I was surprised that a blog post on winter was as hard to come by as it ended up being. I am certain that I remember a set of photos from the late 1940s when my father and his family traveled to Niagara Falls. The pictures show the falls frozen and lots of snow. But, I can’t find them anywhere. Maybe Dad will know where they are.
But I found some pictures that were just as interesting and tell a story of a “big snow”, at least for Fort Smith, Arkansas. I have talked about my granddad, Robert H. Dickson, Jr., previously. Granddad took a lot of photos with his old camera (I think Dad still has that camera). And Granddad did his own developing back in the day. I guess he didn’t have an enlarger, or maybe only had a small one, because so many of his photos are 2″ x 2″ and maybe a bit grainy. But, they are great fun to see, since so many of them are really candid and completely unstaged.
So, I found a few pictures that Grandmother (Susan Louise Bailey Dickson) had captioned “Robert H. Dickson Jr. in that big snow of 1940” Digging around in climatology history web sites, it looks like there was a snowstorm that dropped 9.4 inches of snow on Fort Smith, Arkansas in January of 1940. Looks like Granddad and, I guess, Grandmother took the opportunity to go out in the snow. I am betting that Grandmother took these photos.
It doesn’t look like 9.4 inches in this picture, but it does look like Granddad needs a jacket! I am only guessing that Grandmother took these photos. Robert and Susan met in June 1938 and been dating for a year and a half by this point. They got married just a month later on 23 Feb 1940. It’s fun to see Granddad so young. He looks so skinny. And the paralysis on his face sort of gives him a scowl. Kathleen thought that he looked mean in these pictures.
But, how could you think of him as mean when you see him out in the snow in his bare feet! His pants are up around his knees and he’s barefoot in the snow here.
The last of the pictures that I found was a fun one of the house that Granddad grew up in. I find my great-grandparents, Robert H. Dickson, Sr., and Ethel Garner Dickson, in their house at 2230 N. 14th St., Fort Smith, Arkansas by 1925. They lived there until Robert Sr’s death. After that Grandmother Dickson lived there for at least a couple of years before moving. I have never heard the reason that Fort Smith decided to renumber their streets. North 14th St. became North 29th St., but the family didn’t move. Grandmother notes that that’s her future father-in-law, Robert Sr., on the front porch.
So, even back in the day, wintertime could be a good time for our ancestors. They could be excited by unusual snows. They could go out to play in the snow. And they could do goofy things in the cold, just because. That’s the kind of thing that makes sure we remember that our ancestors were all real people just like we are.
Last week, we looked at conflicts that we find in our family tree. These might be things that we, ourselves, have experienced. They might be stories with recent memory. Or they might be far in the past. But one thing that they all point out to us is that the people we are researching are real people. They had real lives – real joys, real sorrows, real hardships, real experiences. Sometimes in our haste to find our next ancestor, we treat the people in our tree as anonymous names and collections of facts to be discovered rather than the members of our family that they are.
Perhaps this becomes most clear as we look at causes of death, the theme for this week. Every time we look at a tombstone or stand at a grave, it’s a reminder that someone’s life ended. That person was born, lived, and then died. Someone took the time to bury them. Most of the time, there is a monument or tombstone to remember the person. Were there a lot of people gathered there for the burial and funeral? Or was it an anonymous burial in a potter’s field with no one in attendance?
How did the person live, we wonder? What kind of person were they? Were they joyful and fun to be around? Or were they the one to freeze the joy out of a room and regard everyone with a stern and disapproving look? Were they surrounded by people who loved them during their last days and hours, or did they die alone? What caused their death? Did they die at a young age from some disease we would regard as highly treatable today? Or did they die from something that still kills many today?
The tombstone and the grave probably don’t tell us a lot about this. I have seen a stone in Mississippi County, Arkansas that claims what a loving father a man was, when I know for a fact that that wasn’t quite true. Maybe when he was sober, but not when he drank. When he was sober, he looked after folks. For fun, he would teach me big words. But, when he drank, which was more and more frequently late in life, he was mean. He even tried to shoot his wife one Christmas. But that’s another story for another time.
So, we look at death certificates. They probably give us immediate and contributing causes of death. This is good as we try to build a health history, to see if certain diseases run in our family. But, there’s still a lot more to the story, and to the person and their experiences than we see in that little box on the form.
This week, we are going to meet two different people who had fairly similar paths near the end of their lives. In the last months, we have seen several high profile celebrities who chose to end their own lives. Notably, Kate Spade and Anthony Bourdain, both committed suicide this year. There have been others in the media, but these two particularly shook a lot of people. When one person I know heard about Anthony Bourdain, they talked about what a shock it was since everything seemed to be going well for him – he had a great career on TV and writing, he had a family that he loved and that loved him, he was sober for a number of years from the drugs that he battled in the past. But something was really wrong for him. Depression made him believe that there was no way out. So, he ended his life.
And I think that’s the thread that joins the lives of Bill Bailey and Cecil Dickson. Both of these men, in desperate times, saw no way out for themselves.
Cecil Noyle Dickson was born 20 Aug 1876 in Mississippi, probably in Tate County. He was the eldest child of John H. Dickson and Martha A. Taylor and the older brother to my great-grandfather, Robert Harrison Dickson, Sr. The family was a family of farmers, as much of my family in those days was. They moved from Mississippi to Prairie County, Arkansas by the time of the 1880 census. Eventually, John H. Dickson died and Martha remarried to Jack A. Jones. By then, the family was living in Crawford County, Arkansas, north of Fort Smith, in a small town called Rudy. The family story was that Jack Jones was mean to his step-children so Cecil and his brother Robert left home while still young.
Apparently, Cecil didn’t go far because in August of 1895, Cecil married his step-sister (by Jack Jones first wife) Elzenia Mildred “Zenia” Jones. They had at least ten children, though I think they lost at least one along the way. The 1900 census shows him as a laborer. In 1910, he is a farmer on rented land. In 1920, he is a farmer, but he owns his own farm. Likewise in 1930. Of course, by then Great Depression had begun and I am sure that things began to get tough. And for some, it got very tough, indeed.
According to some Dickson cousins,
Cecil was a kind man, who worried a lot. Apparently, Cecil had mortgaged the farm at Citizen Bank. Due to the depression at the time (1931) and possibly a crop failure, he could not make the payment on the mortgage. This upset Cecil very much. One morning, he went into Rudy and some men there were razzing him about the bank taking the farm. This upset him very much. Cecil went back home and ate dinner. Then he got his 22 rifle to go squirrel hunting. Along in the late afternoon when he had not returned, Zenia decided to send the boys to look for him. When they returned without finding him, she thought for a little while and told one of the boys “I know where he is. Go look in the old house.” This old house was to the left and up on the hill from the house they lived in. They went there and looked in the window. There sat Cecil against the wall, with the gun braced on a stick of wood. He had shot himself, the 10th of November 1931 and he died. He was buried in the Mt. McCurry Cemetery which was not very far from his home. The farm that Cecil mortgaged was known at the time as the old Jones place. It had apparently belonged to Zenia’s family. The next generation called it the old Dickson place. It is a pretty valley. The banker who repossessed the farm allowed Zenia and the children to continue to live there. Joe was still at home and he ran the farm. They still had their chickens, cows, pigs, and horses, as these were not mortgaged. Their family did pretty well and did not go hungry. They were as prosperous as the other families in that area at the time. I do not know Cecil’s parents names. Cecil’s occupation was apparently farmer, but the family also picked cotton as did all the other families in the fall. It was extra money for all.
This happened far too often during the Great Depression. The perfect storm of a personal depression and financial failure and an inability to provide for his family was more than he could endure.
I think things might not have been so different for Bill Bailey. James William “Bill” Bailey was born 23 Sep 1875 in Hackett, Sebastian County, Arkansas. His parents were Hume Field Bailey and Sarah Louise Council Brewer Bailey. We’ve met some of that family and their farm previously. It was a hardscrabble life on that farm along the Oklahoma border.
In 1908, Bill married Loda Scott. Bill was working as a clerk in a grocery store in Sebastian County. In 1920, he owned his own home and was the Top Boss at the coal mine. In 1930, both Bill and Loda were working in the grocery store again, Bill as the manager and Loda as a sales clerk. Now, they rent their house rather than own it.
My grandmother said that Bill was always a cut-up. He loved novelty photos. She had some where he was shaking his own hand, or was the both the bride and the groom in a wedding photo. Seems like a happy person.
Loda and Bill moved to California during the Great Depression. With no children, it was just the two of them. I guess that they went there in search of jobs and escape from the business and farm failures in Arkansas and search for a better life.
He worked in a grocery and a service station with his brother-in-law, Loda’s brother. But apparently, they were having no success in that business either. Financial failures combined with failing health were more than he could take. On Christmas evening in 1933, Bill took his own life.
So, what to take away from all of this? I guess a couple of things.
First, remember that our ancestors were real people with real lives. We honor them by looking beyond the dates and places and facts on a family group sheet. We honor them by remembering their lives, their joys, and their struggles.
Second, and more importantly, as we look at the causes of death we find for our ancestors, we have to look at ourselves, our friends, and our families. Suicide is real. Too many people are overwhelmed by a sense of failure, a sense of uselessness, a sense of hopelessness. Take the time to listen, to be aware of the people around you. Listen to your loved ones when they talk to you. If they are having a hard time, talk to them and then listen. Be there for them. It’s such a hard thing to get our minds around, wanting to end your own life. I don’t understand it. But, I can do my best to listen and empathize and ask those that are hurting how I can help.
Ten. For October. But, when I think of Ten, I can only think of one thing – my beautiful, wonderful wife of twenty-one years, Kathleen Boyle Dickson. She’s the only Ten in my life! I am so proud of her and so proud and pleased to be her husband.
We were married in 25 January 1997. We met several years earlier when I was working at Penn State and she was in graduate school for her Master’s Degree in Environmental Engineering. I moved to Harrisburg, PA and she moved to Reston, VA. When we got engaged, neither of us wanted to go where the other was, so we moved to Atlanta. As soon as we got here, we set a date for the wedding. The only date the church was available anytime in the upcoming year was Super Bowl weekend. Since neither of us are football fans, we took it. So, we were married the day before Super Bowl XXXI.
Kathleen is so smart. She teaches cooking classes and helps people to become more confident in the kitchen. Toss her a bag of random (vegan) ingredients and you will soon have an amazing meal. And you will never have exactly the same thing twice. She is always trying different sorts of spices or mixtures so that she can understand how the different tastes and ingredients fit together.
But at the same time, when we had a waterline break in the yard, I sent my engineer wife out to figure out the problem. I ask her about the difference between retention and detention ponds. We both laugh at math jokes and talk about how little we remember differential equations, but remember that we both aces the classes.
She’s such an asset to the community. She leads the food pantry at her church and she coordinates drivers collecting food from stores and restaurants for our (much larger) community food pantry. She has grown the volume of food collected for distribution every year and she has added pet food and pet supplies to what the food pantry collects and distributes. She’s always looking for a way to help those in need.
Since this is a genealogy blog, I’ll touch on that as well. Kathleen comes from the Boston area. A few years back, when it got hard to make headway on my own lines, I took a look at her family. She’s got a lot different background than I do. Mine is all Old South, all arriving prior to the Revolutionary War. Two of her grandparents have very Irish backgrounds, arriving in Massachusetts during the Irish Potato Famine and working in the factories (mostly shoes and boots) around Boston for many years. One of her grandfathers comes from French-Canadian ancestry, coming to the Boston area from Prince Edward Island around the turn of the 20th century. And her paternal grandmother was a true New England native.
Through her father’s mother, Kathleen has multiple Mayflower lines as well as several more that arrived during the Great Migration. I find it funny that in the last 400 years, that part of the family has moved about 20 miles from Plymouth to Hanover, Massachusetts. Even funnier is the story of her Mayflower ancestors, John and Elinor Billington. The short story of it is that William Bradford wrote that this family of four caused more trouble on the Mayflower’s voyage than the rest of the passengers combined. Elinor was convicted of slander and put in the public stocks. One of the sons shot his father’s gun while on the Mayflower and may have burned down several neighbors houses. Ultimately, John Billington became the first murderer in New England and the first person executed in New England. Thankfully, things got better for the family over the years!
So, she comes from a family of adventurers, with adventurers in every generation. We’ve still got many more adventures ahead of us! And I know that Kathleen will always be my Ten.
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.
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.
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.
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.
My dad (Robert H. Dickson III) still has his grandfather’s badge and insignia from his cap from his days with the streetcar line.
As 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.
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 Southwest 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.
I know that I don’t have the writer’s gift that my aunt Linda Ridener Dickson has, nor that of my grandmother Susan Louise Bailey Dickson. The two of them set a high bar that I can only aspire to.
Susan Louise Bailey was born in October of 1919 in Hackett, Sebastian County, Arkansas. She was the youngest of Charles Council Bailey and Viola Tennison’s ten children. The farm where she was born and grew up had been in the family since 1840, purchased by Charles’ grandfather Francis Baker Bailey.
(I am convinced, though I have not yet proved, that the family was in Arkansas just prior to statehood. It appears that some of Francis’ sons claim to have been born in Arkansas with dates of birth that predate statehood, but the census is never a great source. Another post for another day.)
I think things were often tough on the farm. Through the Depression, I find lots of cases, especially after Charles died, where the farm was always under a lien for back taxes. Money appeared to be really tight. It wasn’t a big place and could never do more than scratch out a living on it. No one was going to get rich there.
With a rural and difficult childhood, you might be surprised to see Susan not only go to college, but also to get a Masters degree, so that she could grow in her career as a teacher and help take care of her family.
Grandmother was a teacher for a number of years in Southside High School in Fort Smith, Arkansas, teaching Math the whole time. She was a special teacher to many students, taking time with them and helping them to understand the concepts that often seemed beyond their grasp. So appreciated was she that she was recognized as Teacher of the Year.
I think she could be a tough teacher, expecting a lot of her students in terms of academics and in terms of behavior. But she could also be a lot of fun. She was always willing to go out of her way to support her students, attending football and basketball games and helping out with various activities.
And she could be an enforcer in class. She would growl at her students. It was a low, rumbly growl like an aggravated bear. They knew to behave when they heard her growl! But if that didn’t work, she kept a bullwhip on her desk! I don’t think she ever had to use it. Somehow, I think both of these are pedagogical techniques not commonly used in the classroom today.
But back to the gift for writing. Dad shared a brief essay that Grandmother wrote for a class at her funeral. This must have been in a freshman English class, based on the date – January 1938. The class was English 103a.
In an assignment on Appearance, Mechanics, Style, and Content, the students were asked to address the question of whether you would rather be a live pig or a dead Socrates. Here is Susan Louise Bailey’s classic answer to that question:
January 13, 1938
Appearance, Mechanics, Style, Content
Swinehood vs. Socrates
I must confess that to be either a live pig or a dead Socrates would not be very desirable to me; however, being a swine might have some merits. In a discussion of the subject a short while ago, a person said “at least Socrates is dead.” This statement cannot be disputed; but, dead though he is, I am sure that Socrates is unable to sleep peacefully because of the beratings of harassed students struggling with his philosophy and teachings. After an unhappy existence on earth, troubled with a scolding, brawling wife and stupid children, as well as many scornful enemies, to be troubled even in death by the chiding of one’s victims would be absolutely unbearable.
The swine, on the other hand, has few troubles in life and none in death if he has been a well-behaved swine. He has nothing to do but doze in the warm sunshine. If the sunshine becomes too warm, he has only to go to the shade to doze. He does not have to go to school because there is nothing which he needs to learn. It is unnecessary for him to work because he is provided with food and shelter. This lucky swine has no diet to be observed religiously because obesity holds no terrors for him; in fact, the more obese he is, the more admiration he receives. Most people, in considering the choice of a pig’s life, raise their hands in holy horror at the thought of the food given to swine. Of course, such food is very repulsive to human beings; but we must remember that the swine does not know anything about our mode of living and is, therefore, content with his lot. Some might object to the fact that the pig will soon be killed for food. Since this is true, the choice is not between being a live pig or a dead Socrates, but a choice between being a dead pig or a dead Socrates. After the pig is dead he is appreciated more than while he is alive, because people enjoy eating the pork roast and ham sandwiches into which he is transformed. Instead of cursing him for having ever lived, people think kindly of him and his spirit rests peacefully.
As I said before, neither idea appeals to me; but if I were forced to make such a choice, I would rather be a live pig who lives in indolent contentment and by his death brings pleasure to human beings. I hope that, after my death, I will be as kindly remembered as the swine is.
On this date, 18 June 1966, fifty years ago, I became a big brother. My little brother, Marcus Wren Dickson, was born. Since that time, he’s grown from a baby with a mohawk to a loving husband and father, a respected educator and researcher, a Base Ballist, and someone I am proud to have as my little brother.
There are far too many stories to tell about Marcus and the things we have done together. So, I’ll just leave it with the fact that I am proud of you and hope your second half-century is as good as the first. Happy Birthday! But, no matter how old we both get, I will always call you my little brother.