Francis -- The Lathers Years

[During the last years of his life, Francis worked with Dick to fill in the gaps of his biography. Dick's comments and additions are in brackets such as this.]

Starting Practice in Garden City

While in the service Francis was interested in the Children’s Fund of Michigan, established by Senator John F. Couzens.  He signed up for this and took a bus every day from Flint to the training center in Royal Oak.  Into the training period, he decided he couldn’t handle the requirements which necessitated a car—very scarce at that time. 

Plan B was found in a dental magazine where a clinic in Detroit offered $100/week for a dentist.  When Francis arrived in October 1945, the offer was down to $75/week guaranteed plus a percentage.  While there, Francis met Al Green, a dental technician in the office.  Al would tout the wonders of Garden City, where there were only 2 dentists (one about to retire) for 9000 people.  Francis would go home with Al some nights to look over the community.  There, he met Dr. Vogel who had a satellite practice at 29627 Ford Road.  His main practice was on Michigan Avenue near Livernois.  Dr. Vogel lived in Garden City and arrived at his satellite practice after work for evening hours and weekends.

Dr. Vogel offered Francis 2 small rooms and a shared waiting room and laboratory for a modest rental ($35/month).

Veterans were much respected at that time.  People were helpful in helping them get established in civilian life.  Francis talked it over with Eileen.  Given that they had few options, they decided to try Garden City starting on April 1, 1946, for 6 months, to see if they would be accepted in the community.  Francis had a patient on the first day and every day after and never looked back ala Satchel Page. 

Francis had no car during this period so he got a room in Garden City in the so-called “bomb cellar.”  He worked in the office Tuesday through Saturday when he returned to Flint for Sunday and Monday.  (Cars were scarce.  If any were manufactured from 1942 through 1946 the military had first pick).  The Willy’s dealer in Garden City put Francis on the top of his list and so he was able to get a boxy Willy’s station wagon.

Norwayne, 1947
(Per Tom) January, 1947 Dick, Mary, and Tom playing outside at Norwayne. Norwayne was a government-funded development built immediately after the war for soldiers returning to the workforce. Francis & Eileen moved there after Francis had started his dental practice in Garden City. At the time, this was considered to be temporary housing but those houses are still there today. They are now owned by individuals and have been remodelled almost beyond recognition and are surrounded by trees. Francis & Eileen were able to move on, buying a house in Garden City, within two years.

Housing was also tight but Francis was able to get into Norwayne where returning veterans had a preference.  Norwayne had bus service to Garden City.  [Norwayne was a "temporary" housing project hastily built after WWII to house returing soldiers; it still exists today as part of Westland.]

The Norwayne house had a coal-fired furnace—but the family was happy to have housing during the post-war shortage. 

Paul and Mark 1950
Shown here in 1950: Paul was the only child born in the Norwayne house; Mark (left) was the first to be born after the family moved to Lathers.  Four more would follow him before the migration to Brown Street.

The Lathers House

When Paul was born in April 1947 at Providence hospital in Detroit (the first of six siblings to enter the world from there), the family was clearly outgrowing the two small bedrooms at the Norwayne residence.  Shortly after Mark’s birth in June 1948, the now seven people in the family moved to a nearly new brick house at 5910 Lathers in 1948. 

The Lathers house was about a mile from Francis’ office, 120 miles from Kalamazoo, and 70-80 miles from Flint – allowing the family to keep in touch with maternal and paternal relatives.  [The Interstate superhighways would come later and so it took longer to traverse these distances.] Flint relatives appeared often, but seldom anyone from Kalamazoo.  Uncle Russ (with his bubbly personality) and Aunt Tiny (with her fresh baked rolls) were popular guests and several family members would stay with them in Flint.  Amanda and Alf Gatschene would also visit often during the summer months (they wintered at their one-bedroom house in New Smyrna Beach, Florida for fifteen years.)
All of Eileen’s deliveries up to this time had mostly involved boys but this trend reversed itself with the birth of Lucy in April of 1950 followed by Anne 17 months later in September of 1951.

During these summers the Garden City Schmitts would trade kids with Kalamazoo relatives of the same age.  Typically a Kalamazoo-area cousin would visit Garden City for several weeks and then return home taking one of Francis and Eileen’s child of the same age.  Several times a summer, families would meet halfway in Jackson at the Win Schuler’s parking lot to swap kids.  One cousin, Mary Kay (the oldest Dillon girl) married a Garden City friend of the family, Rick Tatro, producing three children.

When Francis and Eileen moved into Lathers, they thought they were set for life in terms of space for their growing brood.  The home had two bedrooms on the first floor and a huge dormitory room up (where four boys slept).  One bathroom served all!  A glassed-in (but not heated) breezeway connected the house and garage.  The lot was large (160 by 135’ – in fact, 5910 Lathers had four of the typically 40 foot lots in the neighborhood.)  Francis recalls paying $14-15,000 for it.

Mary and Lucy
Mary and Lucy in November, 1952.  Note the post-harvest garden that ran the length of the backyard including several rows of corn which Francis would plant several weeks apart so the fresh corn lasted for about a month.

The North side had a large garden 40’ by 135’.  The older children remember picking bugs off of the vegetables for 1 cent for every 10 bugs.  Later the garden was grassed over and served as a small softball field until the children’s baseball skills improved so that the ball kept going over the fence.  [At that point, the kids negotiated with Glen Donner, the postmaster who lived across the street and had an unfenced lot a half-block long.  He gladly gave us permission to play there without asking.  The Donners had no children of their own and enjoyed the Schmitt brood immensely and semi-adopted Anne.]

A large brick barbecue was at the end of the lot.  Francis eventually added an outdoor sink so that muddy kids could rinse off before entering the house.  When Francis informed the family that Michael was born in November 1953, his older brothers were working on a rabbit hutch which stood for many years behind the breezeway (but only had rabbits for a little while). 

The family in 1953 on a visit to Auntie Ev who could not leave here parish in these pre-Vatican II days. We appreciate Francis as a photographer when we see the much poorer quality of a picture like this that he didn't take.

Tom is still 9 years old and there are 7 kids in this picture (and Michael will be born a few months later, before Tom turns 10 giving the Lathers house and its 1 bathroom Eight kids under the age of 10!!!  (Not even Martha has enough exclamation points for that.) Click here for more on this picture

Vines crawled up the fireplace and would occasionally fall down.  A huge willow tree was great for climbing and was augmented by an army surplus parachute which when properly folded around the tree, formed a tent.

At night the kids (who slept upstairs, the boys in one huge room with Mary in a large windowless closet) would line up their shoes on the stairs.  Eventually, every step was filled with a pair of shoes. [With four boys in one room, most of bedtime activity was spent ordering each other to turn off the overhead light.  Comments were usually of the sort, "You turn it off, I had to turn it on.  That's only fair."  To which the response was, "I didn't turn it on, so why should I have to turn it off."  We had moved a long way from Francis's childhood where a 12 volt battery light was considered to be a luxury.]

The older kids remember Francis building a room divider for the office in the one car garage. [When he finished after many months of activity on the Shopsmith power tool, Eileen told him, "I thought you would never finish."  To which Francis responded, "I didn't think so either."  For the rest of his life, Francis loved projects and when he would visit Dick in Houston, Dick would always make sure there was some half-finished bookshelf that Francis could work on while Dick was away at "work."]

The kids would go to Douglas elementary school for kindergarten and all of the older ones had the same teacher, Mrs. Sweet. Tom, being first at school, would return with exotic diseases which he would willingly share with his many siblings.  Five had chicken pox at the same time.  They would be lined up and smeared with calamine lotion with a paintbrush.

Chick Pox Comes to Lathers
The Chickenpox visits Lathers in February, 1949.

Across the street, the postmaster, Phil Donner, lived in a stately white home with a large empty lot next to us that became the Schmitt softball field once the north lot became too small.  Phil Donner and his wife, Ruby, had no children of their own.  Often little Anne would run out barefoot to greet him on his morning walk.  He would then carry her home to treat her to breakfast.

The house to the north of 5910 Lathers was owned by Bob and Martha Wychor.  Bob was a little gruff with the many Schmitt kids but Martha, also childless, was very fond of the brood.  She worked at Ford’s where she’d bring home paper used on one side for use as scratch paper.  She was a dear friend of Eileen’s and a continuing family debate is whether sister Martha was named for her. [Eileen claimed to name the kids after no one and the fact that Lucy, Alice, and Martha are named for her best friends is just pure coincidence.]

Across the street lived Terry and Larry Smith, two white-headed boys who played with Mark.  Through the rest of his short life, Terry remained a good friend of Mark. [Across the street lived a family with a lawn without weeds and a son without any redeeming qualities.  He was about the twins' age and had a nickname something like "Speedy."]

Richard Stanton lived next to the Donners.  His father was deceased and his mother worked long hours at Wayne Country General Hospital (Eloise).  As an adult, he reminded Francis that he ate dinner at 5910 Lathers.  He married Donna Coletta; Dick played bass during high school in her father’s band.

Lucy and Mark
Lucy and Mark were the oldest of the 5 children born while we lived on Lathers.

When the Schmitts moved to Lathers, much of the land across the street was empty; the kids would have to ford a creek by jumping over rocks and logs in order to get to Kindergarten.  Unfortunately this changed when builders constructed 3 bedroom starter houses on the 40 foot lots, considerably changing the upper middle-class character of the neighborhood.  The Schmitt house with its plentiful kids and two extra lots served as the neighborhood playground.

In exchange for using the family’s electricity through a long extension cord across the street, the builders of these tract homes gave the family the wood scraps which served as great building materials for many forts and sheds in the empty lots that flanked 5910 Lathers.  Eventually this wood moved to Brown street where Paul (then about 10) stacked it to make a desk and other furniture in the coal bin, allowing him to have a room of his own.

This is what barbecues looked in September 1952 although most came with fewer kids.  Here the brood is augmented by Dick's and Mary's best friends (who lived pretty much next door on either side of us.)

This was the only of Francis and Eileen’s three houses to have a sidewalk where many of the kids learned to ride a bike, starting with a 26”er with no training wheels.  As one would learn, his siblings would run behind him with bucket so he could get back up on the bike once s/he fell.  Eventually all who could ride a bike would form a caravan to ride the nearly two miles to St. Raphael’s (Where each of the 12 Schmitt children attended all 8 grades). 

Michael and Anne
Anne holding a 3-month-old Michael, January 31, 1954

Once Mark (who was probably the youngest) was hit by a car in front of Garden City Hospital (then on Ford Road) while riding his bike to school.  He didn’t tell Eileen until she queried him as to why his clothes were so roughed up.  (Mark was somewhat accident prone, having swallowed a thermometer as a small child.  Eileen would take him to be x-rayed every day as it would have to be surgically removed if the mercury would spill.  One day it disappeared having exited the way all good things do.)

[Tom's picture archives contain more commentary.  Click here to visit them.]

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