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 Gordon Burgar, 1916- , Memoirs

Note: Gordon Burgar and his siblings lived many years on Thomas Road in Pittsfield Township. In 1995, Gordon Burgar finished writing the following account of his life and sent a hand-written copy to his sister, Ruth Burgar (Alford) MacFarlane, along with a cassette tape on which he had read the account aloud. Ruth added the following subject headings and several notes [designated RBM].

Table of Contents


Name: Gordon Dwight Burgar
Born: Born Feb. 29, 1916, in Lapeer County, Mich.
Mother, Anna Mabel McKillop
Father, Charles Bernard Burgar
Occupation: Farmer

Early Years

We moved from North Branch to Spring Wells (a suburb of Detroit) in 1917. Dad had a job at Ford's River Rouge plant as millwright. He earned $5.00 per day. In 1918 Dad, with the help of neighbors, built a house in Dearborn on Oxford road in the first block east of Telegraph Rd. He at first built a one room "shack" in which we lived one summer. The house had one bedroom on the first floor and two upstairs. Ruth was born in the first floor bedroom and I can remember the morning when Dad invited us--Dora, John and I--to come in to see our new sister. We were very pleased and proud. I remember the wallpaper had blue birds.

When first built, the house had no basement, but soon Dad set to work and dug the basement out by hand. He had a lot of perseverance and worked very hard. At that time most all houses were heated by stoves. Dad got an old railroad stove somewhere and set it in the middle of the basement, then enclosed it with brick and cut a hole in the floor above and installed a grill. We burned coal and were quite comfortable. Mother had a kerosene stove for cooking.

Dad was putting up a partition in the basement for a "coal bin" when a nail flew out and struck him in the eye. The eye was removed and from then on he wore a glass eye. Each night he would take it out and put it in a cup of water. When it was necessary to get a new one he would order four from a catalog, select the one he wanted and send the rest back, with $20.00.

Childhood Memories

I believe we were a happy family. In the winter we would cross the road and slide down a hill on our sleds or whatever we could find that would slide. We had a rather large front porch where the neighbor kids would gather and we would "shoot marbles" and play.

As I write a lot of memories come back to me, like the time when I was four or five and one of the Roller boys and I dug a shallow hole in the back yard, took off all our clothes and went "swimming" in the sand. My Aunt Roxey was visiting us and when she spotted us she was horrified. She took me in the house, but the Roller boy grabbed his clothes under his arm and ran down the road to his house. He found no one home so he ran next door to Walburn's grocery store to find his mother, with his clothes still under his arm.

Someone gave me the works from a clock. I could wind it and it would spin. Somehow I put a honey bee in it and wound it up. When I released it to let it spin, the bee stung my finger.

Oxford road was not paved and was just a track through the sand. A car was parked in front of John Boles' house. For some reason, or no reason, I packed some sand around his tires. When the owner came out I was concerned he might be stuck, so I got behind the car to push. Instead of going forward, he began to back up. I fell down and started to yell. It didn't hurt me but he could have had a heart attack. It seems Mr. Boles did not really appreciate neighborly help. My brother John and I were doing a good job painting the inside of his garage, but he sure was upset. So was my Dad.

The Hendersons lived next door. Dad rode to work with Mr. Henderson and they were always joshing each other. One time Dad got a pair of shorts from his clothesline and cut ruffles all around. He thought it was funny. Mac didn't.

Some ladies that lived in a house in back of us started a Sunday school which we attended. On one occasion we took part in a program put on by a little church at Hand Station. We each had learned a verse of scripture which we were to recite when our group was on the stage. I was sitting in the audience with my parents, not realizing my group had already gone on the stage. Each recited his verse but when it came my turn there was silence. Someone called, "Gordon, Gordon Burgar, is he here?" I realized it must be my turn so I got up, went to the side of the church, up the stairs, and over to the center of the stage and gave my verse. It was, "Be patient, therefore, brethren, until the coming of the Lord." I didn't think it was supposed to be funny, but the audience laughed and cried and slapped their thighs and said they never had laughed so hard. So what is so funny about James 5:7?

We never had many toys. We did have a sled which I used to pull Ruth around on and we would slide down hill on. We also had marbles which we would play with on the front porch. Also checkers. Recently I remembered that someone found an old buggy axle with two wheels and we would push that around.

I believe it was my first day of kindergarten. I was late and scared to go in. A teacher saw me crying and took me in and introduced me to a wonderful world of toys, and building blocks, and wheels and axles and kids my own age, and nice teachers. My first grade teacher's name was Miss Wing. She was very nice. I'm not sure of the name of the school but think it was Ford Southwestern.

One recess we were playing near a ditch that was being dug across the playground. A boy came up and gave me a shove and knocked me down. What he didn't know was that it was my dad who was digging the ditch. Dad just hollered at him and he took off running. I sure was proud of Dad.

During the seven years Dad worked at Ford's there were many lay-offs when he would find other jobs to do such as carpenter work or digging ditches. He also built our house and dug our basement and put up a one-car garage. The garage was for a 1917 Model T Ford touring car. He took very good care of it, filling the grease cups and putting it up on blocks to save the tires. On Sundays we would "go for a drive." That was our first car.

The Twenty Acres

In 1923 Dad and Mother bought a 20 acre farm about six miles west of Ypsilanti [on Textile Road west of Platt Road],just off US-112 (now US-12). Their plan was to plant crops which they could sell in a market in Detroit. Then they would build a house on the 20 acres and move out there. There was at that time a street car that ran between Saline and Ypsilanti that we could ride to high school when that time came. US-112 was a good gravel road and Cady's Grocery Store was close so the plans looked good.

Perhaps I should point out that the plans were mostly Dad's, and Mother went along. But he was very convincing and he worked very hard. Mother also worked hard both physically and in teaching us children.

Well, in 1923 they planted mostly melons and sweet corn. We would drive out from Dearborn in the morning. Mother and Dad and Dora and John would work the crops and I would take care of Ruth in the car. Sometimes John would stay at the car and one day we learned to start it. Fortunately we did no damage. That fall when the corn and melons were ripe we would load the Model T almost to the top, then John and I would crawl in on top of the corn and go back the 25 miles to Dearborn.

Dad would get up very early and drive to Detroit to be there about 5 A.M. Our produce was very good and sold well.

Move to the Red House in Pittsfield Township

The next year, 1924, we sold our house in Dearborn and moved to a little house near the 20 acres. It was very substandard and we only stayed there one summer. Dad took the streetcar to Detroit one day and bought a team of horses and a buggy. He paid $100 for the team, harness, and the buggy and drove them all the way home. The horses' names were George and Queen and we had them many years. They died in about 1936. Originally they had pulled a milk wagon for the Detroit Creamery.

The summer spent in the Little Red House was quite pleasant. Mother would take us kids to pick raspberries and strawberries that grew wild along a ditch bank near the house. In a small barn behind the house we found several of a set of Wonder World Books left by a previous renter. They were fascinating to read. Mother read to us a lot. She did a lot of sewing, mending, cleaning house, washing clothes (on a rub board), cooking, etc. Dad worked the 20 acres and took the produce to market. He bought a Model T Ford truck to haul stuff on. Having bought the horses, a plow and other implements, he could pretty well take care of the farm himself with help from Dora and John. It seems I must have stayed around the house more. Maybe I helped Mother and took care of Ruth.

An incident I remember was walking along the road, picking up a stone, and throwing it at a little bird in the brush. To my surprise it hit the bird in the head and killed it. I had heard that it was against the law to kill a songbird so I was sure some sheriff would put me in jail.

That summer I got my first pair of long pants. Up till then I had to wear knee length knickers. Mother ordered them from the catalog. I felt grown up but Dad didn't think much of them, but he did not say much.

We bought a cow and had some chickens. The house in Dearborn was sold so I'm sure there was money in the bank.

The Thomas Farm

That fall of 1924 we moved to a farm in back of the one the Little Red House was on. It was known as the Thomas place. It had a pretty good barn and the house was large enough. There were 100 acres which included 12 acres of woods and 20 acres of huckleberry swamp. It also adjoined the 20-acre land we had bought. That was still Dad's dream. He bought the cement blocks for a basement and put up most of the walls but that is as far as he ever got. Probably money was running out because he got a job in Ypsilanti at the Locke Pattern Works, and worked there several years as a millwright. [Note: Mother said that someone stole the cement blocks. RBM]

The Town Hall School

Dora, John, Ruth and I attended the Town Hall School. It was a one-room, one-teacher school that taught all eight grades. We had a wood stove for heat but it had a metal jacket around it that was supposed to make the heat circulate around the room. It would be noon or after before we would be warm enough to take off our coats. At first the only water we had we brought from home, usually in a quart jar. Several years later a pump was put in beside the school. There was no electricity but we had kerosene lamps. There were two outhouses or "privies," one for girls and one for boys. There was a bell on the roof and the rope came down just behind the teacher. It was considered a privilege to be chosen to ring the bell. We took turns helping the teacher after school, to clean blackboards, empty wastebaskets, sweep floors, etc. At the close of the school day we would sing:

Let us put our books away
Study time is over
Homeward skipping
Homeward tripping
Soon we'll be at play.

At the beginning of each day we would go out in front and raise the flag and say the Pledge of Allegiance. Then we would go in and sing some songs like "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "My Old Kentucky Home," "The Swannee River," "The Old Rugged Cross," and other well known songs. The teacher would call up one class at a time and the students for that grade would come sit on a long bench in front and "recite" and use the blackboard. There was an average attendance of from 12 to 24 students. Sometimes there might be no students for some grades, but that was O.K. I believe there were some advantages in the one-room school. Each one had a foretaste for what was coming in the future. There were few disciplinary problems, mostly talking, passing notes, or a fight on the schoolyard.

The one big event of the year was the Christmas Play. We all participated and had a part to play. We would hurry to get our studying done so we could help make paper chains, string popcorn and other decorations for the tree. One year the teacher sent the boys out to find a Christmas tree. The Morgans had two beautiful large pine trees in their field across from the school. The boys climbed one tree and cut about six feet out of the top. It made a beautiful Christmas tree but it also made the Morgans furious. I guess that is why Sam Morgan began to see the teacher. Anyway, they made up and got married. [That was a later teacher. RBM]

The night of the Christmas Play was an exciting time. Neighbors and parents came from all around and the school would be filled. The Play would be presented, we would all say our parts, then it would be time for the presents. There would be a jangling of sleigh bells and shouting at the reindeer outside, then old Santa would come in stomping the snow off his boots, calling out his "Ho Ho Ho, Merry Christmas Everyone!!" There was always something for everyone.

Thank you, Mr. Fiegel, for being such a good Santa.

One Christmas I made a present for him. It was a monkey made of cigar box wood. He had a wide grin on his face. His arms and legs were pivoted and hung straight down, but when you pulled down on his tail the arms and legs would fly out. Dad said later that Mr. Fiegel was really pleased.

My grades were not very good. Mostly B's and C's, once in a while an A and sometimes a D. I never did fail a grade though. Dad was very hard on us. Dora made very good grades and John's were good. Ruth was always a good student. I don't know about Janet and Catherine's because they came along later. I did get an "F" on my report card once. When the rest went home I stayed in my seat crying. When the teacher told me I had to go I told her I just couldn't. She finally changed it to a D.

I know I spent a lot of time daydreaming, mostly thinking about building cars, boats, planes or anything else that moves. For English I was told to write a short story. I tried but was getting nowhere and told the teacher so. So she said, "Just invent one then." Well, that was different. I figured I could invent anything! So I wrote a story about a boat race in which our hero wins the race by loosening the exhaust pipes from the sides of his boat and lowers them into the water. The jet action was enough. And I got an A.

Later Childhood

We lived about three miles from Ypsilanti Airport and on Saturdays John and I would go there and watch the planes. We were fascinated by them. John built a rubber- band-powered model.

In 1927 when Lindberg flew the ocean I wrote a poem about it. I suppose it was for English class. Somehow it got put in a newspaper. Mother saved it and gave it to me.


By Gordon Burgar

Across the ocean flew Lindy;
Across the ocean so wide,
That nothing but just green water and sky
Could be seen on either side.

For thirty hours and six he flew,
For thirty hours and six;
And all the while the time went by
With slow and steady ticks.

But finally Lindy saw Paris,
And the lights of Le Bourget,
And after he and his plane had landed
They were cared for without delay.

And for this act he is honored,
Aye, honored as few have been;
And in our history books ever after,
He'll be one of our greatest men.

I have the original and intend to send it to the University of Eastern Michigan for the Little Old Schoolhouse which we attended.

Our social life was an occasional visit from relatives from Detroit: Uncle Les and Aunt Nellie Lamiman, Aunt Jenny and Uncle Alex McKibbin; cousins Wilma Hampshire and Estelle Lamiman and Grandma McKillop. These were from Mother's side of the family. More often we had visits from Dad's brother Archie Burgar and his wife Violet and their two sons, Francis and Edward. Edward was about my age and we were close friends. He was always interested in science and had his own ham radio. However he became very depressed about his social life and committed suicide when about 21.

We lived a rather isolated life, especially in the winter. We read a lot from books that Mother would get by mail from the state library in Lansing. She would often read aloud to us. Her favorite book was the Bible which she read through many times. She tried to teach us more than we were willing to learn and sometimes we would call her fanatical. But we did acquire a basic sense of honesty and learned right from wrong. Later in life most of us became Christians, including Dad.

Our nearest neighbor was Mrs. Webb. She was quite old, and John and I would mow her lawn with a push mower. She would pay us $2.00. She was very good to us.

About the only boy our age to play with was Calvin Geddes. If our work was done sometimes on a Saturday, Dad would let us go and play with Calvin. Our main topic was what we would do with $1000 or $1,000,000. He had a younger brother, Charles, but I don't remember much about him. Their father, John Geddes, was a very good farmer and a good man. Mrs. Geddes was a nice lady and could bake good cookies, so we always enjoyed going there.

When I was about 16, I noticed that Mr. Geddes had cut a walnut tree across from Mrs. Webb's house, which he was going to use as corner posts for a fence he was building. I mentioned this to Dad, saying that the wood could be used to make something beautiful. Dad in turn passed this on to Mr. Geddes. Mr. Geddes then told Dad I could have one of the logs if I could come get it. I took the horses and wagon to get the log. It was too heavy to put in the wagon so I slung it underneath and brought it home. It stayed in the barn for a couple of years, then I loaded it in the wagon and took it to a sawmill that was located on Textile Road about two miles toward Saline. They sawed it into several boards. These I kept until I was in the Army, stationed at Ft. Benning, Georgia, in 1941. One of the sergeants had access to a planing mill and offered to plane the boards to size if I would get them when on furlough, which I did. He had them planed but kept some for his trouble. I had no opportunity to use them until 1944 while stationed at Ft. Knox, Kentucky. Then I made a box from them which I have to this day. It turned out to be beautiful wood and I keep photographs in it. It is a reminder of a very kind man, John Geddes.

Farm work

Our days were spent mostly in work. In the summer there were chores to do, garden to care for, fields to plow and crops to tend. My brother John one day went to a farm auction nearby and bought a horse-drawn riding plow for $2.00 and also a horse-drawn hay rake. Dad was not pleased as he thought we ought to walk behind the plow. Let me say a few words about the walking plow. For a boy it is hard work! When going along and the plow hits a rock, the handles fly up and hit you under the arms. That can hurt. Also, if you run into a bumble bees' nest, that can put you in real trouble. The bees will sting you and the horses, but you have to stay with it. I've had to turn the plow on its side to get it out of the ground and turn the horses away from the bees. later I could come back and pour gasoline on the bumble bees to get rid of them. It was a matter of pride to be able to plow a straight furrow. The neighbors could look at your field and tell something about your character, or so it was thought. The Bible mentions something about "once you set your hands on the plow don't look back." I know that if you do, the furrow will not be straight. Let me say a little more about life at the Thomas place. The winters were cold. The house had cracks around the doors and windows which fine snow could drift through. The upstairs bedrooms would sometimes have little snowdrifts across the floor. The downstairs was heated by a woodstove with an insatiable appetite. When John and I would get home from school we would go out in the back yard and start cutting wood. Once Dad bought an old barn somewhere, tore it down and brought it home. It had been built with heavy oak timbers which we sawed up with a two-man crosscut saw. If the saw was sharp it was not too bad, but if it was dull it might take an hour to cut off one piece. It usually took about three chunks to last till the next day. Also we had a supply of tamarack trees in a huckleberry swamp. These trees grow very straight and the branches are brittle, so when one is cut most of the branches are broken off as it falls. Usually on Saturdays we would take one horse, go to the woods and cut a number of these trees and drag them to the house for cutting. I liked doing that because the woods was so peaceful and quiet.

One day Dad went to cut wood by himself. Towards evening I went outside and heard him calling for help. It was snowing so I could not see him but I ran and found him. He had cut his foot with an axe and was on his hands and knees crawling towards the house. John or I went and harnessed a horse, hitched it to a "stone boat" and with the help of the others in the family, brought him to the house. It was a close call for him but he recovered O.K.

Let me say what a stone boat is. Actually it is a sled about 8 feet long and 4 feet wide with two poles for runners, and cross pieces nailed on. It can be pulled by one or two horses. Designed for hauling large stones from the fields, it had many uses. One day John and I put a large roll of fence wire on it to bring to the house. I got inside the roll and John sat on it and drove the horses. The horses looked back, got scared and started running. When they made a turn the roll of wire fell off and went rolling with me inside. We were not hurt, fortunately.

Our life on the farm was hard by today's standards. We had no phone, electricity, nor running water. In the winter we would get up early, milk the cows and feed the livestock and harness the horses. Then after breakfast we would hitch the horses to the Model T Ford, pour hot water on the engine, chop the ice and mud from the tires, then with one riding the hood to drive the horses and another inside to drive the car, we would take off across the field till the car started. The horses would be put in the barn and we would start for work and school in Ypsilanti. In 1927, Dad traded in a Model T sedan for a new Model T touring car. The tires on the sedan were so bad that Dad cut pieces of sheet metal to patch the insides. Having a new car was much appreciated. That was the only new car we ever owned. Being a touring car, we had to put on side curtains. They lasted about two years, so when I started high school in 1929, we rode in an open touring car without side curtains. In another two years the top was gone, but we kept going. That was during the Depression and we had no money for luxuries. In 1932 we traded the Model T for a Dodge Coupe. At least it was warmer.

The Great Depression

The Depression was very bad. The ones who had money lost everything. We didn't have much to begin with so we had little to lose. Living on a farm we had most of what we needed. Henry Ford had restored some old grist mills so Dad would take wheat to be ground into flour and pay for the grinding with a share of the flour. Mother baked her own bread, canned garden produce and we had plenty of potatoes. We even helped some relatives from Detroit who would come out on Sundays.

One bad experience for Mother was when she tried a "cold pack" method for canning. She worked for days canning pork, thinking it would last all winter, but it all spoiled and had to be thrown out.

At that time jobs were very scarce and the going wage was one dollar a day. However, people helped each other. Farmers traded their labor. During threshing time John and I would take the horses and wagon and would go as one man. The man who owned the threshing rig was Mr. Sutherland. One could hear his steam tractor, pulling the threshing machine, coming a long time before he arrived. Then the neighbors with their wagons would start bringing the bundles of grain in from the fields. There would be five or six wagons. Some of their wives would come along to help with the cooking. There was always a good meal waiting. It was always exciting.

Let me go back in time to 1930. We had an opportunity to rent a house on US-112 which was much better than the Thomas place, so we moved there for one winter. It was on the north side of the road about 3/4 mile west of US-23. The next door neighbors were the Christnors, and the Hopps were across the road. We rode to high school with Dad who then went on to work. Dora went to Normal College. One afternoon she was not at the place where we were to pick her up. Dad became angry and drove home without her. She had to walk home (about 5 miles) through the snow and cold. For a long time she would not speak to Dad.

During the time we spent at that place, Mr. Stark, who was the executor of the Thomas place, did some work on the Thomas house. He had the woodshed torn down, a garage built, and the house painted brown. Up till then the house had never been painted.

Dad decided then to move back there, which we did. The rent was only $30.00 per month for the house and 100 acres of land. We raised pigs, chickens, and had six or eight milk cows, which we milked by hand morning and evenings, seven days a week. We used the milk we needed, put the rest in 10-gallon cans and took it to a creamery on the west side of Ypsilanti.

To give us some incentive, Dad gave John and I each a calf. Mine became a real pet and would play like a dog, chasing me around and then I would chase it. They finally became cows and were later sold.

The 20-acre huckleberry swamp was another source of income. For about a month during the summer, people would come to pick berries. They would pay us $1.00 and pick all day. Dad would be there during Saturday and Sunday, but for the rest of the week I was the one to take the money. The mosquitoes were very bad, but I did enjoy the job. We all picked berries and took them to the market in Ann Arbor to sell. One summer I earned $5.00 and bought a wagon. We also bought our clothes

High School Days and Going to Work

My high school days were pretty much routine. I was a mediocre student--some A's and some D's but no F's. I played baritone horn in the band. I enjoyed that but, not having the money for lessons, was not real good. In my sophomore year I built a cedar chest which is still in excellent condition. The top, front, and ends are solid walnut lined with cedar and the bottom and back are solid cedar. Mother used it for years and when she went to live with Ruth took it along. After Mother died, Dick MacFarlane, by then Ruth's husband, built a very good box for it and shipped it down here to Texas. Thank you, Dick!

At the beginning of my junior year in high school Dad did not have the $20 for tuition so I stayed home. After two weeks the superintendent of schools in Ypsilanti came out to see why I had not started. When Dad said he just did not have the $20, the superintendent said to send me anyway so I went. I have always been grateful to him.

When I graduated from high school, Uncle Alex and Aunt Jenny gave me $5.00. Somewhere I found an old gasoline engine which I bought for the $5.00. We had an old Thor washing machine which had been purchased when we lived in Dearborn. Because we had no electricity on the farm, it had not been in use. After getting the engine I rigged it up to drive the washer so Mother no longer had to use the rub board. Also on wash days I got to stay in from the field. John resented that and I don't really blame him. He did have to work harder than I.

In 1933 I graduated from high school. The next year was spent on the farm. Dad had broken a leg at work so he could not do much. The leg bothered him for years. I was getting unhappy about not earning any money and the farm not producing enough so rebellion was building up. One hot summer day I had stopped to rest the horses under a big oak tree. Dad saw me and came storming up and began to scold me. That was enough, so I put the lines (reins) down and told him to do it himself. I got off the cultivator and walked to Ypsilanti, about 7 miles, and got a job with the American Radiator Co. That job lasted 6 years until the factory shut down. During that period I helped the family financially.

Move to House on US-112

In 1935, the family moved away from the Thomas place to a farm on US-112 (now US-12) just west of the corner of State Street. That was a much better place, on a paved highway, with running water, a bathroom, electric lights, a good barn, etc.

The barn provided a place for me to build a couple of things. The first was a tractor using a Model T Ford engine. It ran O.K. but I really had no use for it. My next project was a little car made from parts of an old race car. Other parts included a Whippet engine, Erskin head lights, Essex muffler, Grant radiator and others. The car was a lot of fun for several years. I remember Ruth and I made a trip to see Dora and Bill in Port Huron in it. Janet and Catherine also rode in it.

From the time we moved from Dearborn till the time we moved away from the Thomas place was about eleven years. Those were my growing up years. We survived without electricity, running water, a telephone, bathroom, insulation in the walls, refrigerator, close neighbors, paved roads, or even warm clothes. But we all cared for each other, although we didn't express it much. Mother always did tuck us in bed and give us a kiss goodnight when we were little.

The End

See also: Marriott-Webb Farm and Farmhouse on Thomas Road, by Joellen Gilchrist, and Living and Collecting Plants along Thomas Road, by Ruth B. MacFarlane.

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