Family tradition – truth or fiction?

rear: Ada Belle (MEREDITH) BRYANT & Sarah (HARRISON) MEREDITH; front: Harry, Bertha and Gladys BRYANT

rear: Ada Belle (MEREDITH) BRYANT & Sarah (HARRISON) MEREDITH; front: Harry, Bertha and Gladys BRYANT ca. 1904

My father’s Aunt Marjorie wrote two lengthy letters in 1995 to my uncle answering his questions about the Bryant family history. The second letter focused on her father, William, and her only brother, my grandfather, Harry Bryant. She described hardships that Harry endured which shaped his personality.

One story was about when he Harry, his mother Ada Belle and three younger sisters (Aunt Marjorie was the baby) lived in Michelson near Houghton Lake about 1911 – getting by as best they could even though their husband/father had left them.

“Your father was a wonderful little boy – after dad left, I remember him helping mother pick over a bushel of navy beans for the grocer to pay for groceries. He also used to take his wagon to the train station – at least a mile away, – and help mother bring home a 5 gallon tub of ice cream, which she sold in the little shop she set up to try to make a living. She also took in sewing.”

Another story reflected that Harry helped to bury two of his sisters. In December of 1911, Ada Belle married her second husband George Coon and in 1913 they all moved “across the Straits to Naubinway” where George’s father had a small house and a job for George at a mill.

Marjorie goes on and describes family life there a bit and then writes:

Not long before the tragic family events of 1914

Playing "Doctor" not long before the tragic events of 1914

“Then the next summer (1914) we got diptheria. I (Marjorie) first, then Gladys and Bertha, then George. By then, Grace had been born. Emery (George’s father) happened to be away. I remember Harry (age 14) helping mother, working hard, both of them. We were quarantined – 4 of us, very ill in bed, Gladys and Bertha both dying. They had to be buried right there – temporarily – until frost time – then they could be taken in the middle of the night to the cemetery. I don’t know how mother stood it with a new baby to care for, too. Harry was the one who stood beside her. When it was over, Mother refused to live in Naubinway any longer.”

Because of the circumstances of the deaths and dark-of-night burials, I naively believed that death records for Gladys and Bertha never existed and so never prioritized looking for them.

Fast-forward to March 2009 when we learned at the WMGS monthly meeting that the Michigan death records were soon coming online. Within a couple weeks, there the records appeared! Death records for 1914 were among the first to be added to the database. The official records confirm the family tradition. The girls died of diptheria in September 1914 ages 10 and 12 years old. The family residence was Rexton, a mill company town in Mackinac County. The burial place on the certificates was HOG ISLAND, a small island in Lake Michigan, not far from Naubinway. The undertaker was listed as “none.”

But I’ve seen the graves of the girls in the Naubinway cemetery. So they WERE re-interred from an original burial place – now identified as HOG ISLAND.

The gravesite of Bertha and Gladys Bryant

The gravesite of Bertha and Gladys Bryant, Naubinway Cemetery

As I write this, great aunt Marjorie is still living – she’s 102 years old!  She wrote the letters at almost 90 years of age. The death records bring a new insight for me to her words “Harry had been close to Mother” – an insight I might never have fully known had it not been for my involvement with WMGS and the website.

Because of this experience, I try never to assume anything and suggest to others that you’ll limit your options if you do. Dig into those family traditions. It’s much more satisfying to know that a family story is more than just “tradition.”

D. Bryant

To view these records, click on the links below.

Gladdy Bryant,76072

Bertha Bryant,76073