28 April 2015

Life Wasn't Easy

As part of this week's #52Ancestors "Where there's a will" I will write about my husband's grandmother. I have written about her many times. She is a dear sweet woman who has lived through some very difficult times, especially in her childhood.

Estelle Conner was born the 25 May 1929 in Hollis, OK in a little one room wooden shack to Ernest Ghamo Conner and Flora Mae Manning. She was a twin, but her twin brother died shortly after birth. By 1930 Ernest had picked up his small family and moved to Brown County, TX. He was likely following work, which he would do for a large portion of his life.

Let's back up and understand Ernest a bit. He wasn't called Ernest by his family. He was known as Joe Conner. He was born in Williamson, TX to William Monroe Conner and Laura Alice Barnett in 1898. They would spend the next 20 years moving around Texas. They were farmers after all and likely following farm work, but not having land of their own. Eventually they settled down in Harmon County, OK and owned a farm of their own. Unfortunately after William's death in 1936 Laura would loose the farm due to taxes. Ernest had 14 siblings. Can you imagine having that many siblings to share with?! As if life in rural Texas wasn't hard enough, I'm sure it was made more difficult by the shear number of mouths to feed. Yet somehow they came together and remained a very tight and loving family.

Rumor has it (according to Aunt Mattie) that Flora's family disowned her because she married an Indian (Ernest). My research isn't turning up enough Indian in the family to actually call Ernest Native American. Just speculation on my part, but I'd say it had more to do with their age than the fact that he had a small drop of Indian blood in him. Ernest was 13 years her senior and when Estelle and her twin brother were born, Flora was only 18 years old, so she was likely around 17 when they were married. I have yet to find that record.

Anyway Ernest and Flora end up in Amarillo, TX. In 1940 he is listed as a "common laborer" for the WPA. That was farm labor or ranching. Since the rest of his life involved moving farm to farm as a farm laborer and grandma never mentioned him as a cowboy, I'd say it's safe to say he was doing farm labor.

Ernest and Flora would go on to have four more children all born in TX: Mattie Josephine, Lotti "Laura" Bell, Billie Joe and Geneva. Geneva and Flora died shortly after Geneva was born due to complications of the birth in Mar 1940.  In the 1940 census taken on April 13 Ernest is renting a home in Amarillo. In the household are his four living children, Laura (his mother) and his two youngest sibling. What is unknown is how Ernest and his mother end up back in Hollis and the children removed from him. It may be that Laura traveled to Amarillo with her last two children still at home to help him with his children after the death of his wife and was in the process of bringing him and the children back to her home when the census was taken.

Regardless of how or when, Joe's children were taken from him and put into an orphanage in Tipton, OK. She wasn't in the home for long. It wasn't a bad place to live, they just missed their dad. He wanted his children back and the only way to do that was to get married again. Supposedly in that day people in the infinite (misguide) wisdom thought that a father was not capable of raising children on his own. So he married a widow who had a fifteen year old son. Her name was Bernice. Joe was able then to get his children back, but life with Bernice was anything but good. Estelle's only fond memories in that home was of a colored maid who loved the kids. She couldn't remember her name, but loved her. Joe finally had enough of this woman and how she made the children feel, so he packed them up and snuck away in the middle of the night. He went back to Oklahoma about 80 miles from his mother where they all helped him pick cotton on a cotton farm. From then on the children would go with him, living in tents on farms and help him with farm work.

A photo I restored of Grandma Estelle and two of her siblings: Laura (L) and Billie (R). Grandma is in the center.
Estelle never got more than a fifth grade education. She was too busy working on farms with her dad to survive and helping her dad raise her younger siblings, that education wasn't that important. I know at this point some of you may be thinking they were right to take the kids from him, but it only broke his and the children's hearts to be away from each other. Life was hard, but it made grandma and her siblings strong, independent, self sufficient people.

When he went back to Amarillo, TX he meet Curley, the woman he would later marry and spend the rest of his life with. The kids all loved her. Grandma missed her mother, but Curley was her second mother and she loved her just as much.

Joe was never able to afford a headstone to put on his wife or baby girl's grave. Several years ago my mother-in-law took Grandma on a road trip before her memory became too bad. They were able to visit the graves of Flora and Geneva Conner. Grandma was so moved that not only did they not have a headstone but the little bricks with their first name had to have layers of dirt removed before they could be seen. Grandma went that day and paid for headstone to be put on their graves.

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