TRAVERSE CITY — Valentine’s Day is fast approaching and most people are probably hoping for a romantic gesture from a loved one.
But as anyone who has heard of Romeo and Juliet knows, not all romances go smoothly. And, as in Shakespeare’s tale of tormented love, family disagreements often play a major role in such disruptions.
Such was the case in one historic Traverse City romance which involves none other than the town’s founding father, Perry Hannah. He and his wife, Anna, had three children. Their middle child, Julius, was their only son.
The elder Hannah reportedly was unhappy with his son’s choice of a wife, one Elsie Raff. In fact, so deep was his displeasure that he refused to let Elsie enter the Hannah Mansion on Sixth Street.
Elsie would have the last word in the matter.
After her marriage to Julius in 1896, the couple lived at 501 Sixth Street. Then Anna Hannah died in 1898, followed by Perry in 1904. Elsie and Julius moved into the elder Hannah’s imposing home. Then in 1905 Julius unexpectedly died from a ruptured appendix. Elsie, once banned from even entering it, became the sole owner of the mansion.
She resided there until 1933 when, during the Great Depression, she moved to a cottage she had built on East Bay in 1927 and eventually into a home at 340 Sixth Street, where she lived until she died in 1947.
Current Traverse City residents Jan Stump and Kate Argue considered how Elsie must have felt early in her relationship with the family.
“I think it would be heartbreaking to want to become part of a family that had no desire to welcome you as a member,” Argue said.
Stump pondered a moment, then smiled.
“Well, depending on the in-laws, not being allowed into their house might be a relief,” Stump said.
Evidence suggests that Julius’ and Elsie’s reactions were closer to heartbreak than relief. One indication of this stands prominently in Oakwood Cemetery. Near its northeast corner a large mausoleum holds the remains of Julius, Elsie and members of her family. The traditional Hannah family plot, where Perry and Anna are buried, is located quite a distance away near the southwest corner of the cemetery.
While there could be several reasons for this, one modern-day theory holds that Elsie — who long outlived Julius — chose not to have her husband or herself buried near her in-laws.
The testy family relationship, which may literally have stretched to the grave, left no known record of its origins. One theory is that Perry Hannah felt the Raffs were not “good enough” to marry into the Hannah family despite the fact that the Raffs were successful enough to own a home at 223 Sixth Street, directly across Pine Street from the Hannah Mansion at 303 Sixth Street.
Elsie’s father, George Raff, was a successful merchant tailor and two-time Traverse City postmaster. Perhaps his profession was not “high-brow” enough for the elder Hannah.
Such pettiness, however, seems out of character for Hannah, who was known as a generous man. In Volume I of his three-volume work, “Grand Traverse Legends,” local historian Robert Wilson states: “Perry Hannah, the man, seems to have won the hearts of all that knew him.”
Proof of Hannah’s generosity abounds. He helped many up-and-coming entrepreneurs start businesses, even when they would directly compete with his own. Hannah also gave the City numerous plots of land for civic improvements, including the cemetery in which he is buried.
Furthermore, Hannah was born into a farming family, not into the echelons of high society. Also, although the surviving Hannah mansion is an imposing structure, Hannah only lived there the last decade of his long life. Before that the Hannahs lived in a relatively modest cottage on Hall Street, in the midst of his industrial holdings.
A better-reasoned explanation for Hannah’s dislike of the Raffs may be that his personality simply clashed with that of George Raff, Elsie’s father. In Volume III of “Legends,” Wilson wrote: “(Hannah’s) contemporaries described George Raff as a very candid man who was quick to speak his mind, usually in short sentences and plain words. His terseness could often be offensive at first, but his honesty was always respected and that was what won him his many friends.”
When Elsie Raff Hannah finally moved out of the mansion whose doorstep she was once banned from crossing, she considered having it torn down, say Peg Jonkhoff and Fred Hoisington in their book, “Perry Hannah’s Gifts.” Luckily for those who today admire the mansion’s splendid architecture, she decided instead to deed it to the area American Legion Club.
In 1937 the house was sold to Harry Weaver, who moved his funeral business there. In 1976 it became home to the Reynolds-Jonkhoff Funeral Home. Peg and Dan Jonkhoff have lovingly restored the mansion, and now its stately beauty offers serene and peaceful surroundings to hundreds of grieving families each year.