In starting my research into the 1940 US Census, I started to wonder about where I grew up and how it would have looked back then, over twenty years from when I was born. At one time, my grandparents had lived in the house that was home to me from the time I was just a few years old until I was almost thirty. I was pretty certain that my grandparents would not be living there in 1940, and I was right about that. My father had told me he grew up on Knickerbocker, which was a few blocks away from where I grew up. And Knickerbocker was right where I found them.
I learned a few things about the family from this census. First, they had lived in the same place in 1935. I know that in 1930 my grandparents had lived within the city limits of Flint, Michigan. Now, they lived just outside the city limits. My grandfather worked in an auto factory doing motor repair. I had already known he worked at the factory, but now I knew what he did. From what my father has told me, he was a participant of the Sit-Down Strike of 1936-37 in Flint.
I was surprised to see that neither of my grandparents had completed high school, but knowing that, I wasn’t surprised to see that my grandmother had two more years of schooling than my grandfather did. Since her father, Joseph McCombs, was a school teacher, I have a feeling that he would have done his best to see that his girls received an education.
The children listed are my aunt and my two uncles. My father was the youngest and would not make an appearance on the census for another ten years. I know that my grandparents were married in Missouri, but their first child was born in Illinois. Their oldest son was born in Missouri, and the youngest at this time was born in Michigan, as my father would be. I wondered what had prompted the move from Missouri to Illinois and then from Illinois back to Missouri. I knew my great-grandfather had not had his first stroke until 1931, and my uncle’s age said that he was born a few years before that event. Was there perhaps some other family issue that caused the move, or perhaps was it a result of the financial complexities that resulted from the Great Depression?
Regardless of why my family moved from Illinois to Missouri, I know that my grandfather came to Michigan to get a job in the auto industry. He was not alone. As I began my journey down Genesee Avenue, I was able to find many people whose place of employment was listed as “Auto Factory”.
As I went through the records, I could see that the census takers were walking down the streets as far as they could go, and then back up to Saginaw Street, the border between Mount Morris and Genesee Townships.
In case you are wondering why there is such a large gap in the middle of the map, that is no accident. Between Downey Avenue and Cass Avenue there were three places that I know of that were there when I grew up (I’m not sure however, if all of them were there in 1940). From Saginaw Street to Summit Street was the grounds of Saint Francis of Assisi Church (this was the most likely structure to have been there in 1940). The spacious (and mostly treeless) grounds made it a wonderful place for us to fly kites growing up, and they had a playground that we would often visit to swing or to go down the big slide (probably about three times the size of the one on our swing set at home). Facing Summit Street on its west side was Summit Junior High School, and facing Detroit Street on its east side was Buell Elementary School, with a large field running the rest of the distance between them. Past Detroit Street, I don’t know, because Detroit Street was the border my parents set for us to the west.
So, when the census takers started their walk, they had just finished with South Cornell on its western edge, and were walking east on Genesee Avenue back toward Saginaw Street.
The first thing I noticed was that the street numbers were all different from when I was younger. I wasn’t sure why they had been renumbered. That in some ways made it more difficult to figure out where I was on the street, but as I got closer to where I lived, it got easier.
I stopped as I found familiar names.
The first name that stood out for me was Trovillion. My family knew a family named Trovillion, and I wondered if this might be the parents of the Trovillion that they knew. Since I knew that the Trovillions we knew were about my parents’ ages, I decided that, like my father, they hadn’t been born at the time of the census.
The second name that stood out for me was Leo France. Now, the part that surprised me was that in this census, that Leo was widowed. The reason that it surprised me was that while I don’t think that I ever met Leo, I did know his wife quite well. You see, his wife was the grandmother of three girls that lived only a few blocks down the street from me (probably closer than what I guessed Leo lived to that location in 1940). I became friends with all of them, lost touch when they and I moved out of the area, but, thanks to the wonders of social networking, we now keep in touch on a more regular basis.
I do have reason to believe that this is their grandfather though. During one of those times when my own searches were hitting road blocks, I did some research into their family tree a bit. I confirmed with them some of the things I found. Their great-grandparents’ names were William and Marion and they were born in New York and Canada, respectively. Mary I believe would be a shortened form of Marion, so I believe the parents he has living with them are my friends’ great-grandparents. He would then have married again, and had more children, since my friends’ mother was born a few years after the census.
The last name Nelson was one I knew. There had been a Nelson family living at the corner of Genesee Avenue and Summit Street. Perhaps this gentleman was related. I saw that he was divorced and had a live-in housekeeper. The housekeeper’s last name was also familiar, as I went to school with one or two girls with the last name Schwalm. The name Royal sounds familiar too; I think one of them named their son Royal. I think it is likely that this would be their grandmother and perhaps also their father.
Finally, we got closer to Saginaw Street; closer to where I lived and I could tell because the names were extremely familiar.
I knew a Healey family that lived just down the street from us. They lived across the street and a few doors down from the three friends I mentioned earlier. However, the Healeys here would have been much older than the Healeys that I knew growing up. Perhaps they were the parents of Mr. Healey.
I knew where I was when I got to the Pero house though. I don’t know if I had ever met Mr. Pero, but Mrs. Pero (I don’t think I ever knew her first name) I did know and would visit from time to time. The were actually our next door neighbors; there was an empty lot between their house and ours. Well, in reality only a portion of the lot was empty, but I’ll come to that in a moment. Mrs. Pero kept a nice garden in her yard, and I would go over once in a while when she was outside and talk to her. She was a sweet lady. Her son lived in the house after she passed away.
The Ayottes were our next door neighbors on the other side. They were nice people too, but I didn’t get to know them as well as the Peros because they weren’t there as long. I got to know the family that moved in after them much better.
I thought I was about done with my journey through my old neighborhood, when I spotted one last set of names.
The Henrys were great neighbors, and I knew them the best of any family that was living in this area in 1940. Our yards were separated by some fencing that aged to the point of non-existence by the time I was in my teens. Again, I don’t think I knew the senior Mr. Henry, but I did know Old Mrs. Henry, as I called her (the designation Old was likely as much to do with her age as to distinguish her from her daughter-in-law. Remember that mostly empty lot between the Pero house and ours? It belonged to the Henrys and that’s where Old Mrs. Henry kept her garden, and a wonderful garden it was! It would begin to bloom as soon as Spring arrived, with Crocus, and then would come the tulips and daffodils. She didn’t just have the yellow daffodils that grew in our yard. She had other types as well. And the tulips were so varied as well. She had single and double varieties. There were variegated ones, and solid colors from bright white to a deep purple that almost looked black. In May there would be Periwinkles and Lilies of the Valley. There were bushes of beautiful lilacs that would bloom in early June, and several varieties of peonies and some roses as well.
I can remember playing in the backyard, and seeing Old Mrs. Henry going back to work in her garden. There was an old, tiny trailer (an Airstream perhaps) that held her tools, and I would often hear her whistle a tune as she worked (she’s the only woman who I had ever hear whistle a tune before or since). I would get permission now and then to pick flowers, and I was careful not to pick too many of any one type. After Old Mrs. Henry died, I would sometimes go out into her garden and admire her flowers, and though her son kept them watered and weeded, they did not thrive for him the way they did for her.
I would visit over the fence with Mr. and Mrs. Henry from time to time, and I made occasional visits to their house. I would sometimes cut down their driveway when I was going to and from school in Junior High. It became an accepted practice, and I often would say hello to them as I was getting ready to cross over from their yard to mine.
My last visit to them was the day Bill and I got married. They were not able to come to our wedding, but we paid them a visit our way to the reception. I can remember Mrs. Henry’s sight was failing then, and I don’t remember her being in the best of health. But I can still remember her face lighting up as we talked to her, and I was so glad to see them one last time before leaving for California.
It amazed me how much taking a stroll through my old neighborhood years before I ever lived there would help me to remember so many things. I would recommend looking at where you grew up, even if it was years before you were born. Even if your family wasn’t living there, perhaps there were neighbors there that you’ve forgotten that the Census could help you remember.