By Mike Hobbs
I got an overdose of genealogy and local history while growing up in the '50's. My parents liked to visit relatives and friends, and they took me with them. There was a lot of visiting in those days. The adults' conversations frequently turned to relatives, some born before the Civil War and long dead, and to local history. Unless there were kids in the household for me to play with, I had to sit there and listen to the adults' stories. I don't like to hear kids today say that they are bored, but I have to admit that back then I was bored stiff by most of the stories. I couldn't relate to old folks and old times. I had a child's understanding of the present which I considered interesting and sometimes fascinating, but the distant past? That was just musty, dusty, and boring. I will say though that some of the adults' stories were a little bit interesting to me, and they remain with me today. I heard about my paternal great-great grandparents Silas and Mary Roe. They owned a farm south of Abingdon and east of Boydstun Corners. The story goes that in the 1850's they gave some land west of their farm for right-of-way to the Northern Cross or Quincy & Chicago Railroad which became part of the CB&Q. Sometime after train service began, a spark from a passing locomotive's stack caught an adjoining field on fire which spread to my great-great grandfather's house. It burned to the ground. Thanks a lot, railroad.
My dad Pete said that he remembered his great grandmother Mary Roe. He was born in 1908. She died in 1915 at almost 100 years old. He said that he recalled how mad she got when she dropped her clay pipe, and it shattered. Her doctor had warned her that she needed to quit smoking, or her life would be cut short. I can remember my great-great Aunt Matt (Martha) born in 1860 the youngest daughter of Silas and Mary Roe. She may have been the oldest person I ever knew. My parents and I used to visit her at the beautiful old PEO Home in Knoxville. There were also some interesing stories of my mother's side of the family. Her paternal grandparents came from Ireland and settled near St. Augustine. I was amazed to hear about what a bustling little town Sainty was in the early 20's when my mom lived there. It had four grocery stores, a lumber yard, implement store, hotel, livery stable, bank, doctor's office, restaurant, barber shop, opera house, variety store, undertaker, telephone office, garage, post office, two churches, grade school, depot, and a large railroad dock for livestock loading.
As I got older, I got more interested in genealogy and local history. About a year before my dad died in 1993 I interviewed him about his life. He told me many interesting and humorous things which I wrote down. I wish that I had listened to him more during my life with him and to those old folks back in the 50's. There are many gaps in my understanding of my family and local history that they could have filled in. Some things are gone forever. Sad! But once in a while you get a second chance to fill in some of those gaps. Last summer while going through some of my dad's things in my mom's basement we came across a little notebook that contained a diary which covered a four-month period of his life in California in 1931. To me it is a treasure, because it is a first-hand account of a long ago time in my father's life. It helped me to better understand the man that I knew. To the general reader it has value as a small piece of American history seventy-five years ago. On another level it is a story about a young man far from home during difficult times.
My dad had an adventuresome streak in him. As a boy he voraciously read books by adventure writers Jack London, Zane Gray, Edgar Rice Burroughs, creator of Tarzan, and Clarence E. Mulford, creator of Hopalong Cassidy. He much preferred being outdoors hunting, fishing, and trapping to being in school. After graduating from Abingdon High School in 1927 he and his friends Bud Whitenack, Raymond Kalb, Blondie Holstein, and Blondie's brother worked the wheat harvests from August through November in 1927 and 1928 in Saskatchewan, Canada. There they endured some harsh weather and hard work for $6 per day. After returning to Abingdon from the harvest in November, 1928 he went to work for American Telephone and Telegraph for a year in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Wisconsin. He started out as a pole digger and finished as a lineman. After the Depression hit in October, 1929 AT&T began laying off employees. Although he could have continued working for a while longer, he took a layoff on December 28, so that a junior employee with a family could keep working.
Things looked darkly ominous when my dad returned home in early 1930. People were losing their jobs. In time many would lose their homes through foreclosure, and many would go hungry. There was no unemployment compensation, food stamps, Social Security, Medicare, or Medicaid then. There were local relief agencies, but they would experience the strain of hard times. In big cities some families lived in ramshackle "Hoovervilles". Soup lines sprang up. The presidency of Franklin Roosevelt and the New Deal were still over three years into the future. People had to pull together with family and friends to survive. But there was a glimmer of hope--California. There were reports of jobs there. My dad hoped to get on as a lineman with Southern California Telephone. From across the country many Americans, including Oklahomans seeking to escape the Dust Bowl, traveled to Sunny California with hope in their hearts for jobs and a better life. My dad and his friend Orville Holmes were among them and so were many other Abingdon people. Mario Sabetti showed me a 1935 AHS yearbook The Tatler that showed that many AHS alumni lived in California that year. They included Israel Harris, Vera Redfield, Beth Thompson Cleary, Martha Robinson, Lewis Parker, Fern Lethco Conti, Mabel Harding Pointer, Carroll Miller, Johnathon Harvey, Ethel Lloyd, Elizabeth LeFevre, Pauline Thompson, Jim Spies, Florence Stegall, Everett Dickerson, Richard Sheehan, Claude Parker, Gladys Harding Berry, Orville Holmes, and Pete Hobbs
My dad's little 2 1/2" by 4" diary notebook was a composite record of several things regarding his California adventure. The diary itself was printed on five lined pages front and back covering the period of January 1 through April 18, 1931. How could he cram so much information for such a period of time in such a small space? He wrote little. Unbelievably little. His card-playing buddies used to tell him that he could keep score of pitch games for a month on the inside of a matchbook cover. There is a quarter inch between each line. He printed two and sometimes three lines between each line in ink and pencil. He had to have used a very fine tipped pen and sharp hard lead pencil. It was difficult to read until my nearsighted eyes got accustomed to it, and even then I frequently had to use a magnifying glass.
In addition to the diary the notebook contained a section entitled "Addresses of Friends and Acquaintances". Listed first in his best ink printing were the addresses of single ladies in Wisconsin, Iowa, Illinois, Saskatchewan, and California. One lady's name in California was lined out with the notation "Married". Then came men's names in printing not as good. Included in these was the name of former Abingdon resident Claire "Ike" Cline in Los Angeles. He was the uncle of Fred Cline of Abingdon and Virginia Cline of Galesburg. Also in the diary was an inventory of his clothes--overalls, leather jacket, gray sweater, white shirts, work socks and dress socks; prospective employers, addresses, and contact people, some crossed out; a small map possibly to an employer; gin rummy scoring; and questions about starting a battery station, garage, taxi business, or car rental regarding the cost of renting a building or buying a lot and of taxes, licenses, permits, and electric current. All the questions were lined out. The reason? Probably, no money.
A section of the notebook entitled "Notes on Trip--Ill. to Calif." was interesting. He and Orville Holmes covered the nine-day trip from Abingdon to their destination Torrance, CA near Los Angeles on three quarters of a page in small print. He and Orville left Abingdon on Labor Day, September 1, 1930 in a Ford Model T Dirt Track Racer. No top. Between 1908 and 1927 Ford mass produced fifteen million automobiles with the Model T engine. The sturdy, low-priced vehicle was Henry Ford's idea of a "car for the masses". The two men spent their first night in Red Oak, IA. My dad wrote, "Slept behind a schoolhouse. Kind of cold." They probably took U.S. Hwy. 34 which was paved through Iowa by 1930. The next day they stopped in Nebraska to visit my dad's uncle Kenny Hobbs. He was a railroad section foreman there. Now we get into the ticklish issue of finding unsavory characters in your family while doing genealogy. The story goes that back in the 1890's Kenny Hobbs' brother John came out from Illinois to visit him in Nebraska. John came into town riding a horse. A local man accused him of stealing the horse. Both men were wearing guns, and they were drawn. My great uncle John killed the man and got out of town fast. I can't say it for sure, but I may have had a horse thief in my family.
My dad and Orville spent their fourth night at a tourist camp in Colorado Springs and saw Pike's Peak the next morning. On their fifth day out they crossed the Raton Pass, the most dangerous part of the old Santa Fe Trail at over 7,800 feet in elevation, in the rugged mountains of northeast New Mexico. Of the Pass my dad wrote, "Some hill. The mts. are kind of pretty but not so good for a Ford--a lot of fun too." They got on the old Route 66 in New Mexico. Their sixth night was spent at an Indian tourist camp in Grants, NM where it rained hard. My dad nicknamed the Model T "The Ark". They spent their seventh night in Williams, AZ where they received more rain. "That red mud sure painted up The Ark and everything." They tried to make it to Torrance the next day but kept falling asleep at the wheel. They "slept out in the sage brush" near San Bernadino after driving over 400 miles and got into Torrance late the next morning.
The reason my dad and Orville Holmes headed for Torrance was because Orville's aunt Flossie, who formerly lived in Abingdon, and her husband O.F. Mishler lived there and offered to put them up. Local genealogist Nellie Landon told me that Flossie's maiden name was Pointer. Brothers Ocie, Opie, Curt, and Donald Pointer were all Abingdon area natives who had also settled in the Los Angeles area. In February, 1931 my dad and Orville would move in with Ocie and Mabel Pointer in Los Angeles.
Aside from the adventure of moving to California my dad's goal was to find a job. His diary began on January 1, 1931. On Friday, Jan. 2 he tried to get on at a steel mill. "No go." During the next week he tried at another steel mill and at a Ford plant in Long Beach with no success. By Monday, Jan. 12 he was discouraged. He bore down hard when he wrote, "No chance of a job." On Jan. 14 he wrote, "Another day. How well I would like to find a job for several reason[s]-debts-different place to stay-something to spend time at-also I could use a few dollars as spending money. It's tough to skimp all the time." On Jan. 19 he got up early and went to a steel mill, the Ford plant, shipyard and other places. "No work-just what the hell is the use looking for a job." On Jan. 20: "Looked for a job- . . . there isn't any such a thing. Everything is tight as hell. Mishler's could get along a lot better without me. I like to eat. Sorry I can't get off their hands. A good job-an apartment, oh, oh." Jan. 27: "Tried to get a job in [Lomita] digging ditch. Couldn't even do that." February 3: "A hell of a day. I'll sure be plenty glad when I can get a job and get to myself. This living with someone else isn't so good. I'll sure know a good job when I see it next time." Feb. 4: "Went to some canneries in San Pedro and Wilmington-no work. It rained [hard] today-yesterday too. Rather depressing to spirits. Such weather-no job or even a chance and 2400 miles from home and maybe no home much longer. It might be worse but how? I don't want to see it much worse." The reference to "maybe no home much longer" has to do with a letter he received from his mother on Jan. 24 about which he wrote in the diary, "Got some bad news. Dad is about broke. They lose the house [at 512 S. Main in Abingdon] Mar. 1, 1931. Tough as hell."
Feb. 5: "Still cloudy weather and a damn [sight] more cloudy outlook for me. . . .I sure . . . got my tail in a sling. By being . . . fool enough to come to Calif. I wish . . . I could get out of this mess. It sure is tough on nerves. We try a fishery tomorrow. Very slim chance of a job. . . . I hope I get on and anything will do-lawful or otherwise." That last part "lawful or otherwise" surprised me. The man I knew would never have said that. He always emphasized honesty to me. His statement shows the effect of desperation on a young man's mind.
Feb. 13: Went to Fords at 6:30. There [were] about 500 men at least there too. Plenty out of work. About 6 were hired." Feb. 16: "Went to L.A. looking for work. . . .Went to YMCA. No help even there." Feb. 28: "Just another day. Damn this loafing. It's plenty tough on nerves. . . .Loafed all p.m. I like to loaf but there's a limit to it." March 17: "Another day of loafing. No place to go. Nothing to do. Not so good. I hope it [doesn't] last a lot longer." March 25: "Went to factory. No job yet. I'll give up and go over the hill pretty soon if something [doesn't] come up soon. Hell of a life. I can't figure out what to do."
How did my dad cope during this time with not having a job and with troubles back home? In several ways. He spent time with people, many of them Abingdon transplants, eating, talking, walking, playing carom, checkers, gin rummy, and poker. He had some dates. Feb. 25: "Went to Don's [Pointer] for dinner. . . .While at Don's an argument started on Prohibition." I'll bet I know which side my dad took on that argument. He did like a beer now and then even though the manufacture, transport, and sale of alcoholic beverages had been illegal since the Eighteenth Amendment went into effect in 1920. Prohibition, which was repealed in 1933, was a time of liquor smuggling, bathtub gin, bootlegging, speakeasies, and gangsters. It was not evenly enforced. The humorist Will Rogers remarked that the State of Mississippi would vote dry "as long as the voters could stagger to the polls."
Abingdon Picnics were held in the Los Angeles area for several years. March 7: "An Abingdon Picnic the 15th. [of March] at [Pasadena] Maybe I'll go. If I'm not broke. Well I'll hope for the best. Expect anything." He did go. March 15: "Went . . . to an Abingdon Picnic at [Pasadena]-Brookside Park. Saw a few people I knew." In 1993 he told me that 50-80 people attended that picnic. In 1922 the Rose Bowl had been built in the sixty-one acre Brookside Park which also had picnic and recreational facilities.
My dad loved to travel throughout his life, and I imagine that sightseeing in the Los Angeles area helped take his mind off his troubles. Travel was cheap. A California driver's license for "The Ark" cost him $3.00, and gasoline was eleven cent per gallon. Feb. 1: "Got up at 4:30 to go to the L.A. Playground. 115 miles. Got lost a couple of times but got there about 11:00. Climbed a hill and scared up a deer. A tough climb but quite a site from the top. Had a good time. . . .[L]ots of traffic. Plenty of cars stopped for water." I wonder if the L.A. Playground is now what is called Devil's Playground in the Mojave National Preserve northeast of the Los Angeles metropolitan area. Feb. 2: Went out on Terminal Island [in San Pedro Bay] and watched some boats come in." On his way to the Abingdon Picnic on March 15 he stopped by to see Mine's Field which became known as L.A. International Airport after World War II. On March 29 he went for a ride and stopped by a "wrecking yard" whose owner tried to sell him a Star automobile. "It sure climbs hills. Plenty nice but I never thought much of a Star." Stars were assembled between 1922 and 1928 by Durant Motors Co. They were billed as "the working man's car" but were more expensive than Model T's..
Doing odd jobs helped take his mind off of his troubles. Several times in his diary he made an entry, "Picked mushrooms." What the heck was that all about? A co-worker at the railroad who transferred to Galesburg from Seattle last year shed some light on this question. He told me that in some parts of the West Coast mushrooms grow year round. People pick them to sell to restaurants, including many Oriental restaurants, for income. My dad was a pretty good Model T mechanic. He spent time working on "The Ark" and on friends' cars. He hung wallpaper for the Powell family in Lomita. I suspect the Powell's were from the Abingdon area. He burned brush, dug up blackberries, and dug up ground for a garden. In February the Mishler's wanted a second house that they owned fixed up for them to move into. My dad called it "the shack". At "the shack" he puttied holes, taped wallboard, painted, dug a cesspool, wired, and put in a switch box and fixtures.
He also spent time attending night school in Torrance which he started on January 8. I'm not clear what the class was for. Typewriting? General business? Jan. 15: "School is a big help 2 ways-good education & kills time." He read a lot and wrote letters. March 16: ". . . wrote five letters. Read all a.m.-no money in that." On March 20 he wrote of reading some Liberty magazines. Liberty first appeared in 1924 as "The weekly for everybody". At cost of a nickel per issue it featured writings by famous authors and celebrities and was second in circulation only to The Saturday Evening Post. Sundays with too much time on his hands were sometimes difficult. Sunday, March 8: "I read & slept nearly all day. Sunday isn't a day I like to see come."
His prospects finally improved on March 10. "Worked today [at an Eljer pottery in Los Angeles]-[believe] it or not. Made $3.75. That beats nothing. Pretty hard work-unloading clay. Hope I get in again." His optimism faded quickly, because Eljer didn't recall him. March 17: "Another day of loafing. No place to go. Nothing to do. Not so good. I hope it [doesn't] last a lot longer." March 18: "More rest & I don't need it." March 19: "Another day lost."
Finally on March 27 he went back to work at Eljer. He had heard from Don Pointer that an employee had lost a finger in an accident, and that he might get back on in his place. "I went down and started to work-believe it or not. I don't know how long it will last but ever[y] little [bit] helps." For a couple days he scooped clay into a press, a job he called "plenty tough" and "hot". On March 31 he was put on a new job hauling clay ware down an elevator from an upstairs casting shop to the kilns. "It is a plenty tough job but not so bad as the other one. They tell me it's easy when I get used to it & learn what to do. I broke 2 bowls." April 1: "Gosh there sure is plenty of walking to this job. Well I've been hollering about wanting work-well I sure as hell got it. It is a lot nicer to be able to pay my board. I'm plenty glad to be able to do it."
Things were now looking up for my dad. It looked like he finally had a steady job, and the work became easier as he got more accustomed to it. On April 15 he and a young lady went for a ride to Culver City, Redondo Beach, and Torrance. On Saturday night April 17 he and the lady went to a party where she tried to teach him to dance. His diary ended on a happy note on Sunday, April 18 when he described a ride he took with Ocie and Mabel Pointer. "We were up the coast forty or fifty miles. Came back thru Santa Monica. Sure plenty of people on the beach. So many cars traffic was slow. A pretty nice trip."
My dad's job at the pottery didn't last. After a few months he was laid off. Later he drove a dairy delivery truck in Los Angeles. Later he got a job as a clerk in a liquor store in Hollywood. In 1937 he returned to Abingdon.
It was painful for me to read some parts of my dad's diary when he expressed such deep despondence about not being able to find a job, having to depend on others, and being unable to help his parents back in Abingdon. Somehow I wish that I could reach back into time to help and comfort him during his dark days in California in early 1931 as he later helped and comforted me. Yet I see positive "Sunny California" effects of his experience. As he accepted help, he also extended his help to others. It had to be done during those hard times to survive. He learned to persevere in the face of rejection and disappointment. He had to. He had no choice. Those qualities molded him into the caring, quietly determined man whom I knew as my father.