By Sarah Wontorcik
The Wontorczyk family first came to America in 1917, traveling from Eastern Europe in an attempt to avoid the turmoil of World War I. Like many immigrant families, when John and Anna Wontorczyk arrived at the Port of Entry at Ellis Island, the authorities recorded their name as they heard it, altering the spelling of the family name to be Wontorcik.
John and Anna, my great-grandparents, first lived briefly in the outskirts of Toledo, Ohio, but ended up settling in Midland, Michigan, where my family has called home since.
On my mother’s side of the family, Midland, Michigan, has been my family’s hometown for as long as my grandma, Karen Rolley, can remember.
The earliest record she has of her family dates back to my great-great-grandparents, John and Mary Timmons. John and Mary lived in a two-room log cabin, and John worked in the then up-and-coming chemical factory, Dow Chemical.
Dow Chemical is the heartbeat of Midland. Before the company was founded in 1897, Midland was a small logging town. Midland was put on the map when local chemist Herbert Henry Dow invented a new way to extract bromine from underground. Widespread use of bromine in medicines and in early photography made this a groundbreaking discovery at the time. From then on, much of Midland’s population would find work at Dow Chemical, which remains true of Midland to this day.
My grandma wasn’t sure what exactly John did at Dow Chemical, but said that her father and my great-grandfather, Ira Manges, also worked for the chemical company making Epsom salts.
“It was real powdery stuff, so it was always in his clothes,” my grandma said. “So, when he came home from work, he smelled like Epsom salts.”
Because of Dow’s rising success in the early 20th century, Midland was fortunate enough to have steady employment through the Great Depression, making it the ideal place for my family to continue to call home.
To my family, home doesn’t just mean where you’re from. Home is where your family is. It’s a safe and secure place that remains constant all throughout your life. Home is a place you can always come back to; a place that embodies warmth, love and steadfastness.
My great-grandparents, Ira and Nina Manges, valued home so much that, as each of their seven children got married, Ira and Nina would gift them an acre of their own land. This meant that for several decades, the corner of Stark Road and Shaffer Road was lined with members of the Manges family. To this day, most of my mother’s family lives close to home. With the exception of a couple uncles and cousins, almost everyone still lives in Midland or the surrounding area.
The same can be said for my father’s side of the family. The Wontorcik family tree is a big one—John and Anna had 12 children, my grandma and grandpa had nine children and I’ve lost count of the many cousins I have—but like my mother’s family, most of them have remained in the state of Michigan, not too far from home.
John and Anna’s farmhouse, where they lived for most of their life, remained in the family, and after my grandpa died in 1991 my dad decided to buy the house from my grandma. My dad remodeled the house and turned it into a place my family called home for several years.
Generation to generation, the concept of home has been consistently important to my family. Whether that’s an old farmhouse, a two-room log cabin or the corner of Stark and Shaffer, our roots in Midland are planted deep.