By Helen Horwitz
It began as a simple pleasure trip: a few days visiting the remote town on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula that was my mother’s birthplace. But in the end, I completed several journeys – most importantly, reinforcing the bond with my brother Donald (z’l), my only sibling. Since his death in 2010, the memories of our trip together are especially precious.
Here is how it began. Shortly after my mother’s death in late 1994, I had become interested in researching my family history. During the last, sad years of her life, Mother often recalled long-ago details of growing up in the tiny town of Hancock. Now afflicted with senile dementia, this frail wisp – who had once been a stylish businesswoman respected for her sharp intellect – filled my head with her childhood memories.
She told me about walking across the snow-packed Portage Canal Bridge between Hancock and Houghton, the adjacent town where she worked after school. She also spoke about teaching religious school in Temple Jacob, the synagogue that her father – my grandfather – had helped to build. And, she related how she’d snowshoed the last half-mile to the country schoolhouse where she taught before she and my father married.
A few months after her passing, I stuck a toe into genealogy and got swallowed up! Now, the early and mid-1990s were the Dark Ages of genealogy research. Unlike today, when vast records are available online, we researchers mailed our written requests and stamped return envelopes to local resources. Then, we awaited the response that might contain the needed information – or not.
By nature, I’m both curious and impatient, so I decided on a research trip to Hancock. Donald sweetened my anticipation by agreeing to join me. He was born there shortly before our parents moved to Albuquerque in 1933, and after my birth in 1940 we made regular summer trips to visit our grandparents. In the 1980s, Don and I had been estranged for a few years, although we had long since reconciled our differences.
On a pleasant morning in July 1996, we arrived and met at Chicago’s O’Hare Airport from New York (me) and Atlanta (Don). Then, for the next 10 hours, we drove our rented car 400 miles directly north. Eventually, the rolling Wisconsin hills gave way to Michigan’s pine trees. As we rode through Iron Mountain – our parents had eloped there – we nodded in silent recognition.
Our destination, the two small, adjoining towns of Hancock and Houghton, delighted us! Perched on facing green hillsides with the old Portage Canal dividing them, they – and we – felt lost in time. The two pristine main streets were Norman Rockwell visions of small-town America, and from Houghton, where we were staying, we easily identified Temple Jacob standing proudly on the Hancock side.
For the next few days, we pored over old city directories, visited the Houghton County offices and learned more about the Keweenaw Peninsula, as this part of Michigan is known. Here are a few things we discovered:
Our newlywed grandparents, Joe and Rose Markus, settled in Hancock in 1902, drawn there by the then-flourishing copper mining industry.
Our grandfather, who had emigrated from Lithuania at age 16 and was 23 when they moved to Hancock, began there a pushcart peddler.
They rented-to-buy a new house that Grandpa paid off in 1912 for $1,600.
Within 10 years, he had established a scrap metal business and also began dealing in wholesale fur pelts that he bought from trappers. (Our mother always credited her ability to tie a good knot to helping Grandpa fasten stacks of pelts together.)
Their immediate neighbors were the Stralows and the Bonneaus, also immigrant families. (I still make Mrs. Stralow’s marinara recipe that she gave Grandma 100+ years ago.)
Through the internet, I had located someone in the now-minuscule local Jewish community who took us through Temple Jacob. Old records helped us to locate Grandpa’s seat in the third row from the bimah, and where Grandma sat upstairs.
Best of all was our visit to Joe and Rose’s home of 43 years. Holding a photo of the house as it looked in the 1930s, we knocked on the door and were greeted by the young couple who now owned it. Their surprise quickly gave way to hospitality, and they invited us in for a tour and fresh lemonade.
As Don and I shared meals, memories and discoveries, I realized that any residue from our squabble had vanished. I also saw how this simple summer trip had grown into much more. Yes, the days had been pleasant, and we’d discovered new information about our maternal grandparents’ early years in America. But most important, Don and I had completed another journey – a deeper understanding and appreciation of each other.
Every journey needs a destination, and I had arrived at more than I had dreamed possible.
Helen Horwitz is an Albuquerque native who remembers Saturday kiddie movies at the KiMo, going to watch planes take off and land at the old airport, and Fitzgerald’s ice cream. She returned home in 2000 after a long career in New York as a communications executive and is now a freelance writer. She has a B.J. from the University of Missouri.