Francis -- Brown Street

(Last updated 4  January 2013)
[During the last years of his life, Francis worked with Dick to fill in the gaps of his biography. Dick's comments and additions are in brackets such as this.]

Greg’s appearance in May of 1956 (child #9) caused the family to look for larger quarters.  The family had considered adding onto the top floor.  Somehow the family Pastor, Fr. John A. Ross, found out the family needed more room and directed the Schmitts to 31211 Brown, then occupied by the Timler family and their three sons.

Runts of the litter
As we got older and went off to college, it seemed the youngest kids started getting cuter.  Here's the last of the Schmitts in 1965 -- all born during the Brown Street years at Annapolis Hospital. The first grandchild would appear about 3 years later.

The Timlers owned a meat market on Inkster Road south of Cherry Hill road but were interested in moving to Florida.  The large butcher table in the workbench room attests to their vocation.  Francis negotiated the price down to $24,000 by agreeing that he would pay for the heating unit’s replacement. 

Fortunately, the family was able to convert the system to gas-fired (gas was still hard-to-get in those days).  Not only was this cleaner, but it made storing a season’s worth of coal in the basement unnecessary, leaving another smelly but useable room.

Kids 9-12
January 1969: The last third of the twelve children form a diagonal on the West lawn.  All but Greg (who was an infant when the family moved here in 1956) were born here. 

Before the family moved in, extensive renovations took place on half the first floor.  Three rooms (kitchen, breakfast area, and formal dining room) were opened up by a fellow parishioner, Fred Gennera, to create a huge kitchen, dining area, and sitting room which became the hub of family activity for many years to come.  While this was going on, Eileen cooked on a stove in the basement which still functions today.  Next to it stood the legendary Westinghouse refrigerator which functioned for forty years but needed a flat knife to open the door.  Eventually brother Michael took it off their hands. 

[Someday we will add the story of the shower leaking onto the fresh new dining room ceiling the night we moved it -- and how after 40 years, Francis still hadn't gotten it fixed.  In the meantime, the basement pipe sticking out from the wall with a showerhead attached had evolved into a lavish tiled shower.]

[...and incredibly that's all he wrote about the 50 years that the family spent in this large white house that graces the entry to Wikipedia on Garden City.  Francis left this section with a "to be continued."  I've added some comments on pictures, but I'd hope that my siblings will provide many comments in the future so we can flesh out this section.
I'd hope folks will use Tom's archived pictures (click here to get to them) to spur their memories -- and then write them down and send to Dick to finish these pages.]

[To revive your memories, you may want to look at the photo albums with some commentary published around the time the house was sold in November 2006.  Click here to access them).

[I've included some pictures to get things started.]

Home Maintenance 

Tom writes: August, 1962. Looks like a lot of talk and not much action on a stump in the backyard of 31211 Brown.  Francis never invested in a chain saw until his boys all left home and even then it was a pathetic little electric unit.  Greg and Mike hold the sledge while Mark, Paul, and Dick discuss the importance of leverage.

[Francis treated Brown street as a woodlot and after Eileen died, he was unconstrained in his wish to heat (and perhaps burn down) the place with a wood stove.]

1996: The 83-year-old bringing home the heat

fixing the roof
Here a brand new high school graduate helps his nearly 84-year-old grandfather reroof the bike shed.  Francis was dauntless around heights his whole life even though he fell from a hayloft and fractured his skull in his early 20s. He did almost all of the maintenance around the aging frame house and mowed the lawn almost until the day he died.  But somehow he would never fix a car. His sons that learned to do almost every repair from him, had to learn mechanics on their own.

A very young Maria described 31211  Brown to one of her friends once.  "My Grandma Schmitt lives in the biggest house in the world."

Four Weddings and Four Funerals

[Brown street hosted four weddings (Mary, Lucy, Anne, Greg) and two siblings died during the fifty years that the Schmitts lived here.  Amanda Gatschene lived here briefly in her late years and Anne returned home to die in the house where she had lived most of her 26 short years. Eileen left way too early but Francis achieved his goal of living independently (perhaps too independently for some of his kids) until nearly his last days.]

Mary Wedding

Lucy Wedding 1974

Anne Wedding

Greg and Amy

Eileen Funeral
Eileen Funeral


First day of school in 1967.  Phil is only 2 but seems to have other things to occupy his time.



What other topics do we need here?

Quirky Stuff

[Francis could be quite nerdy when Eileen was unable to constrain him.  Long before duct tape was created as a panacea for anything that broke, Francis would use the pink goop he'd use to create false teeth to fix anything plastic.  It would be quite pliable until it dried rigid -- and the color of healthy gums.  Once Francis broke his thumb playing dodgeball with the scouts -- one of a very few times that we saw him engage in athletic pursuits.  The next day he had a splint formed around the thumb -- made of "pink stuff."]

What's the buzz?

[Below we have an ingenious use of Morse code which Francis deployed to allow Eileen to summon her children wherever they were in the house.  Francis placed a buzzer in the attic just above the closet in the room rear bedroom next to the bathroom.  Eileen would buzz the appropriate code for meals or to summon individual children using a button under her desktop built into the kitchen.]

morse code
What's the Buzz: Morse code used by Eileen to summon her brood

[There was a reason behind this code.  When it was time to eat, the entire word EAT was buzzed, usually by someone standing by who wouldn't mind startling his siblings.  Generally your code was the first letter of your first name -- but the M's were hogged by Mary so Mark used his middle name (J).  Unknown to us older siblings, as we moved out and the runts of the litter appeared, they had the audacity to take our codes which, like Babe Ruth's number, should have been retired.  Philip (whose middle name was Thomas as Tom was in the seminary when he was born) took over the T, even though by the time Phil would have understood what was going on, brother Paul had moved on to medical school.  Martha inherited Mary's M.  For some unknown reason, Alice got Dick's D. And "James" reusing Mark's J?  Turns out young Phil had a friend who spent enough time on Brown Street to get his own buzz.  Make yourself right at home.  Why didn't Mary Margaret Oldenburg have her buzzer code as well?]

[The buzzer could only be heard within the house.  Those outside were summoned by a bell hanging off the back door.  Most of the families on Brown Street ate by that bell for when it rang, the Schmitt kids quit playing and the other kids were instructed by their mothers to return home when it was time for the Schmitts to eat.]

More Topics?

  • Everything in living room painted with industrial spackled green
  • Including piano
  • picnic table
  • mimeograph machine


French Boys
With Phil's arrival in 1965, the Francis and Eileen Schmitts had a full complement.  That summer we entertained two French visitors who had hosted Mark and Paul.  The personalities matched.  Quiet Paul hosted the introverted Francois Estrangin and brash Mark met his match with the brazen and chain-smoking (at age 17) Franck Hamaide.  More info in the Garden City Observer article.  Mark's letters from Paris can be seen by clicking here.

A Not Quite Empty Nest

After Eileen's death and the start of Phil's journey as a medical trainee nomad, Francis was left with a seven-bedroom house which he would occasionally fill with long-term guests such as his Japanese friends or Garden City city managers in the middle of a relocation.

One of his favorites was Matthias, and not just because of his name.  As Tom tells us:

Matthias Helmreich, a German Ph.D. student interning in Tom's laboratories, roomed with Francis during his assignment which ran from the end of August to the end of November, 2000. Francis didn't charge rent but he put Matthias to work on home maintenance projects and the two got along very well. The following year, Francis spent a week in Germany along with Tom and Bev. Matthias took a week off his studies and chauffeured the Schmitts around southern Germany to trace family roots and enjoy the countryside. Matthias is now pharmaceutical chemist for Merck Kga.  To see more about the trip to Germany, click here.

Matthias Helmreich and Francis in November 2000.  The decorating scheme is from Francis's post-Eileen phase and consists of much found art (usually originating at the post office) gracing most horizontal surfaces on the first floor.  (The second floor was usually without such clutter.)  When Francis entered hospice at Phil's house in the summer of 2006, Phil and Dick cleared these surfaces in about 90 minutes brandishing large garbage bags.  Mary, who caught them in the act, commented, "Dad better die, because if he comes back here and sees what you've done, he'll never speak to you again."
Francis really enjoyed having Matthias around and we have a VCR recording of Francis giving a cable TV interview where he refers to Matthias as his "eighth son" or some such.

Getting History Straight

Calendar Girl
The Garden City Historical Society (of which Francis was an officer) featured select homes in their 2005 calendar including 31211 Brown which traces its roots back to 1835 when President Andrew Jackson started parceling out the land beneath.  The land appears to have been part of the Straight farm whose farmhouse on Merriman Road near Warren serves as the headquarters for the Historical Society today.  Arnold Folker, a real-estate developer who served as the first mayor of Garden City, built this structure in 1928.  Checkout the entire calendar (including entries for the Oldenburg and Hammer homes) by clicking here. (7M file)

[Dick would like to end with this vignette from his soccer-coaching days in nearby Livonia, MI.  One of his parents was a Senchek (?) girl from St. Raphael's.  (Dick and Mary went to school with her brother Al.) When we found out that we were both from Garden City, she asked where we lived.  I said, "on Brown Street."  She turned to her husband and said, "You know where that is, the street with the big white house."  I, of course, replied, "That was our House." 

And so it was for the better part of a half century.]

Return to Francis History Index by clicking here

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