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Gathering through the ages: Family reunion reaches 120 in a row without missing

The first Chapin Johnson Family Reunion Took Place In 1902.

MECOSTA COUNTY, Mich. — If longevity is the sign of a good family tradition, it’s going to be hard to top the Chapin Johnson family reunion. This year's gathering marks 120 in a row, and there’s no plan on stopping now.

Jeff Charnley is a family historian. The retired Michigan State history professor could teach an entire class on the event that his family has hosted since 1902.

“It made no sense to get together only at funerals,” Charnley explains about the origin of the event. 

Not once has the gathering been missed. Attendance dropped down to around 40 people in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it’s tough to stop an event that’s survived through two world wars, the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918, AND the Great Depression.

Charnley has bins and bins of historical documentation. Photos, letters, newspaper clippings, he's got it all. Even an original invitation to the 1903 reunion, you name it, the history is right there.

Everyone’s connection comes back to a single starting point – Mary Jane Chapin Johnson. Her family settled in Kent County from upstate New York partway through the 19th century. After discovering a document with writings from the 1904 reunion, her words have been the official start to each reunion since the 1980’s.

People come in from all over the state, and the reunion itself moves locations around the state as well.

Avis Charnley, Jeffrey’s mother, is 92 years old. She’s the most senior member of this year’s family reunion. With north of 70 reunions under her belt, she still remembers her first.

“It was in Greenville," she recalls. "I was probably 11, I remember they had a boat, so we used to be able to ride the boat on the lake.”

With 18 grand and 17 great-grand children, Avis has a family tree with deep roots, which gives her confidence the tradition will continue.

“I think it’s nice to have the young people come, otherwise we’re gonna die out.”

57 family members attended the 2021 reunion. The next gathering will take place in Portage, on the same day it always does, the final Sunday in July.

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