Howard Merkel York (1898 - 1945)

Howard Merkel York
(1898 - 1945)

"If you cannot get rid of the family skeleton, you may as well make it dance."
-- George Bernard Shaw

My great-grandfather, Howard Merkel York, was born 17 September 1898.  Several records I have found indicate that he was born in the village of Goodrich, Atlas Township, Genesee County, Michigan, but his obituary states he was born in Ortonville, Oakland County, Michigan, an area which borders Atlas Township.  He was the youngest of three children born to James L. York and Mary E. "Mae" McArthur.  His older siblings were Ernest L. York (1894 - ?) and Hazel York (Mrs. Earle Charles McIlveen) (1895 - 1967).

When Howard was two months old, his paternal grandfather, John H. York, passed away.  Howard's father James then took over the family farm in Atlas Township.  In the 1900 Federal Census, the household included Howard's paternal grandmother, Anna (Crothers) York.  Anna passed away in February 1904,  and only a little over a month later, James filed for divorce from Mae.  James got custody of the two sons, and Mae ended up with their daughter Hazel.  In 1905, Mae married the love of her life, Evan J. "Dick" Randell, with whom she had two more sons: Clare M. Randell (1906 - ?) and Wayne E. Randell (1908 - 1986).  They lived in nearby Hadley Township, Lapeer County, Michigan.

Not much is known about Howard's childhood.  It is assumed that he attended school in the township district.  When the 1910 Federal Census was taken in Atlas Township in April, eleven-year-old Howard was living with his father and brother Ernest on the family farm, along with a housekeeper, Mrs. Mary (Bogert) Popplewell.  In November, Mrs. Popplewell became his step-mother.

The United States became involved in World War I from 1917 - 1918.  It is known that Howard served in the U.S. Army during this war, but that is the extent of information I have found at this point.

In 1919, Howard was living with his father and step-mother, but on the 1920 Federal Census, Howard was living with his brother Ernest, sister-in-law Esther Lucretia, and his two young nieces on State Road in Atlas Township.  Ernest was a mason, and Howard was a laborer.  On 4 October 1921, Howard started serving a sentence for forgery at the Ionia State Prison.  His description was as follows: Eyes: light brown with a yellow pigment; Weight: 144 pounds; Height: 5' 6¾"; Build: medium tall; Hair: dark; Complexion: fair; Occupation: farmer.  I have always wondered at the description of "medium tall" for a man who was only 5 feet, 6¾ inches tall!  I'd hate to think how small a "short" man would have been, in those days!

On 5 January 1924, at the county seat, Flint, the 25-year-old Howard married Mary Jane Barber, 14 years old (who stated she was 16, on the marriage record).  The witnesses were Mary Jane's older brother, James Albert "Jim" Barber, and an apparent friend, Mabel Marshell, both of Goodrich.  Howard was employed as a sheet metal worker, and both he and Mary Jane were residents of Goodrich.  Nine months later, my paternal grandmother was born, and nearly a year to the day after her birth, a son, Harry Orlando York was born.  However, at this time, Howard and Mary Jane were separated.  Mary Jane was living at the time in Brown City, Sanilac County, Michigan, and stated on Harry's birth record that Howard's residence and occupation were unknown to her.

On 7 January 1928, in Flint, Mary Jane received a divorce from Howard.  The arrangements for the children were as follows:  Mary Jane was to have custody of the children, and Howard was to pay child support of $5.00 per week per child until each attained the age of 16.  Apparently, Howard was none too thrilled with that idea, for it wasn't long after when he took his children across the state and abandoned them in an orphanage, stating that their mother was unfit to raise them.  Today, the law would step in and charge Howard with kidnapping and the orphanage would make every attempt to locate the lawful custodial parent.  Unfortunately, 75 years ago, such laws and procedures did not exist.  Both my grandmother and her brother were fostered out to, and later adopted by, two different families, fortunately within the same community.  (Read about my grandmother's adoptive parents, Alfred Henry Holst and Nellie May Concidine.)

In 1930, Howard was living with his father and step-mother in Ortonville, Oakland County, Michigan.  He was an unemployed house roofer.  By 1933, Howard had contracted diabetes so badly, he had had one of his legs amputated.  That was the year his father died, and he apparently went to visit his mother to notify her of her ex-husband's death.  At this time, Howard's half-brother Wayne was married, and their mother Mae lived with Wayne and his wife Margaret.  Margaret later recalled how when Howard came to the door to see Mae, she would not let him  - her own son! - into the house; probably indicating there were some serious issues between them.

Sometime between 1930 and 1942,Howard met and married a woman named Hazel.  They had two sons, Howard Paul York, and Peter Alfred York.  Howard worked as a photographer, and they lived outside the city limits of Lapeer, Lapeer County, Michigan.  On 22 November 1945, Howard died of a heart attack at his home, at the young age of 47. (obituary)

He was buried in Stiles Cemetery, Mayfield Township, Lapeer County, Michigan.  Ironically, his ex-wife, Mary Jane Barber and ex-mother-in-law, Mary Jane Fredenburg, would also eventually be buried in the same cemetery.  Apparently, Howard's grave was not marked with a headstone, because after a fire destroyed the Mayfield Township office, including all Stiles Cemetery burial records, the exact whereabouts of his grave within the cemetery remain unknown.

Deceased Children of Howard Merkel York and Mary Jane Barber:

Harry Orlando York, a.k.a. James "Jim" Howard Erwin, was born 2 October 1925 in Brown City, Sanilac County, Michigan.  He was the only adopted child of Howard W. Erwin (1876 - 1953) and Effie M. Gaunt (1878 - 1965).  Jim served in the U.S. Navy during World War II.  He was married to a woman named Mary, who later became a personal secretary to Senator Ted Stevens (R., Alaska).  They were separated at the time of Jim's death, which occurred 17 October 1962 in Coopersville, Ottawa County, Michigan.  Like his biological father, he died young (age 37) of a heart attack.  Jim was buried in the Coopersville Cemetery in the Erwin family plot.  He and Mary had no children.

Deceased Children of Howard Merkel York and Hazel (last name unknown):

Howard Paul "Shorty" York was born 28 March 1943, probably in Michigan.  A resident of Ortonville, Oakland County, Michigan, he was married and had 5 children.  He also died young (age 46) on 27 March 1990 in Pontiac, Oakland County, Michigan; and was buried in the Ortonville Cemetery.

Peter Alfred York was born 23 May 1944, probably in Michigan.  Little is known about him.  He died 23 February 1986 in Pontiac, Oakland County, Michigan and was buried four days later in Ortonville Cemetery in the same lot as his brother Howard.

More about my biological great-grandfather, Howard Merkel York, can be found in the AnceStories of his first wife, Mary Jane Barber, and his parents, James L. York and  Mary E. "Mae" McArthur.  You can also read the AnceStories of my grandmother's adoptive parents, Alfred Henry Holst and Nellie May Concidine.

Howard Merkel York was my genealogical "brick wall" for many, many years.  There are literally dozens of individuals who helped in some small way in my search for him.  My thanks to Grandma and Grandpa; Dad; Aunts Louise, Jane and Cathy; Great-Aunt Iva Barber; cousins Mary Jane Hittle and Nancy Peugh; and the many Genesee, Lapeer and Oakland county researchers and volunteers!

Photos of Ernest, Howard and Hazel York, c. 1900 (top) and c. 1913 (middle) are courtesy of Nancy Peugh.  Bottom photo of Howard, c. 1940, courtesy of Mary Jane Hittle.

Miriam (Robbins) Midkiff
created: 28 Jul 2003
last updated: 17 Aug 2006

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