more stop on the way to the airport Tuesday: Ypsilanti High School, which all the kids—as far as I know—attended. It remained a high school until the 1970s. Now it’s a senior living facility. I followed an employee through the locked door I couldn’t access on Sunday, and walked all the halls. Did my father’s, aunts’ and uncles’ hands touch these banisters, push open these doors? Like the farm and other parks, like Willow Run and school at the U of M, like the plaques and photos along the streets in Ann Arbor, the old has been preserved as the new has been added. I wish there had been this kind of vision in my home town before my three-story high school was torn down.

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Uncle Donald and Aunt Lena had no children, but they have left a legacy for the generations stretching far beyond family. Legacy. It’s what this stage of life is about. Making sure we aren’t forgotten, that we live on after we are gone. My forebears nailed it. They left us…everything.

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7 thoughts on “An Ancestral Pilgrimage

  1. Rosebuds to rivets. I love the stories that made the story. I imagine many of us have letters and artifacts but so few of us have either the presence of mind to save them or the skill and expertise to craft them all into a story that people want to read. How lucky your family is to have you in this moment in time … and how lucky Ann Arbor was to have your Uncle Donald and Aunt Lena for all the years leading up to this one. Thank you. 

    Liked by 1 person

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