Albion Interactive History / People / Harriet Armstrong

Albion Interactive History

Albion Interactive History / People / Starr Commonwealth

Harriet Armstrong, c.1890
    Died November 10, 1968

Miss Harriet Armstrong was a native of Fenton, Michigan, and the third daughter of loyal Methodist parents, hence her enrollment at Albion College. As a piano student in the Conservatory of Music, she soon became an initiate of the Alpha Chi Omega sorority, the girls’ Greek society which then as now was most closely identified with the study of music. Though Starr himself was neither a vocalist or instrumentalist, he was an avid lover of music, and the two began their romance on that slender theme. As knowledge of one another grew, however, Starr discovered that Harriet also shared much of his concern for the young outcasts whom society branded juveniledelinquents and the court system deal with as common criminals. After she pronounced Starr’s own plans to establish a home for troubled boysneither grandiose nor absurd, the match was made.

On Christmas Eve, 1910, he married his college sweetheart, Harriet Armstrong, in asimple ceremony at the bride’s home in Fenton, Michigan. After a modest honeymoon, Starr took Harriet toChicago. At Chicago and Beulah Home, Harriet played a highly supportive role to her husband’s lead. As her daughter Margaret commented, “She loved boys, and she always did love working with young people – and was very good at it.” Though Starr could never afford a piano for her use atGladsome, she contrived to teach the boy the rudiments of music and a miscellany of familiar tunes from the “Golden Book of familiar tunes from the “Golden Book of Favorite Songs.”

After nearly five years of marriage and the birth of a daughter, the little family was on the verge of collapse.

According to the Battle Creek Enquirer News, “Unknown to their friends, Mr. and Mrs. Starr had been having domestic troubles for some time.” At Gladsome Cottage, however, there was no way to disguise thesituation. Smoldering resentments on both sides finally broke out into open flame, and on November 28 Harriet packed up Margaret and returned to the home of her parents in Fenton.

In reality, Harriet had considerable justification for so drastic a step. She had sacrificed the promise of security in the employ of Bernarr MacFadden, she had borne her pregnancy amid the tumult at Beulah Home, and she had “prepared the meals for 32 people and had general charge of the housework at the Starr school.” As anyone but a busy Floyd Starr could see, this was not the career the music conservatory student had envisioned while at Albion College.

A her daughter remarked years later, “Harriet was a lady.” Secluded at the Commonwealth from the conviviality of congenial friends, marooned in a cultural wasteland, she felt isolated from all that meant the full life for her. Most of all she missed the piano that her husband could never afford, as well as the recitals and the concerts of yesteryear.

Although Harriet said nothing about them, she also had her apprehensions about rearing her child among a restless brood of problem boys. After the fiasco with Hermon Swift at Boyne City, she knew only too well the traumas on all sides which arise from child molestation. At four and a half, Margaret was no longer an infant. She would shortly be off to school, and alreadyHarriet had misgivings about sending the little girl half a mile across the fields to the country school beside the Kalamazoo River.

From every indication, Harriet Starr had a busy holiday season that year. Chats with friends led to discussions with her parents, and these soon led toconferences with a lawyer. On January 8, 1918, the headline in the Battle Creek Enquirer News read “Floyd Starr is Made Defendant: Wife Brings Divorce Proceedings.” Then followed a formidable account of the charges leveled at him by theplaintiff.

At the outset Starr seemed to entertain hopes for some kind of reconciliation. Two weeks after Harriet filed her suit for divorce at the circuit court inFlint, Starr “filed answer… entertaining a general and specific denial of the charges made by his wife and asking that her petition for a decree of divorce be dismissed.” When this was refused,Starr decided not to contest the suit, and learn to live with the results. Since Starr pleaded no contest andHarriet demanded no property settlement, the divorce was consummated within a matter of weeks.

In October 1968, Starr received word from his daughter that his former wife was gravely ill. Had their divorce not intervened, he and Harriet would have celebrated their fifty-sixth anniversary earlier that year. Across many of those years, however, Starr never alluded in public to his marriage nor referred to Harriet other than as “Margaret’s mother.” In time, however, at the urging of his daughter he finally broke his silence. Indeed, the rumor persists that he had considered remarriage, but he wavered too long. Harriet married a Presbyterian minister with whom she spent her mid-years “in the manse.”

Not long after her husband died, Harriet developed a lingering malignancy from which she never recovered. After Starr visited her in a Flint nursing home, wrote his son, “The condition of Margaret’s mother is very bad. The doctors think the cancer iseffecting her mind.” Only two weeks later he returned to Flint. “Harriet grows weaker,” he reported to David. “I doubt if she will live until Christmas time.” Starr proved to be a good prophet. Harriet died on November 10, 1968. Four days later Starr attended hermemorial service at the First Presbyterian Church in Flint.

Source: Keith Fennimore. Faith Made Visible: The History of Floyd Starr and His School. Albion, Michigan: Starr Commonwealth. 1988.

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