FRANCIS-XAVIER FORTON, 1853-1934
Lorelei Maison Rockwell
Francis-Xavier Forton does not appear in Denissen’s GENEALOGY OF FRENCH FAMILIES OF THE DETROIT RIVER REGION, 1701-1936, but he is the son of Alexander FRETON, page 495, #4 iv.
A well-documented French-Canadian progenitor, Francis-Xavier Forton descends from Julian Fréton dit Nantais of Nantes in Brittany, France. This Julian came to Grosse Pointe in 1758 where the 31-year-old Frenchman acquired land on the shores of Lake St. Clair which became the real estate foundation for future Fortons and Furtons—as the family came to be known. Francis-Xavier, called Frank, himself part of the 5th Forton generation, was the fourth of ten children born in 1853 to the Macomb County family of Alexander Forton and Virginia Alard.
While his paternal family lived in Mt Clemens and attended St Peter’s, by 1850 his father Alexander was farming in Erin Township surrounded by other families of French-Canadian descent; here Frank was raised in a house full of noisy, healthy children—6 boys and 4 girls.
A ‘new’ family appeared in the neighborhood about 1876 when the widow Emily Whitmore Defer came from Detroit with her four children to live with her brother Joe. In his early twenties, Frank took special notice of Emily’s daughter Mary Theresa Defer who was becoming quite a young woman. After 3 years Mary’s mother left the area with Sylvester Labadie a man she would soon marry. Frank and Mary had to make a decision, but it was not a difficult decision. Mary did not leave with her mother; instead she stayed in Erin where she had a new and important commitment. In the spring of 1880 26 year-old Frank and 18 year-old Mary were married at St. Gertrude’s Church.
Electricity was in the air on the Forton farm. They were talking about moving to Grand Traverse County, 250 miles north on the shores of Lake Michigan—a big family talking big, giving voice to ideas alien to conservative farmers. It was perhaps Charles Domine,© a thoughtful young schoolteacher, married to Frank’s older sister Virginia, the son of Swiss and French immigrants, who provoked new thinking among the Fortons. Charles’ parents had dared to take a chance and move to a new land. Charles recognized the benefit and believed relocating would have a positive effect on his own family. By September 1881 he had enrolled in a Teacher’s Institute in Grand Traverse County.
Frank and his siblings saw opportunity ‘up north’ too; they moved to Grand Traverse County—finding land cheap and lumber booming. Having followed some of his childrenin 1882 Alexander Forton the 61-year-old father of the tribe obtained a farm in East Bay Township, Grand Traverse County. Soon virtually his entire progeny were there and as his 1885 obituary points out:
“He invested all his means in giving each of his children a home.”
Several Forton families went to Grand Traverse County in the 1880’s and those who relocated were interestingly related. They seem to be basically the descendants of 3 brothers outlined in Father Christian Denissen’s FRENCH FAMILIES IN THE DETROIT RIVER REGION, 1701-1936:
In the 1880’s large numbers of farmers moved to Grand Traverse County from Macomb County—and perhaps from other places—why? These statements and photos from an on-line course at Michigan State University provide an explanation.
“Lumber companies had no desire to own already logged parcels of land and thus found themselves trying to sell large tracts of land in the 1880s and 1890s. They vigorously promoted the former forests as good farmland, ready for the plow…. Thus, Michigan’s lumber boom provided many settlers with cutover lands to farm, a ready market for their products and winter employment.”
Conditions in Grand Traverse made general farming difficult. The growing season was short, the soil sandy and the cutover land produced poor traditional crops.
“Most of the land simply could not support continuous farming, and its fertility was soon exhausted. Families that had put all their savings and hopes into such a farm often had no alternative but to give it up when they could not pay their taxes.
“In winter many farmers turned to working in the woods. Many hired out their horse "teams" to logging operators, while others worked to clear more of their own land and sometimes to supplement the family income. Logging started in early December and continued until the maple sap began running in late winter. Cordwood for the next year’s fuel supply was cut, and any surplus beyond household needs was sold for one dollar a cord-delivered. Timber for fencing was cut, split and allowed to season for at least a year. Sawlogs for lumber were cut, hauled and piled for use on the farm or sold to the nearest mill.”
The 1885 death of his father must have been a blow to 32-year-old
Frank as well as his siblings, but by 1900 the Forton compound in East Bay
Township was impressive. There were seven Forton farms bordering each other—the
result of Alexander’s efforts—Frank and Mary and their seven children, ages 3
to 16, were there.
Signature from his father’s 1886 Probate File, Grand Traverse County record.
The new century, however, brought something entirely different for Frank and his family. It must have been a critical time. Frank had been a farmer from the time he knew the meaning of the word, yet now at 48, well short of retirement, he moved off the farm and into town. In 1901 the family had a house at 746 Hannah Avenue in Traverse City.
Did Frank’s farm fail? Did Mary’s heart trouble make the physically demanding work of a farm wife impossible? Of Frank’s 9 children only one was a boy; his girls were reaching marriageable age; did he lack the labor to work his farm? Whatever the reason, Frank went from a life of farming into the industrial age. He became a laborer at the Wells-Higman basket-making factory. Baskets were in vigorous demand as local farmers recognized that the local lake-effect weather was excellent for fruit trees and moved out of general farming into orchards and what would become world-famous fruit production.
Frank’s family was maturing. Salina was the first to marry in 1902—to a local boy Henry Milks, next Louisa in 1905 to Forest Devendorf. By now, however, Frank’s wife Mary was suffering from hereditary heart disease and her health was becoming the family’s focus. She was in her early 40’s and the house was filled with busy children, but in February 1906 she died leaving her family devastated. Her obituary reads in part:
“A large number of friends of the bereaved family gathered at the church to pay their respects to the departed, and the father who is left with eight motherless children has the sympathy of all who know him.”
Just five months later his mother Virginia Alard Forton died. In the opening years of the new century Frank’s life changed dramatically with his move from farm to factory, the deaths of his wife and mother, and the emptying of his home as his older girls married—including Rose and Alice in 1908. Although his family life may have been made easier with a new wife, Frank never remarried.
By 1910 his son Eugene, now 18 and just married to Alvina Bramer, is living with Frank and his daughters Gladys, Lillian and Irene. Frank 57, is still at the basket factory and “Jean” is working for a big local employer, the Oval Wood Dish Factory. Gladys at 15 has dropped out of school and is a cutter at the dish factory.
Frank’s working life ended and he left Traverse City before 1920. In the 14th Annual Census he is enumerated with his divorced daughter Louise Defendorf [sic] 34, a machine operator in an auto shop, and her son 13-year-old Delbert. Frank Forton is 66 and is no longer working. They are renting at 47 LaBelle Avenue in Highland Park, part of Detroit’s 8th Ward.
Late in Frank’s life, his daughters shared the care of their aging father and in 1930 he is living with his daughter Alice and her second husband Earl Yerden in Troy Township, Oakland County where 41-year-old Earl owns a respectable house valued at $6800; he repairs machinery at an auto factory. Frank is 77.
Soon Earl, Alice and Frank moved to a Detroit address less than two miles from where Frank had lived with Louise in 1920! Frank died in Detroit on the 20th of February 1934; he was 80 years old.
Traverse City Record Eagle, 23 February 1934, p 1. Copied by Brenda K Moore:
Funeral services were held from St. Francis church at 9 o'clock this morning for Frank X. Forton, former prominent local resident who died at the home of his daughter, Mrs. Earl Yerder in Detroit Tuesday night.
Born in Detroit, MI, March 9 1853, Mr. Forton came to the Grand Traverse Region with his parents when a young man. The family settled on a farm in East Bay Township where they lived for many years. Mr. Forton later moved to this city where he made his home until moving to Detroit a few years ago. During his residence here he built up a wide acquaintance and friendship.
Mrs. Forton died 29 years ago and now surviving are five daughters:
Ø Mrs. Henry Milkes of Cadillac
Ø Mrs. Robert Prause of Muskegon,
Ø Mrs. Earl Yerder,
Ø Mrs Otto Smitzerle and
Ø Mrs. Clifford Pohl, all of Detroit, and
Ø one son, Eugene Forton of Muskegon.
Christian Forton of Muskegon, William, Jerome, Henry all of this city and 20 grandchildren, also survive.
The body was brought to Traverse City Wednesday night and taken to Hibbard Funeral Chapel where it rested in state until this morning.
The body was placed in the mausoleum until spring when it will be buried in the family lot in Oakwood Catholic Cemetery.
FRANCIS X5 FORTON (ALEXANDER4, JULIAN3 JULIAN2, JULIAN 1) was born 9-Mar 1853 in Detroit, Wayne Co MI, and died 20-Feb-1934 in Detroit, MI. He married MARY THERESA DEFER 23-Apr-1880 at St Gertrude Church, Macomb Co MI, daughter of HONORE DEFER and EMILY WHITMORE. She was born Feb-1862 perhaps in Canada, and died 15-Feb-1906 in Traverse City MI.
Notes for FRANCIS X FORTON:
Frank’s parents are identified in his marriage record:
Marriage Record St Gertrude, Page 181, #5—1880
On 20 April 1880 Francis Xavier Forton, 26, son of Alexander Forton and Virginia Allard and Marie Defer, age 18, daughter of Honore Defer and Emily Witmore were married by L J.Van Straelen. Witnesses: Christopher Forton and Edissa Maison.
Note: Father Van Straelen was pastor at Sacred Heart in Roseville from 1879-1884.
In Denissen, Alexander Forton his father, is recorded on page 495, #4 iv.
1880 Erin, Macomb, Michigan
FHL Film 1254592 National Archives Film T9-0592 p 407B
Forton, Frank Self M M 26 Sailor/Farmer MI MI MI
Mariey Wife F M 18 Kps Hse MI MI MI
Frank and Mary moved to Traverse City sometime between their daughter Marie’s baptism at St Gertrude’s in September 1881 and his father’s October 1884 will shown below.
Alexander Forton’s will, dated 4 October 1884 and the subsequent probate record closing in 1908 were obtained from the Grand Traverse Probate Court, a total of 73 pages. It records the disposition of real estate and household items to all of his children including Frank. The portion of the will pertaining to Frank reads as follows:
“First: I hereby give and devise to my son Francis Forton, the following described land, situated in Grand Traverse County, State of Michigan, to wit: twenty seven  acres off the West side of the South West quarter of the North East quarter of Section twenty seven  in Town twenty seven  North of Range ten  West, subject to, and upon condition of, the payment by said Francis Forton, to Jerome Forton, of the bequest to him said Jerome Forton hereinafter made, within one year after the date of my death.”
Note: This bequest ‘hereinafter made’ was $50.
1900 MI/Grand Traverse/East Bay, taken 11 June, ancestry.com image 7/27
#78/79 Forton, Frank head Mch 1853 47 md 20 MI MI MI farmer
Mary wife Feb 1862 38 X/8 CnFr Sw MI
Salina dau Aug 1883 16 MI MI CnFr
Louisa dau Aug 1885 14 all same
Rose dau Jul 1887 12
Alice dau Jun 1889 10
Eugene son Oct 1891 8
Gladys dau Aug 1894 5
Lillian dau Oct 1896 3
1901-1902 Traverse City Directory, p 100
Francois X Forton farmer res 746 Hannah Ave
1904 Traverse City Directory, Forton, p 111-112
Francois X. lab Wells Higman res 746 Hannah Ave
Rose J. emp Wells-Higman res 746 Hannah Ave
1905 City Directory
Forton, Alice packer bds 746 Hannah Ave
Frank X labor Wells Higman Co res 746 Hannah Ave
Rose, packer bds 746 Hannah Ave
From Brenda K. Moore, Grand Traverse County, MIGENWEB host, 11-03:
The Wells-Higman basket manufacturing enterprise moved to Traverse City from St. Joseph. Newspaper articles on this: 24 Nov 1892 p 5 and 2 Nov 1893 p 5. A description and history of Basket Factory, 30 July 1896 p 2, Grand Traverse Herald.
1910 MI/Grand Traverse/Traverse City/ 5th Ward, 746 Hannah, ED 59, sh1, p 12A, taken 21 Apr [746 seems to be at the corner of Barlow].
#233/234 Forton, Jean 18 head m1 0 MI MI MI lab Oval Wood Dish R H
Alvina 17 wife 0/0 MI MI MI
235 Forton, Frank 57 head wd all MI lab basket factory OMH
Gladys 15 dau s dish packer/Oval Wood Dish no school
Lillian 13 dau s
Irene 10 dau s
From Ann Faulkner, 11-03
1920 MI/Wayne/Highland Park, 8th Ward, 47 LaBelle Ave, ED 699, p 4B, taken 5 & 6 Jan, genealogy.com image #354/382
#437 Defendorf, Louise head rents 34 div MI MI CnFr mach oper/auto shop
Forton, Frank X father 66 wd MI MI MI no occup
Defendorf, Delbert son 13 s MI MI MI
1930 Census MI/Oakland/Troy Twp, Main St, 18 & 19 Mile & Streets going west, ED 129, sh 31b, taken 29 Apr, ancestry.com image 62/79:
715/718 Yerden, Earl C hd O 6800 R 41 md 35 MI MI MI mach rep/auto mfg
Alice wife 40 35 MI MI MI
Forton, Frank f-i-l 77 wd MI MI MI
Both Earl Yerden and Alice Forton were age 35 at first marriage. They own their home valued at $6,800 and have a radio.
From Marilyn Burke: Francis Forton died 20 Feb 1934 Detroit at the home of his daughter Mrs. Earl Yerder. Source:
"The Forton Family of Michigan" by Brian R. Quinnan, 11 Forest Glen Dr., Middletown, Ohio. January 22, 1992, p 50. This is in a looseleaf binder at the Mt Clemens, MI Public Library.
1935 Detroit City Directory:
Yerden, Earl (Alice) repr h15437 Parkside av
© Possible relative of Mary Defer Forton’s paternal grandmother Marie-Anne Domine.