Driving Under Aunt Thelma’s Basement

Driving west on Lansing Michigan’s I-496, as I approach near the St Joseph and Butler Street intersection, I often mentally note or comment to my wife that we are driving under my Aunt Thelma’s basement. Thelma E. (Mesler) Norris, along with her mother Agnes (Harris) Mesler, on May 1943 signed a Land Contract to purchase a two-story wood-framed house at 841 West St Joseph Street. I’m sure Thelma and her mother knew they were buying a home in the Black District of Lansing, Michigan. Her only complaint about her neighbors was their immaculately kept homes. Aunt Thelma’s house cleaning skills were not up to par with her neighbors. I often stayed with Aunt Thelma during the summers of the 1940s to help with her backyard gardening where my grandmother’s dog Spike was tied up to the back porch. 841 West St Joe was located near the large Oldsmobile and Fisher Body car assembly plants, and on warm August mornings I would awaken in the upstairs bedroom to a slight summer breeze streaming through an open screened-in window to sounds of drop-forge hammers, muffled by distance, one and then another, and another. Heavy drop-forge hammers compressed and shaped hot and cold metal parts for the automotive industry. After seventy-five years I can still feel that warm August morning breeze and hear those heavy drop forge hammers, it is part of my industrial DNA.

Aunt Thelma sold her house on St Joe after retiring from REO Motors in 1953. Her last job at REO Motors was on the lawnmower assembly line. She purchased a restaurant in Crystal Lake in Northern Michigan to try her hand as a restaurateur; it didn’t work out, and she returned to Lansing a few years later. I worked for Aunt Thelma at her Hill Top restaurant during the summer of 1954; later that year I joined the Navy. After four years in the Navy, I returned home and was hired at a steel fabrication plant. At times I worked in the Bridge Shop fabricating steel beams for Michigan highways. During the 1960s, not far from the steel fabrication plant, homes, businesses, and streets were crushed under the steel tracks of heavy industrial equipment for a cross-town expressway. Many of those fabricated bridge beams I worked on would span the “Big Ditch” near where Aunt Thelma’s house once stood. Seventy-five years later I stood near that same location where, around 1949, my sister and I posed for a photo alongside the Hardware, Dry Goods, and Drug stores on the 800 block of St Joe, and I thought about what has been destroyed in what seemed to some like progress. I wonder if those who travel along I-496 stop to visit or simply drive through Lansing, Michigan.

Vern Mesler, 2024

800 block of St. Joe (circa 1949) looking west
800 block of St. Joe (circa 1949) looking west; Vern Mesler and sister Rose near Aunt Thelma’s house.
St Joe and Butler, Lansing, Michigan 2024
800 block of St. Joe (March 2024) looking west; Vern Mesler at I-496, former site of Aunt Thelma’s house.
841 St Joe, Lansing, Michigan Advance Realty CO.
Greeting card showing 841 St Joe and the grocery store next door (later a hardware store).
841 St Joe, Lansing, Michigan 1949
Agnes Harris Mesler’s dog Spike in the backyard of her daughter Thelma’s house at 841 St Joe.
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St Joe and Butler, Lansing, Michigan 2024

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