Henry Belton’s New House

The 2nd in a Series … Volume II

Prompt: Favourite Photo


Source: Family Archives

Playing favourites is not really my style. I prefer different things for different reasons. When it comes to the old family photos I love them all simply because they exist and offer a snapshot in time I wouldn’t know otherwise.

While sifting through our limited collection of images (did I mention that my great grandmother Mary Lewis Belton (1881-1966) burned most of them in the belief that no one in the future would care?) this one of my second great grandfather Henry Belton’s new house in Escanaba, MI stood out. Fortunately, aunt Margaret (Belton) Cox, his youngest daughter, thought to write on the back of it a few sparse details.

Transcribed it reads as follows (with some blanks filled in):

“Henry Belton’s New House
Taken in 1904
Escanaba, Michigan
Mother ~
(Mary Jane (Crouse) Belton (1850-1932) )
myself ~
Margaret (Belton) Cox (1887-1978);
our old dog, the lady who lived upstairs with 2 little girls”

A Few Thoughts

Source: mapofus.org

Up until this point the Belton’s had been farmers in Fremont, Newaygo Co. Michigan (see map). They, like many of the state’s inhabitants at the time, had migrated from Ontario. They arrived in 1879, farmed for just over 20 years and then, it appears, sold the farm and moved to this lovely house in town.

Why Escanaba is anyone’s guess. It’s not exactly close to Fremont, Newaygo Co.. Maybe it was an emerging town with good opportunities for the girls, Mary (23) and Margaret (17), both of whom were talented seamstresses. Did the move also have something to do with the boys ~ William, George, Frank, and Henry ~ itching to work on the new Great Northern Railroad?

Within a year of moving into their new home the eldest daughter and my great grandmother, Mary Lewis Belton (1881-1966), married Steve McDonall (1877-1949) who’d already been out to Montana from Michigan presumably looking for opportunities. By 1906 Steve, Mary and her brothers had left Escanaba and were working on the railroad at Bantry, North Dakota. In addition, that year saw the arrival of Mary and Steve’s first child, Joseph Henry (1906-1967). Henry and Mary Jane either went with their family or arrived in Bantry around the time of Joseph’s birth. By 1912 the entire family, which included two more little boys, had landed in Great Falls, Montana. Only William had opted to go his own way, to Chicago.

All this is to say that Henry and Mary Jane Belton were not in their pretty new house very long before they sold up again and started the long trek west.

What might their lives have been had they decided to stay in Escanaba and retired comfortably to this beautiful house? Well, it’s a moot point for they opted instead to follow their children across uncertain terrain to an uncertain future. Much like their ancestors they threw caution to the wind, welcoming the adventure while showing devotion to family.

The Final Word

Their late-middle age story of relinquishing a genteel retirement for railroad pioneering is reminiscent of my Scottish great grandparents, William Alexander Gordon (1880-1954) and Jane (Robson) Gordon (1883-1959) who made a similar decision in 1927 when they left their own comfortable life in Motherwell, Scotland, for the untamed wilderness of northern Alberta. Also, the Palatines who left Ireland in the mid 1800s to join the growing Irish community in Ontario, and the United Empire Loyalists who sought refuge in the dark forests of Upper Canada shortly after the American Revolution. Intrepid and resilient dreamers who started again and, sometimes, again.

Henry Belton’s new house was mighty pretty, but in the end it meant nothing without the warmth of a tightly-knit family around to help him and Mary Jane enjoy it. That’s my sense, anyway, and I’m sticking to it. ❦


©Dorothy E. Chiotti … All Rights Reserved 2023 … Aimwell CreativeWorks

Post Script

Researching family history is a fluid endeavour. Since writing this piece a couple of facts have come to light:

  1. In the 1900 U.S. census the Beltons are shown as living in Ubly, Michigan. This, of course, means that they did not go straight from Fremont to Escanaba as noted above.
  2. In 1898 the eldest son, William D. Belton, married Elizabeth Hewitt in Escanaba where they lived until 1907. It’s possible Henry and Mary Jane’s move to Escanaba was prompted by this event.

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