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Grand Rapids in 1856

Scene of early Grand Rapids viewed from the...

Day Trip to Northport

by Connie Ingham and Cindy Laug

Unable to locate pictures of Kin-Ne-Quay (Etta’s Native American grandmother) and Mary Jane Smith (Etta’s mother) during our research was disappointing as was the lack of information about Mary Jane, what she was like, and some insights into how she felt about her own life.

During our March 2010 Legacy presentation at the Gerald R.FordMuseum, Constance Larson, another history buff, introduced herself. A close friend of Avis Wolfe, wife of Bud Wolfe, the great grandson of Mary Jane and Payson Wolfe, we learned that Avis and Bud still lived in Northport and that Avis had been a researcher of Wolfe family history. She had painstakingly transcribed letters and documents to preserve them for the family; her efforts proved to become part of our Michigan history. 

On April 29, 2010 we picked up Constance and drove to Northport, Michigan for the day to meet Avis Wolfe and learn more about Etta’s roots. We were welcomed into her home and spent several hours pouring over photos, letters, transcripts, and news articles. She helped clarify facts and fill in some gaps in our information; an insider’s perspective on the family was invaluable to us.

Avis was kind enough to let us borrow several pictures to copy so pictures of Mary Jane and a few new ones of Payson have been added to enhance our photo essay.

The new photos include Payson in his civil war ‘dress’ uniform; once handsome and virile, he returned from the war a broken man. Avis informed us that he did not leave Northport of his own accord.  George Nelson Smith Sr., his father-in-law, asked him to leave because his excessive drinking had taken a toll on the family. The photo of Payson near the end of his life was taken on the reservation in Cross Village, Michigan.

While touring the small village of Northport, we saw the original location, the foundation still visible, of the missionary home of George N. Smith Sr. The family home of Payson and Mary Jane remains much as it did in the 1870’s.

Etta’s lucrative career in ornithology allowed her to build a cottage on the lake next to the home of her missionary grandfather. We visited the cemetery and graves of George N. Smith Sr., Arvilla, and other family members.

We were surprised to learn that Etta went to Grand Rapids to study vocal music as an understudy to opera star, Susie Kirwin. Unfortunately, an illness left injury to her vocal chords. She supported herself as a seamstress until her employment at the Grand Rapids Herald Telegraph. Avis verified that all but two of the Wolfe family were musically inclined both in vocal and instrumental music.

Our day in Northport turned out to be a rewarding adventure.  We made new friends and discovered new facts and details to add to our “Etta Wolfe Smith Wilson” puzzle. On our way home, we both agreed that one final piece is still missing–a photo of Kin-ne-quay. This may just lead us on another day trip!

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