Their stories revealed

Becky Vargo • Apr 7, 2017 at 12:00 PM

SPRING LAKE — Jinna Wenger said she moved back to the Grand Haven area just a couple of years ago, so it was interesting to attend a program and see her grandfather’s name signed on a death certificate.

Her grandfather, the late John N. Wenger of Coopersville, was a doctor to the residents at the Ottawa County Poor Farm, now the site of Ottawa County Parks Eastmanville Farms, 7851 Leonard Road.

Local historian Marjorie Viveen gave a presentation on three of the female residents of the Poor Farm during the Counterpart group’s meeting Wednesday at the Holiday Inn. This was similar to the programs Viveen is presenting at Spring Lake District Library on April 12 and 19. She also gave a presentation at the library on April 5.

The library is partnering with the Tri-Cities Historical Museum on the lecture series, “Four Stories from the Poor Farm.” Each program highlights four different residents, their history and how they ended up at the farm. The lectures begin at 7 p.m. and are open to the public.

Wenger said that she and her sisters would tag along with their grandfather when he made his rounds at the Poor Farm. The girls would play in the barn while he worked.

She said it intrigued her to see the death certificate displayed on the screen, with her grandfather’s signature at the bottom. The death certificate was for Hattie Babcock, an Ionia native who became a popular teacher in the Grand Haven school system, but ended up living at the Poor Farm until her death.

Viveen took the Counterpart guests through a short story about another young woman who was married at age 13 and accompanied her husband from Greece to Grand Haven in 1905.

“They lived in an apartment above Harris’ Bazaar — you know it as the Baker’s Wife,” Viveen said while pointing to a picture of downtown Grand Haven from many years ago.

Two other men also lived in the same apartment, which made William Kulos jealous of any attention his wife, Rena, gave to them.

William, who was a barber in Greece, worked as a varnisher at the Story & Clark piano factory. Rena worked at a basket factory in downtown Grand Haven. The baskets were needed to ship locally grown fruit, Viveen said.

On Aug. 13, 1911, William became drunk and eventually shot his wife three times in the back. He was arrested, and Rena was taken by train to Hackley Hospital in Muskegon, where she recuperated for six months. 

Viveen said that once Rena had sufficiently recovered, although paralyzed below the waist, she was taken to her husband’s trial but refused to testify against him. He was sent to prison and Rena, with no family around to care for her, wound up at the Ottawa County Poor Farm.

She sold lace to raise money, and for the rest of her life — she died April 18, 1918, at age 26 — she fought to get her husband out of prison. He was released three years after her death. Viveen said she could find no record of what happened to him.

The historian said her work with the Poor Farm started with the buildings, but eventually she realized there were a lot more stories to tell about its residents.

Her next presentation, on April 12, is “Albert, Aiken, Activism and Alcoholism.”

The Ottawa County Poor Farm accepted its first resident in 1866. The large brick infirmary on the site was demolished in 1997. The property became a park in 2004. 

A documentary about the Poor Farm will debut May 31 at the Grand Haven Community Center. Tickets are $10 and are available online at http://www.bit.ly/PoorFarmPremiere-GH and at the door. The program — which includes a bar, silent auction and music — begins at 6 p.m. Proceeds will benefit the Ottawa County Parks Foundation.



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