My Story



In Memory Of My Father

By James Donahue

Edwin George Donahue was born in 1906 at or near Ringgold, Texas, in a covered wagon. The family was moving from a farm near Galveston north to Bonner Springs, Kansas. The only record of his birth was a notation scribbled by his mother in the family Bible. That was the document Dad used after it became time for him to apply for Social Security.

Dad was among the youngest of five children in the family of Peter and Grace Donahue. Both of these grandparents were dead before I was born so I never knew them.

My father never spoke much about his family, or about his personal affairs, so his past remained a mystery until after his death and we got our hands on a personal biography he was attempting to get completed. It turned out that he attended high school in Bonner Springs, but suffered from a severe speech impediment. He stuttered. He later got into a special training program where he was taught to speak every word very slowly and deliberately, and to sound out each syllable. Somehow using this technique helped Dad overcome his stuttering. During his later years he did some public speaking, taught Sunday school classes, and later taught high school classes when he and Mom joined the Peace Corps. Mom said that once, when he returned to Bonner Springs for a class reunion, Dad began stuttering again. That happened just for the time he was with his old classmates.

When he was young, Dad discovered a keen interest in chemistry. When they moved into one house where there was a spare room in the basement, he used this room to conduct chemistry experiments. He apparently knew at a very young age what he wanted to do with his life. He later attended Kansas State College then moved to Michigan behind two of his older sisters and their husbands. He got his masters degree in chemistry at Michigan State College. He earned his way through college painting barns, picking strawberries and doing other farm labor jobs. Once at Michigan State, he worked his way through as an undergraduate assistant.

Mom moved next to Dad in a chemistry class in college, and they began dating. Once they decided they wanted to get married, Dad had to have a job before they could afford it. He hitch hiked from Lansing to Harbor Beach in 1935 to apply for and land what became his lifelong job at a plant in Harbor Beach. The old Huron Milling Company made wheat starch and other food products, including monosodium glutamate, later found to be an addictive excito-toxin that destroys brain cells. It is ironic that a portion of the old plant was later sold to the Searle Company and used to manufacture aspartame, an artificial sweetener that was found to be just as addictive and as dangerous an excito-toxin as monosodium glutamate. Dad had nothing to do with developing these products, although he did find a less costly way of manufacturing MSG, which helped make the company a lot of money.

Dad was involved in the development of packaged dried food for troops during World War II. Because of this important work for the war effort he was exempt from the draft and did not go off to war.

Dad was a constant hobbyist. His earliest interest was photography. He owned a classic 35-millimeter Argus C-3 and set up a darkroom in the pantry off from the kitchen in our home on South Huron Avenue. Consequently, there were hundreds of pictures of “little Jimmy” in a box of family pictures. By the time my siblings, Andrea and Steve arrived, Dad was off on his next big adventure which was radio. Consequently there were less pictures of the other two children in the box.

Dad’s radio hobby involved building radios, testing them, building testing equipment, and very soon, because the war was on and people couldn’t buy new ones, he was repairing radios.

Dad’s next hobby was obviously the farm. Mom and Dad bought the 160-acre farm on Filion Road near Port Hope in about 1948, right after the war. His original plan was to make it a tree farm and he set off on a major tree–planting campaign. He bought an older Ford-Ferguson tractor with a hydraulic lift on the back. On this he put a box that he filled with small trees. I helped him as we moved the tractor down a row. Dad used a square planting shovel to push aside a crack in the earth while I dropped the roots of the little trees in each hole. Then we heeled in each tree, poured water on the sapling and moved on. He planted acres of jack pine, scotch pine, white pine, and possibly a few other varieties.

We soon discovered that farmers in Michigan shared an obligation to maintain fence rows. That meant that on the boundaries of the land that we owned, it was our duty to maintain half of the fences surrounding it. Most, if not all of our neighbors to the east, west and south of us kept cattle on land adjoining our farm. Thus we learned how to dig post holes, set fence posts and string barbed wire. We usually did it in the spring, but sometimes got caught in mosquito season. I remember working with Dad on one fence that went deep into a wooded area amid swarms of biting insects. It was so hot that weekend that the mosquito repellent drained off with our sweat. It was one of the most miserable jobs I ever worked on.

For Dad, the farm became his playground when he was not in the laboratory. For him there was no more time for other social events. He spent every spare minute of his time working on some project on the farm. For me, as a young man, it was a learning experience. I worked with Dad on many of his projects. We bought equipment and used our tractor to work the soil and plant all kinds of crops. We grew wheat, oats, rye, navy beans and alfalfa. We had a threshing crew on the farm one year to harvest the beans. The rig was set up in the barn which was a mistake. They generated so much dust that the barn was too dirty to use for much of anything after that. From that time on Dad hired his harvest done by combine. One year he almost bought a used combine, but decided the return from the investment would not be worth it. That was a wise decision. We hardly knew how to service and maintain our tractor. A used combine would have been a disaster.

There was a waste product from the Huron Milling Company that was a black, tarry, stinky and smelly material that they called “sauce cake.” For years the company disposed of this stuff on a vacant lot just outside Harbor Beach. It smelled so bad that people living in the area complained. Dad discovered that the material was filled with nitrogen and other materials that he concluded would make good fertilizer. He decided to use our farm for an experiment. He had a manure spreader especially adapted to handle sauce cake, then had a truck load of the stuff delivered to the farm. He picked a place back in the woods where it would be out of sight and out of mind. He spread this material in marked strips across one of his fields then planted a crop of wheat using regular fertilizer all over the field. When the harvest came in that summer, the yield on his regular field was about thirty bushels to the acre, which was average on farms at that time. Where he spread the sauce cake, the yield jumped to 50 bushels to the acre. When the neighbors saw what happened, they all wanted sauce cake on their farms.

Dad developed amazing strength during the years he worked that farm. I once saw him pick up a giant log that had to be about two feet square and about 50 feet long, and drag it several hundred feet. He did it because the log was in the way of space he wanted to use to make more lawn. It apparently never occurred to him that he could have used to tractor to drag it.

Dad began refurbishing the old farmhouse. When we bought the place, the house had no plumbing and the wiring was the old knob and tube type. The house had about four chimneys and coal or wood stoves connected to each. There was a cistern under the kitchen. Water was pumped from the cistern by a hand pump into a wooden box that served as the kitchen sink. We got our drinking water from a dug well in the back yard, just out of a door leading from the kitchen. Beyond this was the outhouse.

There were two bedrooms downstairs and two finished bedrooms upstairs. To get to the upstairs bedrooms we climbed a steep staircase leading off from the kitchen into an unfinished attic, then walked through that to reach a finished hallway at the west end of the house. This opened into two finished upstairs bedrooms.

We spent several years refurbishing that place. When we were finished there was a downstairs bathroom, a modern kitchen, a dining room, downstairs bedroom, a large living room with a beautiful limestone fireplace, a new staircase that opened up into a finished room that sometimes served as a spare bedroom. Another wing of the attic was finished as another bedroom. Thus we had a four or five-bedroom house. I helped on a lot of the work that involved tearing out walls, hauling away old lathe and plaster, installing plasterboard, laying hardwood flooring and painting. We hired one of the last men in the area that knew how to plaster homes and he did a beautiful job. We also hired the electrical and plumbing work. The plaster guy also built our fireplace and the chimney that served it.

Dad was a fanatic about gardens and lawn. He had large ones. It was my job to mow the grass and hoe the gardens. I always knew how I was going to spend my summer vacations on that farm. Because of his super vegetable gardens and the fruit orchard on that farm, however, we always ate well. We had a large freezer in the basement and Mom canned just about everything that could not be saved in the freezer.

We had one of the first televisions in the rural part of Michigan at our house. The nearest television station at the time was Channel 6 in Lansing, with the second nearest in Detroit. Dad brought home a new Philco Television set and put up a super tall antenna from the peak of our roof. The antenna was as tall as the house, so it could be seen for miles. Our house became a marker for the neighborhood. It also became a magnet for lightning strikes during electrical storms, so Dad had a large copper grounding wire leading from the antenna down the side of the house and into the ground.

When the antenna was turned just right and when weather conditions were good, we received a television signal. It was usually always snowy and sometimes the sound faded in and out, but it was real television. When we got really lucky we got to watch The Hit Parade, The Kraft Music Hall, Howdy Doody, the Mickey Mouse Club, Jack Benny, George Gobel, and other early classic television shows. Dad continued to experiment with raising bigger and better antennas. After television stations opened in Bay City and Flint, our reception got much better.

Dad contracted with the Michigan Highway Department to sell gravel from a run of gravel found on the west edge of our farm. We had large dump trucks thundering past our place all one summer as the new highway between Harbor Beach and Port Hope was being built. Filion Road was still a gravel country road then, so we lived in constant dust. I think the money Mom and Dad received for that gravel was ample reward for the inconvenience, however.

Dad got elected to the Harbor Beach Board of Education and served as a member of that board, and later board president for several years.

When Dad hit age 65 he was forced into retirement. He was not prepared for that. He had led such a busy and active life he could not imagine not getting up and going to work. He and Mom signed up for the Peace Corp, but found out there was a waiting list. So they signed up for Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA), and moved to Iowa where they set up “meals on wheels,” congregate meals and other programs for senior citizens. They remained in Iowa a third year teaching new VISTA volunteers the ropes.

After getting back on the farm, Dad launched a vigorous campaign to reroof and repair all of the old buildings on the farm. He also expanded his yard to include the orchard. Then he and Mom got a call that they were, at long last, accepted for the Peace Corps. So off they went once more, this time to Fiji, where they both took teaching jobs in a school for the children of American missionaries. After a two-year stint with the Peace Corps, they returned with a gala trip around the world.

After returning to the farm, Dad got restless again. He opened an income tax consulting office in Bad Axe and ran that for a while until one-day, on his way home, he fell asleep at the wheel and drove his car into a deep ditch. He was not seriously hurt, but the car was a total wreck. He decided at last to retire.

By then the value of his farm property was growing, new state tax laws were weighing him down, and even leasing out the farmland to the neighbors was not covering the taxes paid on the property. He put the place up for sale, held an auction on all of the contents, and he and Mom moved to Kentucky. They bought a rural modular home that needed a lot of repair.

Dad hired new plumbing work done, and got hooked up with a community water system that went by the place. But he decided to build a garage for his car and a pickup truck he bought. He had a mild heart attack toweling the concrete floor and was rushed to the hospital. He recovered and was back to work within a few weeks.

He and Mom adopted a little dog that brought a lot of joy into their lives. I do not remember its name. They would go for long walks down their road with that dog every day. Mom collapsed on one of those walks. I think she had a stroke. She went downhill after that. My brother Steve and sister Andrea decided it was time for Mom and Dad to move into assisted living housing. Steve found a place for them in Albuquerque, New Mexico, where he and his wife, Paula were living. Dad wrote that the hardest part of that move was giving up their dog.

Mom died shortly after they arrived in New Mexico. Dad lived on, spending much of his time with Steve and Paula. He died in their home at the age of 100.

Dad was never an easy person to get to know because he rarely spoke of personal things. He was a good father, he provided well for his family, served his community and was well liked by all who knew him. He always had my admiration. The last time I saw him I did something completely unconventional for our family. As I was saying good-by, out of impulse I hugged him and told him that I loved him. He had tears in his eyes.

I will always be glad that I did that.