52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks – Work

It’s Labor Day weekend in the U.S. and our theme for this week is “Work”.  Since the theme is about Labor Day, I will post this a little early this week.

Labor Day began as a holiday to honor the working person.  It was pioneered and championed by the leaders of labor unions.  And for that reason, we will take a look at one of my ancestors who was a member of a union.

When I look back at my ancestors, the vast majority of them were farmers. They owned farms.  They worked on other people’s farms.  They farmed to survive.  Some of them grew wealthy as farmers, plantation owners, and dealers in farm products.  But, the huge majority were farmers farming to get by.

There were also a lot of school teachers and preachers in the mix.  Fewer were the merchants, storekeepers and other sorts of occupations.

Robert H. Dickson, Sr.
Robert H. Dickson, Sr.

Meet Robert Harrison Dickson, Sr., my great-grandfather.  Robert was born 12 August 1878 in Coldwater, Mississippi.  Shortly after his birth, his family moved to Prairie County, Arkansas.  I find them there in the 1880 census. He is with his parents, John H. and Martha Dickson, and his two brothers and his sister – Cecil, Minnie, and Walter.

Here is another time that the fire that burned the 1890 census is so frustrating.  This twenty year gap has always been hard to bridge for this family.  Somewhere around 1889, Robert’s father died.  His mother moved to Crawford County, Arkansas and remarried to Jack A. Jones.  Here’s where confusion comes in.  In the census, she is listed as Martha A. Dickson.  In the marriage record for John and Martha, she is recorded as M.A. Taylor.  However, in the marriage record for her and Jack Jones, she is listed as Susan.  In the 1900 census, she is listed as Emma S.  But, the children, the location, and the rest of the family all fit for her.  So, I don’t know what to think about who she really is.  I thought perhaps she had died and Jack Jones married again.  But Grandad said he recalled visiting her in Crawford County as a young boy.  She has always been a mystery, and I’ve been trying to figure her out for thirty years.

The family story is that Jack Jones was a mean man and not a great step-father to Robert, Cecil, and Walter.  The story goes that Robert left home with his brother Cecil when he was just fourteen or sixteen years old.  Of course, Cecil married his step-sister in 1895, so he couldn’t have gone too far.  But that’s another story for another day.  I guess dating is easier when it’s just down the hall.

In any case, I can’t find concrete evidence of Robert until I find him in the 1910 Census, working as a machinist in a factory.  According to Granddad (Robert H. Dickson, Jr.), he worked on the railroads around Fort Smith.  In 1911, I find him working as an engineer at Ketcham Iron Co.  Supposedly, he was injured while working here.  He and two other men were carrying a long steel beam at the steel foundry.  The man in the middle lost his grip, and then so did the man in the front.  That left only Robert, who injured his back when he dropped the beam, too.  His back muscles were pretty badly torn, keeping him from doing heavy lifting for the rest of his life.

Robert H. and Ethel Dickson
Robert & Ethel Dickson

On 28 April 1912, Robert married Ethel Mildred Garner, the daughter of  Isaac G. “Ike” Garner and Florence Magdalene Hames.  Ethel was born in 1887 in Yell County, Arkansas.  Her family moved to Yell County from Union County, South Carolina not long after the Civil War.

Robert and Ethel had three children: Mildred Evelyn (born 4 May 1914), Richard Isaac (born 16 Aug 1916) and Robert Harrison, Jr. (born 29 Nov 1919).

In 1917, Robert went to work for the Fort Smith Light & Traction Company as a motorman on a streetcar.  Granddad always talked about his dad being a motorman.  Apparently, this was a job that he was very proud of and was meticulous in doing it well.  Grandad remembered that his dad allowed no mischief or horseplay on his streetcar and never allowed him to touch the controls, even if no one else was around.

Robert H. Dickson Sr, driving his streetcar
Robert H. Dickson, Sr. driving his streetcar

My dad (Robert H. Dickson III) still has his grandfather’s badge and insignia from his cap from his days with the streetcar line.

dickson-1378-f-v01As a motorman, Robert was a member of the A.A. of S. & E.R.E of America – the Amalgamated Association of Streetcar and Electric Railroad Employees of America – a union that represented them.  I have not found any particular mention of him as any sort of leader in the union, or as a particularly avid union member.  But as a motorman, he was represented by this union and wore its pin proudly.

In 1933, the Fort Smith Light & Traction Co. shut down its streetcar line and all of the motormen were laid off.  On the last run, while taking the car back to the streetcar barn, Granddad said that his father let him drive the streetcar down the main street of Fort Smith.  His comment was “What are they going to do?  Fire me?”  And with that, Robert’s time with as a motorman came to an end.  The last streetcars ran on 15 November 1933. On 16 November, 1933, the Twin City Coach Company began bus service along many of the former streetcar lines.

Motormen of the Fort Smith Light & Traction Company
George Collier Williams, Robert H. Dickson Sr.

But his working life didn’t end there.  Out of work as a motorman in the middle of the Great Depression, Robert opened a shoe repair store.  According to Granddad (Robert, Jr), he had done some shoe repair as a young man.  His cousin George (this would have to be George Collier Williams) taught him what he needed to open his own shop, so he did.  As it turns out, George was the key to my figuring out who exactly Robert’s grandparents were.  You can see more about that in some of my early blog posts if you are interested.



The Southdickson-docs-0103-f-v00-ShoeShopOpenswest Times Record (the newspaper of Fort Smith, Arkansas) reported that he had opened his shop in downtown Fort Smith.

Not long after opening on North 9th St, a spot came open at 2121 Midland Blvd and Robert moved his shop there.  Robert worked in his shop until near his death.  His sons worked with him until they moved to California.  Richard worked as a clerk at the nearby Thom McKan shoe store, no doubt routing repair business to his dad’s shop.  Robert worked in the shop both before and after his short stint living in Los Angeles, having come home to help out at home as his dad became unable to work.

Robert H. Dickson, Sr.’s life of working came to an end on 18 Nov 1942 when he died.  He was buried in Forest Park Cemetery in Fort Smith, Arkansas.  He taught his children well the value of hard work.  And they continued to pass it along to their families.

I never knew Robert H. Dickson, Sr.  But I have known and loved Robert H. Dickson, Jr and Robert H. Dickson III and continue to be proud to be their son and grandson.


Author: Scott Dickson

I've been doing family history research since the late 1980s. Almost all of my family came into the southern colonies and worked there way across the South. Lately, I've started to look at my wife's New England, Irish, and French Canadian ancestry. My tree is online at http://wrenacres.com/genealogy.

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