CRYSTAL TOWNSHIP — Lester Lawrence opened a lockbox at a Crystal bank a century ago, filling the container with jewelry, letters, photographs, receipts and other personal mementos.
Lawrence died in 1939 at the age of 73. The box went unopened in the bank’s basement for seven decades.
In late 2008, Carol Peiffer became branch manager of Chemical Bank in Crystal. While cleaning out the basement, she tried opening the old lockbox, but it had rusted shut. Peiffer eventually had someone drill open the lockbox.
“I started going through it because I wanted to figure out who does this belong to?” Peiffer said. “There were things dated back to 1914 in that box.”
One item in the box really intrigued Peiffer — a shotgun shell with a folded note inside. The note stated, “This is the shotgun shell that shot Leo.”
Peiffer needed help tracking down Lawrence’s ancestors. She reached out to local genealogist Brenda Geselman, the manager of Crystal Community Library. The two women worked on the mystery for three years.
“We couldn’t find anybody,” Peiffer said.
‘We found them’
And then, about a month ago, Vonette Haas walked into the library. The Crystal woman was trying to learn more about the heritage of her great-grandmother Bertha Sears Noffsinger. Haas’ grandson, Cody Childers, had recommended asking for help at the library.
As Haas began telling Geselman about her great-grandmother and other relatives, Geselman recognized some of the names. Lester Lawrence was Bertha’s stepfather — Haas’ great-great-step-grandfather
Geselman immediately contacted Peiffer, exclaiming, “We found them.”
The bank manager and the librarian eagerly watched as Haas and Childers opened the lockbox, their hands shaking with excitement.
“It was overwhelming,” Haas said.
A father and his son
With the help of Geselman, Haas and Childers slowly began to put together missing pieces of their family history.
Lester Lawrence married Jennie Sears, who already had a daughter named Bertha (Haas’ great-grandmother). Lester and Jennie had a son together, Leo, on Jan. 27, 1908. Jennie died in an accidental fire on March 12, 1908, less than two months after Leo was born.
Lester and his daughter Bertha raised Leo together. Leo married a woman named Minnie and possibly had a baby.
Leo apparently began having “peculiar thoughts” as a young man. A Montcalm County court committed Leo to the Traverse City State Hospital for 10 weeks in the spring of 1932.
Lester and Leo exchanged many letters during Leo’s stay in the hospital. Leo was discouraged and homesick, but was trying to stay positive and hopeful. His father continually tried to keep his son’s spirits up.
Leo was able to come home to Crystal for a visit in July 1932. However, he was worried about being sent back to the hospital. On July 21, 1932, Leo went off into the woods by himself — with a gun.
Lester searched for his son for hours with the assistance of Montcalm County Sheriff’s deputies Clyde Davenport, Merle Hammontree and Frank Morgan.
While searching by himself, Lester found his son leaning against a tree. The gun was pointing up from the ground and Leo was holding a stick on the trigger.
Lester begged his son to let him help, but Leo shot himself in front of his father as deputies searched nearby. Leo was 24 years old.
‘Knowing where we came from’
Lester Lawrence kept the shotgun shell as a final reminder of his beloved son. He put the shell in the lockbox, along with other treasured moments, including a woman’s gold watch, a gold ring and a necklace with a tiny photograph of a boy — perhaps a photo of Leo?
Haas and Childers are working together to identify the numerous photographs in the lockbox — photos of babies in white christening gowns, children playing, romantic couples smiling, men in military uniforms and more.
Haas and her grandson are enjoying the experience of learning their family history in bits and pieces. It’s a journey that has brought them even closer together.
“It’s just been a whirlwind,” Haas said. “We’ve learned a lot.”
“I just like knowing where we came from,” added Childers.
Anyone interested in learning more about their family history is encouraged to call Geselman at Crystal Community Library at (989) 235-6111.