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Using the Web
to Discover a Family's Past

by Robert G. Cowser
Robert G. Cowser
Perusing public records may cause you to recall people whose names you had not heard since your childhood. At times they may be people you never saw but only heard parents, other family members, or neighbors mention. In checking the 1930 U. S. census report for Precinct 2 in Hopkins County, Texas-the county where I grew up-I came across a list of the ten members of the Elmer Huddleston family, parents and eight children, the youngest of whom was less than a year old when the census taker visited the Huddleston farm home in April, 1930.

As soon as I read the name Huddleston, I recalled the ruins of a farm house located less than a mile from our house. When I was seven years old, I rode to the site with my father in a wagon pulled by our spotted mare and our brown mule. My father had to stop the team twice in order to open flimsy gates made of strands of barb wire and slender bois d'arc poles. We travelled down a narrow lane with sandy ruts on either side of an extended isle of jimson weeds and indigenous grass. We passed groves of blackjack and hickory trees. When we reached an open space, my father pointed to the weathered planks that once were a part of a house where the Huddleston family lived in 1930. It could not have been more than five or six years since the Huddleston family lived on the site, but the evidence that anyone had lived there was scant. I recall that Robert Frost wrote more than one poem about abandoned farms in New England, though his poems usually referred to shells of houses rather than to scrap piles of decaying boards.

"The bank foreclosed and Elmer Huddleston had to move his family off the farm. I don't know where they landed," my father said.

Because of a reference to a member of the Huddleston family a neighbor made in 1945, seven or eight years later, I learned that one Huddleston was living in California. I assumed until recently that the Huddlestons went to California when they left the farm near our house. Many others forced off their farms in Oklahoma, Texas, and Arkansas went to California. In 1937 my father's sister, her husband, and their three sons put their few possessions in a trailer behind their vintage Studebaker and went West to look for employment. John Steinbeck immortalized the thousands of famililes who made the trek to California in his novel The Grapes of Wrath.

I discovered recently, however, in the 1940 census roll for Hopkins County that seven of the Huddleston children and Lucy Huddleston, the mother, were living in a community fifteen miles from the farm where they had to leave in 1930. The father was not listed in the 1940 roll, and, though I could find no death certificate for Elmer, I assume he died at some time in the '30s. Dixie, the twenty-year-old daughter, was living a few miles from the other members of her family in the Rua Arthur household where she was working as a domestic.

Five years after the 1940 census was taken, a neighbor, Lillian Griggs, who had just returned from California where she and her husband had worked for a time in WWII-related industry referred to Vernon Huddleston, the oldest Huddleston child. My parents remembered Vernon, though he was still a teenager his family moved away.

One muggy Sunday afternoon in July, as my parents and I sat on the Griggses' porch, Lillian remarked that the weekend before she and her husband left California in order to return to their farm in Texas, they were visiting relatives in Madera. One of the relatives remarked that the previous weekend Vernon Huddleston had been arrested in Firebaugh, a town nearby. Apparently the charge was either vagrancy or public drunkenness. I wonder how many other Okies were arrested by California authorities during the Great Depression and faced similar charges. A relative of the Griggses went to the Firebaugh jail and posted bond for Huddleston.

Though I was mistaken for a time about the particular year the Huddleston family migrated to California, I learned in 1945 that at least one Huddleston was in California. Decades later when I perused the yearbooks published for Kingsburg, California, High School in 1946, I saw photos of Drue and Aubrey, two of Elmer Huddleston's sons. Drue played on the school's baseball team. The Huddlestons and other migrants must have been impressed by the diversity reflected in the California high school's yearbook. Filipinos, Japanese-Americans, African Americans, and Mexican-Americans were numerous in the classes pictured. The Huddlestons would never have encountered these particular ethnic groups in the Northeast Texas schools they attended before they went West.

Had I not lived long enough to become a Web user I would probably never have recalled visiting the site of the farm the Huddlestons were forced to leave during the Great Depression. Nor would I have become curious about a family only remotely connected to my childhood.

Robert G. Cowser
September 4, 2016 Guest Column
More Columns by Robert G. Cowser

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