Mary Jane Barber (1909 - 1975)

Mary Jane Barber
(1909 - 1975)

Mary Jane Barber was born 11 December 1909 in Lapeer, Lapeer County, Michigan, the youngest child of Orlando Barber and Mary Jane Fredenburg.  Her older siblings were Clara May Barber (Mrs. George Leslie Everson/Mrs. Leonard Reynolds) (1901 - 1989); James "Jim" Albert Barber (1903 - 1950); Alexander "Red" Barber (1906 - 1991); and Arthur Barber (1907 - 1980).  Three infant siblings died young.

The following summer, when the 1910 Federal Census was taken, the family was living at 23 Saginaw Street in the 4th Ward of Lapeer.  Five days after Mary Jane's first birthday, her father passed away.  Sometime before 1920, Mary Jane's mother married Fred Smith, and the family lived at 1359 Washington Avenue in Flint, Genesee County, Michigan, with the exception of Clara, who was working as a domestic in another household.  It is not known if that marriage ended in divorce or death; however in 1922, Mary Jane's mother married Levi J. Keller.

Less than two years later, 14-year-old Mary Jane married 25-year-old Howard Merkel York on 5 January 1924 in Flint.  Mary Jane stated she was 16, for the marriage record; her brother Jim was one of the witnesses.  Both Howard and Mary Jane were residents of the village of Goodrich, Atlas Township, Genesee County, Michigan.

Nine months later, my paternal grandmother was born, and nearly a year to the date after her birth, a son, Harry Orlando York, was born.  However, by this time, Mary Jane had separated from Howard, and was living in Brown City, Sanilac County, Michigan.  She stated on Harry's birth certificate that she did not know what Howard's current residence or occupation was.  On 7 January 1928 in Flint, Mary Jane received a divorce from Howard.  The court ordered that Mary Jane maintain custody of the children, and Howard pay $5.00 per week per child until each attained the age of 16.  Howard apparently did not like that idea, and perhaps there were other factors as well; at any rate, he took the children from their mother and abandoned them in an orphanage across the state, saying their mother was unfit to raise them.  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.)

Mary Jane tried to get Howard to reveal the whereabouts of the children, but he refused.  It is not known why the law did not get involved, but we do know that custody and kidnapping laws and women's rights were very different in the late 1920's than they are today.  It is also not known if the state attempted to contact Mary Jane in order to waive her parental rights when her children were legally adopted by their adoptive families.  Though married twice more, Mary Jane never did have more children.

On 14 October 1939, Mary Jane married Archie Louis Keller (1908 - 1968).  He was the son of her step-father, Levi J. Keller, by a previous marriage.  They divorced 12 March 1946.  Later she married Jay Dunlap (1908 - 1975), but they were divorced around 1954 or 1955.

For many years, Mary Jane worked as a housekeeper in the local hospital.  She was an avid needlewoman, who loved to crochet and knit.  She was a no-nonsense kind of person, who said what she thought.  She remained close to her mother, with whom she lived for many years.  They both enjoyed attending the local Assembly of God Church.

Mary Jane developed a brain tumor, which took her life on 30 January 1975 in a hospital in Pontiac, Oakland County, Michigan.  She was buried three days later in Stiles Cemetery, Mayfield Township, Lapeer County, Michigan, near her mother's grave.  Ironically, this cemetery was also where her first husband, Howard Merkel York, was buried in 1945.  At the time of her death, her brother Jim tried to locate the whereabouts of Mary Jane's children, and even hired lawyers in his search, which was unsuccessful.  Unbeknownst to the family, Mary Jane's son had passed away in 1962.  It wasn't until 1998, seventy years after she had been taken from her mother, that my grandmother was able to reunite with her mother's family.

Deceased Children:

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.

More about my biological great-grandmother, Mary Jane Barber, can be found in the AnceStory of her first husband, Howard Merkel York, and the upcoming AnceStories of her parents, Orlando Barber and Mary Jane Fredenburg.  You can also read about my grandmother's adoptive parents, Alfred Henry Holst and Nellie May Concidine.

Many thanks to Grandma and Grandpa, Great-Aunt Iva and Cousin Mary Jane, and the many volunteer researchers in Genesee, Lapeer and Oakland Counties.  Top photo (c. 1924) and middle photo (c. 1950) courtesy of Mary Jane Hittle.  Bottom photo courtesy of Mary Jo Buchart.

Miriam Robbins Midkiff
created: 30 Jul 2003
last updated: 14 Aug 2004

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