The Trowbridge Years

Growing Up
We are much defined by the where and when of our growing up years. For me, the when was the years centered around World War II. The where was here – the South Harrison Road area.

If you considered our addresses at that time, you would think South Harrison was part of Lansing. We had rural route numbering beginning at Michigan and Washington in downtown Lansing. By the time the numbers got here, they were in the 34 hundred block.

But if you asked our home town –  it would have been East Lansing, a small city, a walking distance on the other side of a small campus.

However, in the South Harrison Road area, we were of neither the Lansing or East Lansing school districts. We had a district of our own – Champion – with a one-room school at the northeast corner of Harrison and Mt. Hope. Seven grades - beginners (what country schools called kindergarten) through the 6th. One room, one teacher, seven grades.

The one-room school I had come from had beginners thru eighth grade. Nine grades, 16 kids. I wasn’t in the third grade, I was the third grade. Coming to Champion seemed overwhelming – my class was 3 times as large – Joan Hutchinson, Carlton Sellhorn and I.

Think of that – one teacher – all of those grades – all of those subjects.

Classes would come to the front of the room for instructions and recitation on a subject while the rest of the school (supposedly) were studying in the rest of the room. Sometimes listening to what was going on in the front. By the time you had heard the subject over 6 years, you knew it well when it came your year.

The desks were graded along with the grades, right to left, getting larger as the kids got larger. It was a close knit group - the older kids helping take care of the younger. I remember looking across the room and seeing my little brother Bob with his shoe untied. I would raise my hand, the teacher would nod, and I would go and tie his shoe.

Our house was in Trowbridge.

Actually we were Trowbridge. The house was the former (small) hotel near where the Pere Marquette and Grand Trunk railroads crossed. (Where 2 railroads cross is called a diamond.) There were 6 of us kids, so we needed a small hotel.

The Pere Marquette had arrived first, in the early 1870s. The Grand Trunk came thru later in that decade, building a depot north of the diamond in 1880, naming it after Charles Trowbridge, a former president of one of its predecessor railroads.

In the early 1900s, George Hume was a leverman for Trowbridge (he pulled the signal levers inside the depot). His wife, Nettie, was caretaker of the depot. They had a farm a few rods north of the railroad, now the Ivanhoe subdivision, where they lived with an unmarried daughter, Kathryn Agnus, called “Agnus,” a name she didn’t like, and changed to Kathryn in later years.

Sometime in the 1930s the depot was replaced with a control tower, and George Hume worked one of the shifts at the tower. He had already died by the time we moved to Trowbridge.

During the war, my father ran the farm for Mrs. Hume, who was in her mid ‘70s. My father loved farming. I didn’t. But I still had to do some farm work.

It was a truck farm - growing vegetables for wholesale to area grocery stores. Cucumbers went to the pickle factory in Mason. What was grown in most fields rotated from year to year. Asparagus, rhubarb and strawberries stayed put.

Here is what I remember:  If you live at 1192 Tanger, that was the cucumbers or potato field. Corn was at 1281 Scott, rhubarb at 1150 Arbor. We had strawberries at 1249 Ivanhoe and rabbits at 1241 Ivanhoe. Chickens were wherever they wanted to be. Cabbages and melons were somewhere in the middle. Part of the asparagus field was at 1261 Ivanhoe, but most of it is under the freeway. Asparagus just goes on and on so I wouldn’t be surprised to see it popping up through the freeway.

Mrs. Hume had a horse that we sometimes rode. Not actually rode – we sat on its back while it grazed. Its corral was at 1150 Rowena.

Anyone on the north side of Tanger is beyond the farm.   The barn was at 1174 Arbor. The Hume house is still where it was – 1192 Arbor. The Grange hall was just east of the farm and Brown’s tree nursery beyond and behind it. Many of the trees are still there, but much taller. North of the tracks along Trowbridge Road were Pennington’s East Lansing Coal Company yards, now where the MSU Printing building and the Amtrak  depot are.  South from the tower, across the tracks, was a pond. Carlton Sellhorn would bring his kayak and we would take turns floating it. There is an empty space among the Spartan Village buildings there now. Toward Mount Hope was our small ski hill, along what is now the freeway.

But my favorite sport was train watching. From the titles on the boxcars, my brother, Bob, and I knew the name of every railroad in the country, although we didn’t know where they were.

Our favorite train was express number 41 that came from the East around 8 each evening. It was pulled by engine 1224, a type known as a Berkshire locomotive. Its sister engine, 1225 from the Grand Rapids division sat on campus many years and is now in Owosso pulling excursion trains. It was the model for the engine in the movie “The Polar Express.”

Once in awhile a circus train would unload at Harrison Road so the big animals - horses, giraffes, zebras - would get their exercise by walking to the South Logan fairground in Lansing.

There were many troop trains - passenger cars and flat cars with howitzers and trucks.

When my brother, Dick, went in the Army, his train passed thru Trowbridge in the late evening. He flashed his penlight out the window as he went by.Trowbridge was what is known as an “interlocking plant,” a system that kept trains from running into each other. If a Pere Marquette train was crossing the diamond, a Grand Trunk train had to wait. And vice versa. The control point was the tower, although most of the system was automated. The evening leverman was Hugh Schull. He lived at 1016 Harrison, about where the Methodist Church is. The morning leverman was Bill Algate. There must have been someone on at night but that was when I was asleep.

Brother Bob and I spent a lot of time up in the railroad tower. Mr. Schull had a lonely job and  must have liked our company. Bob and I would stand on its high porch and pretend we were on a battleship’s bridge. Mr. Schull would sometimes let me pull the levers. Except for the one linked to the switch for the Pere Marquette siding. I didn’t have the strength.

The Grand Trunk was double track its entire length so there was no trouble with trains passing each other. The Pere Marquette was single track and needed sidings every few miles where one train could wait while the other passed. Our siding went from Trowbridge, across Harrison and Farm Lane, almost to Mt. Hope. It still does.

Within the last 10 years, the Grand Trunk became single track much of its length. The Pere Marquette had passenger trains going each way, Detroit and Grand Rapids, in the morning and evening, and probably during the night –  but again, I was sleeping. Because Trowbridge was half way between the 2 cities, they would meet there, the east bound train going into the siding and the westbound taking the main track. Because they were short, they could pass without stopping.

In August 1947, the Pere Marquette changed its passenger service to streamline diesel, the first post-war streamliner. One day, my mother took brother Bob and me to Grand Rapids in the morning and came back on the evening train. During her college years, she had gone between her home in Petoskey to Mt. Pleasant every weekend so she knew all about train rides. At the time I was working summers on campus, with every Saturday off. I enjoyed the trip so much that on many of my Saturdays I would ride the train to Grand Rapids for the day. I was 15. Which might seem young, but my brother, Bill, was a tank commander in the Phillippines at 19.

Our older sister, Betty, had married soon after we moved to Trowbridge and brothers Dick and Bill were in the army. Because we lived in a somewhat isolated place, my sister Catherine,  brother Bob and I spent a lot of time together. But then, all of the South Harrison boys did things together – regardless of age. There were Ralph Root and Clifford “Tippy” Fineout, who lived south on Harrision and were a year older, Carlton Sellhorn, my age, and the somewhat younger and much younger ones – Don Wolverton, Billy Hicks. Fenimore and Danny Hicks, Ted and Bruce Seble (Mrs. Seble was our Cub Scout den mother - Den 5, Pack 201, Peoples Church). There were Kermit and Harley Jensen, and Warren “Stubby” Hutchinson. And someone named Stanley* who moved away.

It was a good life.

This story was given during  a panel discussion of the Flower Pot and Ivanhoe neighborhoods as part of the East Lansing Centennial. It was held Oct. 4 2007 at Red Cedar School, the replacement for Champion School, about 3 quarters of a mile north of the original school and with many rooms instead of just one. Red Cedar School was approaching its 60th anniversary.

*When “Stanley” was mentioned, one of the men in the audience said, “That’s me.” After 65 years, I was reintroduced to Stan Fauquher who had returned to East Lansing where he raised his family and lived about 4 blocks from me.  – Jack Thompson

Jack Thompson has lived in what is now East Lansing since 1942. Because Champion was its own school district, the students had a choice of going to junior high and high school at either Okemos or East Lansing (or probably Lansing). Because Okemos had a school bus that picked up students at Champion School, most of the kids farther south on Harrison, and some in the Flower Pot area, went to Okemos. So this was where Catherine and Jack Thompson went. In 1947, the year Catherine graduated, Champion became part of the East Lansing district and  Jack finished his last 2 years at East Lansing. He worked at MSU part time during his high school years and full time after graduating in 1949, for a record 53 years, the first half in University Housing food service, the second half as editor for the Division of Housing and Food Services. At the same time he went to college part time. After what was probably a record number of terms, he graduated with highest honors in 1966 and earned a master’s in 1973, both in advertising.

He was the only member of the East Lansing High School class of 1949 that still lived in the city until he was married in 1996 to the former Clarice Hoffer, a classmate. They had become reacquainted after 40 years. The wedding took place in the auditorium of the old high school, at that time Hannah Middle School. In attendance were many other classmates, who gave the bride away.

He is currently president of the East Lansing Historical Society. He helped found and was the first president of Lansing’s Friends of the Turner/Dodge House and the MSU Museum Associates. He was also president of the Historical Society of Greater Lansing and chair of the Downtown (Lansing) Cultural Committee of the Chamber of Commerce.

With the City of East Lansing, he was 6 years on the Historic District Commission (one year as chair) and is finishing 6 years on the Arts Commission. He is also a member of the Centennial Commission and works each year with the Police Department’s Citizens Police Academy.

He served on the committee for converting the former Hannah Middle School into a community center, the committee to study the correction of the spelling of Abbot Road, and the committee to study forming a historic district of city fraternity and sorority houses.

He received the City of East Lansing Crystal Award and the MSU Distinguished Staff Award.

His son, Christopher, a 1988 East Lansing High School graduate and 4th generation resident of the city, is an East Lansing  police and fire dispatcher.

The rest of the family:

Verne Thompson, the father, was later a building supervisor at MSU. He died in 1953. Barbara, the mother, worked at Hunt’s Food Shop in East Lansing and, later, at MSU’s Snyder/Phillips Hall. She died in 1989 during her 101st year.

Dick, after graduating from MSU, spent most of his later years in the Washington D.C. area with his wife, Anne (now deceased), and their family. He was a photo-journalist with the U.S. State Department and director of public relations for Johns Hopkins Hospital, then did similar work with the U.S. government.

Betty, who married the late Don Branch, has lived most of her life and raised their family in the Charlotte area.

Bill, who has been on the staff of Port Huron Township for the last many years, lives in Marysville with his wife, Yvonne..

Catherine went to work for the East Lansing State Bank after graduating where she met her future husband, the late Rod Waters, who became vice president of the bank. Their 3 children graduated from East Lansing Highs School. She continues to live in the city.

Bob, who had been crippled with polio as a young child, was in the 6th grade when Champion became part of the East Lansing School District and finished his schooling in East Lansing. Later, he had photo studios in Albion and in Marshall. He was coordinator for emergency services with Calhoun County at the time of his death in 1989. He had received commendations, including the National Weather Service Special Service Award, from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration for his work with tornado safety.