Clara S. Anderson Rennie…Paw Paw’s First Librarian

Martha Deming Maytnier, Local History Librarian, Paw Paw District Library

    On Saturday, June 27, 2020, the Village of Paw Paw and Paw Paw District Library will be celebrating the 100th Anniversary of the Paw Paw Public Library and the Paw Paw Carnegie Center.
    In 1920, Clara S. Anderson Rennie (1867-1946) became the first librarian for the new Paw Paw Public Library. Her obituary on the front page of The Courier-Northerner in 1946, eulogized Clara as “a woman of refinement and culture” and “a friend to many”. She led an unconventional life for a woman of her time and the fact that her name frequently appeared in the newspaper indicates that she was one of the most influential Paw Paw citizens during her lifetime.  Her story also includes references to historical figures and events of that period.
    Clara’s parents were Susannah Morris (1836-1869) and LeGrand Red-mond Anderson (1834-1909).  Clara had an older sister, (Mary) Grace (1862-1938) and a brother, also named LeGrand (1869-1978), who died at the age of seven.  
    Both the Anderson and Morris families were two of Van Buren County’s first pioneer settlers, and both families originally lived in Ohio before coming to Michigan.  It was not unusual for families and friends living near each other in older American communities to emigrate to the same part of the Territory of Michigan to make a new and better life for themselves.
    Clara’s grandparents were LeGrand (1796-1869), and Catherine Shaw Anderson (1795-1843).  The Andersons bought 500 acres of government land in Porter Township in 1832.  At the time of his death in 1869, LeGrand had increased that holding to more than 1,000 acres.  Five Anderson children - Cornelius, Lydia, Eliza, Mary and John - came with them from Ohio.  LeGrand Redmond Anderson, Clara’s father, was born two years later, in 1834, at the Anderson home in Porter Township.  
    Clara’s maternal grandparents were Dolphin (1798-1870) and Nancy Beaver Morris (1805-1877).  A History of Cass County, states that on March 27, 1829, Dolphin, his brother Samuel, J. Morelan, and H.D. Swift arrived in Little Prairie Ronde (now Volina), Cass County.  Samuel erected a cabin on the morning of March 28, 1829.  
    Dolphin made a claim on land in LaGrange Town-ship, Cass County, and returned to Ohio for his family.  When Dolphin, Nancy, and their three children - Samuel, Amos, and Zerilda, arrived back in LaGrange in the fall of 1829, they found that J.K. Ritter had jumped the claim.  Claims could not be legally filed until the Federal Land Offices opened in White Pigeon in 1831.  The Dolphin Morris family relocated to Section 35 in Van Buren County, the first pioneer family to reside in Van Buren County.  
        In 1870, Clara’s mother, Susannah Morris Anderson, died from “consumption”.   Three-year-old Clara and her sister Grace, eight years old, moved to 212 Elm Street in Paw Paw.  It was the home of their aunt Mary Anderson Murdock, LeGrand’s older sister, who was married to Benjamin A. Murdock.  The Murdocks had two children of their own, but neither child lived past infancy.       
    Benjamin A. Murdock (1815-1895), Clara’s uncle by marriage, had come to Michigan in 1836, at the age of 21.  Benjamin had attended Hamilton College in Hamilton, NY.  For 12 years, he was a school teacher traveling around five counties in Southwest Michigan. In 1842, Benjamin settled permanently in Paw Paw.   
    Later in life he became a druggist until failing health forced him to retire.  Benjamin was a friend and companion of James Fenimore Cooper, the author best known for his book, The Last of the Mohicans. In 1837, Horace H. Comstock, of Comstock, Michigan, convinced Cooper to make an investment in some land in Kalamazoo County. Comstock was married to Cooper’s niece Sarah.  
    As a result, Cooper made five trips to Michigan.  In 1848, he wrote a book called Oak Openings, or the Bee Hunter, based on his experiences in Michigan.  Oak Openings is the story of professional honey-hunter Benjamin Boden, nicknamed “Ben Buzz”.  The name Oak Openings came from the former Potawa-tomi territory in Kalamazoo County. The James Feni-more Cooper Society states that the novel is the last of Cooper’s “wilderness novels” and explores relationships between European and Native Americans during pioneer times.  
    Clara’s aunt, Mary Victoria Anderson Murdock (1828-1919), had been taught by John Purdue, who would later found Purdue University, before the Anderson family moved to Michigan from Ohio.  Mary had also been a school teacher before marrying Benjamin.
    Sister Grace would marry Rev. John Hammond (1847-1910), in 1883.  Rev. Hammond was a Civil War veteran, wounded in 1864, and discharged in 1865.  He graduated from Stamford Seminary, NY, in 1865.  At the time of their marriage, James was pastor of the Christian Church in Grand Rapids. The Christian Church is part of a group of churches also known as the Church of Christ, or Dis-ciples of Christ, or D.O.C., who formed an ecumenical association circa 1832.    
    James and Grace moved to Porter Township to manage LeGrand Redmond Anderson’s farm for two years.  James was also pastor for the Christian Church in Decatur. Newspaper ac-counts mention him giving sermons at the Disciple Church and the Church of Christ in Paw Paw, as well as other congregations in Van Buren County.  Grace and James Hammond were divorced in 1908.   
    During the night of September 28, 1879, when Clara was 12, her aunt Esther (1850-1879) and uncle Charles Henry Morris (1847-1879) were “inexplicably shot dead” at the Morris family homestead in Decatur.  Esther was 26 and Henry was 32.  
    Newspaper accounts re-ported that Jennie Bull, who worked for the family, had been in the house that night.  Jennie claimed she saw and heard nothing.  She told a farmhand arriving for work on the morning of September 29th, that she had “found them both shot dead.”
    The Morrises were wealthy farmers. The assailant had left behind money and “jewels” that were easily visible. The only thing missing was a horse, later found in South Bend, Indiana.A neighbor, Charles Rosewarne said he saw a man ride by on the horse between 9:30 and 10 p.m. on the night of the 28th.  Rosewarne said he did not recognize the rider, but that he wore a “funny hat”.
    The murders were national, state and local news and the Morris family offered a substantial reward for information.The Pink-erton Detective Agency was called in to investigate, but the crime has never been solved.
    Clara attended Paw Paw High School and graduated in 1884.  She left Paw Paw to attend Erie College for four years, a private liberal arts college located in Plainsville, OH, graduating in 1888 and returning to Paw Paw.  It was very unusual for a woman of her time to achieve a college education.  
    In 1889, Clara married James Hatt Rennie.  An account of the wedding appeared on the front page of The True Northerner.  It was a “beautiful and impressive wedding held in the parlor of her aunt, Mrs. Benjamin A. Murdock.”  Clara is described as, “one of our most highly cultured and popular young ladies.” James is described as, “having won the esteem and confidence of all our people as minister of the Presbyterian Church.”
    In 1881, James had come to America from Scotland to attend Park College in Missouri.  He returned to Scotland in 1882, but returned to the United States in 1883 to attend Auburn Theological Seminary in New York City.  
    James arrived in Paw Paw in 1894.  He was the pastor at the Presbyterian Church for one year; 1895 to 1896.  In 1896, James left for Omaha, Nebraska, where he spent one year. In 1897, James returned to Paw Paw.  James suffered from a degenerative nerve disease known as ataxia.  Ataxia impacts the cerebellum, the part of the brain responsible for coordinating movement.  James died in 1903, at the age of 41.
    On June 14, 1895, the True Northerner reported both Benjamin and Mary Murdock were very ill with pneumonia.  Benjamin would die from this disease on December 6, 1895, Mary would survive.  Newspaper accounts mention that Clara was home taking care of her aunt and uncle.    
    In addition to caring for her aunt, uncle and husband, during their illnesses, Clara also had to contend with the antics of her colorful father, LeGrand Redmond Anderson.  
    A front page account in The True Northerner, states that; during the summer of 1899, Leo Switzer, was a tenant of Anderson’s occupying one of the numerous farms owned by that gentleman… when difficulties and disagreements arose in regard to the manner in which Switzer was fulfilling his contract.  “Hard words passed between the parties.” Switzer accused LeGrand of calling him a dishonest thief, and on December 7th, Switzer filed a lawsuit for slander alleging $50,000 in damages.
    Anderson’s reply was that he did not recall using the language reputed to him by the plaintiff Switzer, but insisted that if he (Anderson), had…  he was justified in doing so and that “whatever he might have said about the plaintiff was true in substance and in fact.”
    After five days of testimony and two hours of deliberation, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the plaintiff, Switzer, for the sum of $1,500 for injury to his business and profession.
uit, also in 1900, in which Anderson sued George Lyle for non-payment of debts.  Ander-son alleged that Lyle defaulted on promissory notes in the amount of $3,500.  The suit was settled in favor of the defendant, Lyle, with “no cause of action and no costs to be taxed.”
    In January of 1902, Clara’s father LeGrand was sued for breach of promise.  The plaintiff, Etta Hayward Halliday alleged that, “prior to January 1st, 1896, when LeGrand Anderson came to live in her home, she was the wife of Charles Halliday with whom she had lived with in love and affection.”  Mrs. Halliday also testified that her husband, Charles was “kind, true, and indulgent and provided well for her.”
    Mrs. Halliday stated that Anderson began paying her attention in 1896, and to circulate false and scandalous stories about her husband, Charles.  Mrs. Halliday stated that An-derson had asked her to obtain a divorce on the promise that he (Anderson), would then marry her, and that Anderson had “professed great and unbounded love for her”.
    Relying on Anderson’s promises, on September 9, 1900, Mrs. Halliday had se-cured a divorce from her husband Charles on the grounds of, “extreme cruelty and drunkenness” and stated that she was ready to fulfill her promise to marry Anderson.  
    Meanwhile, LeGrand An-derson had moved to Colorado.  Mrs. Halliday was suing for “extreme mental anguish and disgrace” and was asking for damages in the amount of $50,000.  
    In 1903, it was reported in The True Northerner that Mar-tha Morris, a relative of Le-Grand Redmond Anderson’s deceased wife Susannah Morris Anderson, was suing LeGrand for non-payment of accounting fees.  
    In the Census of 1900, Clara Anderson Rennie was listed as “Capitalist”, defined for that census as, “any person without occupation but possessing some form of income, bonds, or securities”.
    When her uncle Benjamin A. Murdock died in 1896, he left a considerable estate.  In 1897, several properties belonging to B.A. Murdock estate were sold at auction. The properties consisted of six lots in the Village of Paw Paw and property in Section 13, south of the Paw Paw River.  Benjamin also owned approximately 1,600 acres of land near South Haven.
    In 1906, The True North-erner reported that LeGrand, Clara and sister Grace, were selling 33-and-one-half acres in Antwerp Township inherited from Martha Morris, Laura Morris, and Mary Grace Vining.
    A photograph of the 212 Elm St. address during the time Clara resided there, shows a large parlor filled with fine furnishings, art, and books.  To one side of the photograph is a case containing Clara’s collection of old coins.
    In 1890, Clara was one of the 36 founding members of the Coterie Club.  The French word for a bevy (of women), d’Coterie, was chosen as the name for the new association.  The Coterie was one of the many Ladies Literary Associations that were organized across America in the years after the Civil War.  Clara served as the fourth president from 1893 to 1894.  
    Clara’s interest in libraries and books is reflected in the minutes of an early meeting of the Coterie Club.  The club wanted to make books available to the community and to establish a lending library.  Clara was appointed as the first club librarian.  The Coterie Club organized a large circulating library that was donated to Paw Paw Public Library in 1920.
    The Coterie Club hosted an exhibit for the Michigan Cen-tennial in 1935.  Antiques and “relics” from early Paw Paw history were on display.  Clara contributed her collection of cameos, and also gave presentation on “Old Jewelry and Cameos.”
    1940 was the 50th Anniversary of the founding of the Coterie Club.  An article on the front page of The Courier-Northerner on May 3rd, mentioned that Mrs. Clara S. Anderson Rennie was one of five living original Coterie Club members, and the only original member still associated with the club.     The article also mentioned that in 1905, Clara had chaired the building committee for the Coterie Clubhouse.    
    Clara was active in the Society of Christian Endeavor, an interdenominational Chris-tian youth society founded in 1881 by Edward Clark in Portland, Maine.  The Society was the first international church youth organization and at its peak in 1906, there were 67,000 societies worldwide and over four million members. Clara was often mentioned in The True Northerner as traveling to attend a conference of the Society.
    Clara’s obituary mentioned that she was also an active member of the DAR (Daughters of the American Revolution), the Bay View Reading Club, and the Garden Club.  She spent nearly 2,000 hours during the war years sewing, knitting, and making surgical dressings for the Red Cross.  
    On May 30, 1930, The Courier-Northerner announced that on the Fourth of July, Mrs. Clara S. Anderson Rennie would be leaving from Quebec, Canada, on the Empress of France.  She was going to Europe for a three-month tour.  
    In December of 1930, The Courier-Northerner reported that Clara would be giving a talk at the Coterie Club about her visit to Oberammegan, Germany. The village was famous for a Passion Play first performed in 1634 that allegedly saved the village from the plague.  
    For many years Clara served as the Secretary-Treasurer for the O’Leary Scholarship Fund sponsored by the Paw Paw Alumni Association.  John O’Leary had been the Superintendent of Paw Paw Schools for 16 years at the turn of the 19th Century.  The O’Leary Fund awarded an annual $100 scholarship to a deserving Paw Paw High School senior.
    On Friday, October 25, 1940, Clara spoke to the Add-A-Link Club about her passion for collecting old coins.   The collection contained one of almost every coin minted in the last two centuries.  Clara had taken a class on the history of U.S. money and coinage.  Her collection was famous for containing examples of wampum, a Pine Tree shilling from 1652, bank notes from 1776, and other early Colonial coinage.  
    In 1943, Clara was given an award by the Business and Professional Women’s Club.  The award was in honor of her service to the community and in particular, her service for 16 years as the Librarian of the Paw Paw Public Library.  
    In 1946, after Clara’s death at the age of 79, The Courier-Leader ran a front page article about Clara.  The article was written as a memorial by the current President of the Coterie Club, Mrs. Lettie Fritz, and reminded everyone about all that Clara had done on behalf of the Coterie Club and the community of Paw Paw.  

(Information from this article came from A History of Van Buren County, A History of Cass County, articles from the True Northerner, The Courier-Northerner, and The Courier-Leader, and from and other online sources.)

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