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Wednesday, November 25,2009

Family ties

Genealogical society begets book for Lansing's 150th

by Bill Castanier

If you think sharing risqué photographs is the product of camera phones, a new book by local area genealogists will make you think again. The book, “Shopkeepers, Soldiers, Statesmen and One Naked Lady,” will, of course, not only have readers turning the pages to learn more about the titular lady, but it will also introduce them to numerous Lansing families, and not necessarily the ones that would first come to mind like Olds.


William A. Atkinson, a historian and co-editor of the book, said readers will find short histories on “old Lansing families, but not well published families.” “These are names that are not on the tips of everyone’s tongues,” he said.


Nestled in the short chapters are histories on George W. Henderson, the Capitol barber and City Band director who was also the son of a former slave; William O. Thompson, an early African-American pioneer at Michigan Agricultural College; Daniel W. Buck and John Taylor, who became entangled in the last race lynching in the Lansing area; and Elizabeth Belen, a social activist and entrepreneur. Longtime residents will recognize names such as Belen and Drolett, but others, like Gauss and Newbrough, will most likely be new.


Since everyone wants to know, Catherine J. Ketchum is the lady mentioned in the book’s title. She was arrested for having a naked picture taken of her and showing it around. It may not have been the trial of the century in 1883, but it was certainly entertaining.


And entertaining is exactly what the book has turned out to be. Produced by the produced by the Mid-Michigan Genealogical Society, Atkinson said the book was first conceived as a Lansing Sesquicentennial project by Kris Rzrepczynski, state genealogist for the Library of Michigan.


Eighteen people worked in multiple teams to create the combination of 31 family and organizational (two churches, one sanatorium and the Daughters of the American Revolution are also detailed) histories.


Atkinson said the project combined the talents of researchers and writers, so varying levels of expertise could shape the project. “This could be a textbook for genealogists, showing how to combine different styles of writing and different sourcing,” he said.


All of the material collected for the book will be donated to the Forest Parke Library & Archives at the downtown branch of the Capital Area District Library. The book is available from the Mid-Michigan Genealogical Society, and it should be available at area bookstores soon.


Atkinson said the family names were suggested by local historians and the public, and there is enough material for a second book.  


The Drolett family became noted for having four physicians and one nurse in their Lansing family history dating back to 1898.


Buck was a noted Lansing cabinet maker who was elected mayor in 1874, 1875 and 1886. Taylor was a local laborer who had been a Civil War soldier serving in the 102nd United States Colored Troops. In 1866 false claims that Taylor had killed Buck’s family led to Taylor being lynched and killed in Mason.


Not all of the chapters are as dramatic, but they all represent a fine cross section of the individuals who were the fabric of Lansing’s history. Rzrepczynski said he was honored to work with the Muir family in co-writing their piece of Lansing area history.


“They have an amazing personal collection of photographic and other material that really made the story,” he said. “The photos are so rich.”


The Muir family (Porter, Muir and Gates descendants) lived in the same house at 925 W. Kalamazoo St. for four generations. A photo of George Muir and his family driving over the Kalamazoo Bridge was chosen for the cover of the book. Muir operated one of the city’s earliest automotive repair shops from behind the home.


One family name that has become legendary in Lansing is Belen, most recognizable for Lucille Belen, 96, who served on the Lansing City Council and, for more than 60 years, has run a family floral shop in Lansing. Belen’s family members on both sides were German immigrants who had settled in Westphalia before moving to Lansing. Belen’s mother, Elizabeth, was noted for her contribution as a nurse during the Spanish Flu epidemic and later assisted in delivering 1,600 babies.


In 1933, the family started a floral business, which is still in operation. The Belen entry in the book is a tale of one family’s commitment to public service and their investment in the city’s economy. Lucille Belen inherited not only her family name but also her mother’s love for public service, as she served on City Council for 38 years.

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