Faces in the Crowd: Frances Niver & Alma Minzey-Wyckoff

December 28, 2017

By Aaron Michell
Correspondent

On Christmas Eve, sisters Frances Niver and Alma Minzey-Wyckoff celebrated their 70th annual Christmas party surrounded by friends and family at the Marion Methodist Church. But as we spoke, it became clear that their story was about much more than Aunt Fran’s annual Christmas get-together.
Their story was about making the most of every single day.
Frances Niver, of Marion, will celebrate her 96th birthday on January 31st, 2018. Her younger sister, Alma Minzey-Wyckoff, of McBain, will celebrate her 85th birthday alongside her husband Jerry on January 14th. But these ladies are not old. In fact, they’re still trying to figure out what “old” even means.
Because these ladies are too busy traveling, dancing, riding snowmobiles and riding motorcycles to be getting “old”. These ladies are too busy joking around and laughing; they’re too busy having coffee and a good time with their friends to be getting “old”.
These sisters are the ones preparing for a night of dancing at the disco, just as most of their friends are getting ready for bed. These sisters are just having too much fun to be getting “old”.
The Rawson sisters, born and raised during the depression, attended one-room schoolhouses in the Marion and McBain area – Frances graduating from Beebe School with an eighth-grade education, and Alma from Marion High School after her senior year. They’ve lived here roughly their entire lives: Frances in Marion, Alma in McBain. Over the years, they’ve experienced what most people haven’t had the chance to – both good and bad.
After their mother passed away in January of 1947, Alma – at the age of 14 – moved in with her older sister, Frances. Since then, they’ve seen husbands sent off to war. They’ve seen gravel roads become busy highways. They’ve raised kids, and grandkids, great-grandkids, and now great-great grandkids.
They’ve lost many loved ones along the way.
But they’ve never lost their passion for life. They continue to live life by making the most out of each and every single day.
We were fortunate enough to find out about the Rawson sisters and their recent Christmas celebration. We found out there was a lot more to their story than just the annual Christmas event. We found out these sisters are much more than just a couple of faces in the crowd.

Marion Press: What brought you to Marion?
Alma: Our folks were from here.
Frances: We moved up from Owosso when I was eight years old, back in the 1930s.
Alma: I was born in ’33 right here in this very spot, right here where this house sits [On 20 Mile Road near the Middle Branch River, where Frances lives now]. It was a different house then, but it was in this same spot.
Frances: She was born right here. And I don’t even remember when she was born.
Alma: See, that’s because I don’t make an impression on people – good or bad!
Frances: Then we moved over to what was called Stone’s Dam. I tell everybody I lived in Stone’s Dam house. Stone’s Dam made all the power for Marion, and there was a house there and that’s where we lived. And then my folks bought some land over on 19 Mile Road and cut the lumber and built a house there. We lived over on 19 Mile by 80th Avenue, just down the road from Dighton.

MP: Did you spend a lot of time in Marion and Dighton growing up?
Alma: Basically, you didn’t spend a lot of time anywhere because you didn’t have any gas; half the time you didn’t have a car.
Frances: See, times were pretty rough back then. We walked most of the time we wanted to go anywhere.
Alma: When we moved from Stone’s Dam, I can remember we moved with a horse and wagon. I was two and a half years old when we moved over there. We usually came to Marion on Saturday night; you came in the evening because after you bought your groceries, you’d go to Corwin’s Hall and dance.
Frances: And they used to have the free shows in Marion – there was a bowl there right beside Morton’s Hardware and so people would sit around there, and they’d show the movies on the building.
Alma: It was a natural amphitheater. They had a stage down there too and they’d put shows on during the 7th of August and those kinds of things. See, what is [now called] Marion Old-Fashioned Days used to be called 7th of August.
Frances: It was always on the 7th of August, and they’d have a big carnival there and that’s when everybody would come to town. Mom and dad would always pack a lunch, and we must’ve had a car then, because we’d go to town and stay for the whole day and eat our lunch. Then we’d walk up and down the street and visit with everybody.

MP: And Alma, you moved in with Frances at a young age, what was that like?
Alma: My mother passed away, and I came to live with Frances when I was 14. It was kind of a natural thing because we had lived together in Harrison before that. It was different because you didn’t have a mother to go to the school functions, but [Frances] always filled in; I always had someone there with me. Of course, you had to go to work right away because you couldn’t expect them to support you anymore than they absolutely had to. So you did all the babysitting you could do, and you’d stay with other people and do their housework for them and come home on the weekends.

Frances_Alma:  Frances, left, with a Team Highland racing photo from the early 90s.  Team Highland, formed by Frances and her husband Basil, was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.  Alma, right, painted the flower portrait that hangs above.  Painting is one of Alma’s many talents.

Frances_Alma:  Frances, left, with a Team Highland racing photo from the early 90s.  Team Highland, formed by Frances and her husband Basil, was inducted into the Michigan Motor Sports Hall of Fame in 1992.  Alma, right, painted the flower portrait that hangs above.  Painting is one of Alma’s many talents.

MP: What was it like going to school in a one-room schoolhouse?
Frances: I went over here to Crocker School for the first seven years, and that school is still there. It’s right next to the church [Pisgah Heights Wesleyan on 70th Ave.] – that’s where we went to church, right there by Crocker School. And now they still use the school house for recreation and social events. And when we moved over to 19 Mile Road, that’s when I went to Beebe School; that’s where I ended up for my last year. I didn’t go to high school.
Alma: They would let little kids come and visit, and because I was her little sister they’d let me come and visit. And I’d like that because everyone would make a big fuss over me – this cute little kid coming to visit school… I don’t know what happened to me! But it was totally different, because you’d go to school and you’d hear all eight grades going on.
Frances: You do. And I think you learn so much more that way. It’s a lot different – of course that’s all I’ve ever done is go to a one-room schoolhouse. Emily Crozier lived a mile and a half from the school; I went to school with Emily and her sister Mary, and her brothers John and Morris. All four of the Smiths.
Alma: We went to school with the Vanderhoef kids – Paul, Marie, Ruby. There were the Bentleys; the Beebe kids. We went to school with Mildred Mitchell – we always called her Pete and she hated that. I don’t know where that came from.
Frances: I don’t know either, that was just her nickname. Well, they always called me Frank. My name’s Frances, so my brothers always called me Frank.

MP: Did that bother you?
Frances: Oh yeah.
Alma: They never could find a real good nickname for me. Once in a while someone would call me Elmer.

MP: What would you do for fun, growing up?
Alma: You were outdoors all the time. Climbing trees was my favorite thing. I absolutely loved climbing trees, and I actually had to teach my kids how to shimmy up a tree. I remember one time, Frances had a boyfriend over and I had climbed up a tree. And Frances was really trying to impress him, screaming, “Oh, Alma’s stuck up in the tree! Go help get her out of the tree!” And I had spent all my life in the tree, but she was really trying to impress him.
Frances: We’d get together and play card games. And you’d have house parties and dances – that’s how we learned to dance was at those house parties.
Alma: We’d be outside all the time: making forts, sliding down hills, playing cowboys and Indians.
Frances: You just entertained yourself, because you didn’t have money enough to go to the shows and stuff like a lot of people did. But everybody else was just as poor as we was, so we didn’t think we were poor. We didn’t know we were poor because nobody else had any more than we did.

MP: And you’ve both lived in the area pretty much your whole lives, correct?
Frances: We lived in Detroit during the war for a few years, and then my husband, Basil, decided to join the Marines and that’s when I moved back up here.
Basil, he worked in a factory down in Detroit, and he had an eighth-grade education like the rest of us, but he turned out to be one of the best tool and die makers they had. They didn’t want him to quit and join the service – they’d wanted him to stay and make the products for the war, you know. But he joined the service and was a tank mechanic from ’44 to ’46. And I worked in a factory when he was gone, and we built the guns for overseas.
Alma: Rosie the Riveter!

MP: So that’s where they got it from – you’re Rosie the Riveter?
Frances: Probably!
Alma: Well, she worked that era, doing the same things.
Frances: Everything was rationed during the war too. Sugar and everything you’d buy. You’d get a ration card and you could only buy so much.
Alma: Everything went to the war effort. We’d get three gallons of gas per week. We got five pounds of sugar a month.
Frances: After my husband got out of the service, he got what was called 52-20 – 20 dollars a week for 52 weeks for a year after they got out of the service. And we couldn’t find a single place to rent from Harrison to Tustin. So, we lived in a tent while we built our house over there – it cost us $40 to put up the cement block for the house. We payed $60 for the garage – and Basil’s dad was a mechanic and he helped build the garage. And we payed $40 for the house and that was when we finally got the house done enough to where we could move out of the tent and into the house on the 15th of December in 1946.
Alma: And January 14th, 1947, I moved in with them.

MP: And Alma, you moved to McBain after you graduated from Marion?
Alma: I tell you that was a different experience – I thought I had moved to another country! I moved to McBain in ’52 and got married that year. My husband was from McBain and he worked for the post office there. I’ve lived in the same house since 1960.

MP: What was McBain like in the 50s?
Alma: It was extremely Dutch. And I was one who wore short shorts and strapless halters and that wasn’t to be seen on Main Street. And I got to thinking, I’m gonna have to change everything!
And my husband told me that he wished I joined something in McBain, so I’d quit running back to Marion all the time. And I told him, okay, well, you’ll be sorry! So I joined every single group in McBain that would accept women: I was in 4-H, I was in the MSU extension, I was in the women’s club. I became active in all of it and very vocal in all of it.
So, I made a few changes around there. I said, if my kids are going to go to school here, there will be dancing in the school. Took me twenty years to get the first prom in the school. My oldest daughter, Pam, was a junior in high school the first year we got a prom. They’ve had proms ever since.

MP: And Frances, your family had Team Highland racing and the snowmobile shop up there at the corner of 20 Mile Road and M-115. How did that get started?
Frances: I was working at Evart Products at the time, and that was when snowmobiling was starting to get popular in the area. And I was working with a bunch of the guys – Dave Yarhouse and Bill Davis and a bunch of guys – they all decided that they wanted to buy a snowmobile. So, they talked to Basil, and in order to start a franchise, you’d have to sell six snowmobiles – and we already had six sold. So we went ahead and started a franchise.
And then the guys got to thinking, we ought to do the hill climbing – so they started doing the hill climbing events. And then they thought, well, we have a racetrack down in Marion, why don’t we put on a race? So, we put on the first race we had there, and I think Dave Yarhouse won the race. And then they started racing all over. And then we worked our way up to where we got to be in with the top-notch drivers, and Team Highland won so many races and made it into the Hall-of-Fame.
They had a team of drivers and a pit crew. My husband and my son, Don, were part of the pit crew. My husband, they called him the Bear because he’d be down there hollering out about how you’ve gotta do this, and you’ve gotta do that, and you’ve only got so much time.

Aunt Frans 70th:  Friends and family gathered for Aunt Fran’s 70th annual Christmas Eve party at the Marion Methodist Church.

Aunt Frans 70th:  Friends and family gathered for Aunt Fran’s 70th annual Christmas Eve party at the Marion Methodist Church.

MP: You both look great. What is your secret to staying so young? Do you have any advice for the rest of us?
Frances: I have a hard time making myself believe that I’m the age I am, really. I chum with all younger people, and we always have. Even with the business we had up there, snowmobiling, we’d always be around younger people. I have a hard time making myself believe I’m as old as I am because I just do everything everyone else does. I’m not ready to just sit down and do nothing.
Alma: Most of the people we chum with are our kids age now. People get old because they think old. Don’t think old! What is old?
Frances: What is old? I mean, really? I do more dancing than young people. You just have to keep active. And if you see somebody in need, help people, don’t just ignore them. Help your neighbor.
Alma: And try to learn something new every day. Try something new. For goodness sakes, go talk to people! Make a new friend. Make somebody else feel good. Smile at people. You’ll notice: if you just smile at someone, you can get their whole demeanor to change.
Frances: You know, we do that. We get to dancing – I get the biggest kick out of these guys who are there playing their instruments – and the one guy I was dancing with, we just decided to stick our tongue out at them as we went by – boy that woke ‘em right up! I like to get people laughing and having fun.
Alma: Make other people feel good.



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