I’ve been thinking a great deal about my great grandfather, Robert James Shea, and his family lately. I’m not sure if it’s because I’ve been going through my files and photos—I probably have more from the Packers and Sheas than any other branch of my family—or because I decided to inventory my postcard collection which includes a stack related to the Michigan State Sanatorium in Howell, Michigan where he was treated for Tuberculosis and met my great grandmother as a fellow patient. Or maybe it’s because I’ll have a chance to pass through that part of Michigan where he was born in the Leelanau Peninsula next week. Regardless of the reason, Robert Shea is on my mind.
He was born 25 Jan 1888 in Empire Township to Cornelius and Ellen (Cunningham) Shea, the first of their nine children. He was listed as a farm laborer in the 1910 Census but by 1920 he had been admitted to the State Sanatorium. He met my great grandmother, Cora Helena Packer, there and they were married in Grand Rapids in 1922. Their first two children were born there—my Grandmother, Ethel, and her younger sister, June. In the 1930 Census Robert was working in an upholstery shop and the family lived in Tallmadge, Ottawa County. In 1931 their last child Robert Arthur was born. In April of 1933 Robert finally succumbed to complications from his Tuberculosis at Kalamazoo State Hospital.
He’s a character I really only know from pictures and the stories my Grandmother and Great Aunt share—and Gran was only 8 when he died. In every picture is a dark, thick head of hair that seems often unruly. The more unruly shots make me think of Lyle Lovett (I’m a big fan). And he had a darker complexion—an olive undertone—that he passed on to Gran and likely her three children. It’s a running joke that they all tan darker than me.
He didn’t have an easy life. The idea that he likely had a lung removed as part of his TB treatment but was still working as a lumberjack before he died has always struck me as sad. But the photo evidence suggests he was able to have fun and find joy in the times that he had.
As with all my other lines, I am always searching to add more depth to that disjointed list of facts, so I plan to continue my research on Robert (and Cora) by looking into the history and records held by the State Archives on the Michigan State Sanatorium at Howell and the Howell Carnegie District Library. I’m quite curious about what their routine would have been like especially since they were patients when the “fresh air cure” was a popular approach to TB treatment.
For more information on The Michigan State Sanatoria check out this great 2009 article from SeekingMichigan.org: A Healing Place.
All photos are from the collection of my Grandmother and Great Aunt.