Mary Elizabeth Baker…Tough, Resilient, Pioneer Woman

Baker, Mary E. Redone

Mary Elizabeth Baker, About 1900

Mary Elizabeth Baker (Mollie) was born on 28 Dec 1854 as the old year was quickly ticking toward the new. The second of four girls, she was born to Augustus Baker and Rebecca [Pryor] Baker in Vernon County, Missouri. She was born in an uneasy time, a time when slavery was a burning issue. And the Baker family lived in Missouri close to the Missouri/Kansas border, an area where pro-slavery sentiments were strong. To say the area was a tinderbox waiting to explode is an understatement. And explode it did affecting everyone who lived along the border.

Augustus Baker, Mollie’s father and an immigrant from Germany, most likely had anti-slavery sentiments. He was a well-respected man in his community which led to his being elected as captain of a small federal militia in Nevada, Missouri in March of 1863. Not two months later he was murdered, while his wife stood by his side, at the hands of John Frizzell, the one he defeated in the election in March. The whole incident will be described in my story about Augustus Baker.

Rebecca Baker was left a widow with four girls to raise. Emma Ann was eleven, Mollie was nine, and Laura Rebecca was four. Baby Adeline was a year old; nine months after her father’s death Adeline would also die. It was a sad time for the family.

It’s unclear just how well off the family was after the death of Augustus. He had several pieces of property and was a partner in Baker & Riggins. People bought and sold on credit in those days and there were many claims from those whom he owed money and those who owed money to him. There is no doubt that the disruption to the economic system during the Civil War made it difficult to settle his estate.

On 2 January 1866, the family dynamics changed when Rebecca married Samuel Shackelford. Sam had a son, John, who was born in 1860. Augustus Shackelford was born to the couple in 1867. As mentioned in my story about Thomas Bunn Ferguson, he was working for the Shackelford’s as a farm hand in 1870 in Richland Township, Vernon County, Missouri. He was twenty-six and Mollie was sixteen. They were married that year on 23 October 1870. Rebecca deeded part of the land homesteaded by Augustus to each of her daughters as they married. Mollie and Tom lived in a log house on her portion of this land.

By 1875, Mary and Thomas were living in the Fort Scott area. Adeline was three and Mary was pregnant with Walter who was born in May. Their farm and estate were valued at $3,000.00. Considering how the Civil War in that area almost brought commerce to a stand-still, the Ferguson’s would have been considered more successful than the average farmer. In May, at the time when Walter was born, vast swarms of grasshoppers, or Rocky Mountain locusts, descended upon the eastern part of Kansas and western Missouri. They covered the earth devouring wheat and young corn. The land the Ferguson’s owned in Richland Township had one of the largest infestations of locusts in Missouri. If they were farming on their land in Richland there is no doubt that their entire crops would have been lost. By June the swarms were gone and most farmers had time to replant their crops.¹

Locust, Public Domain from pixabay.com

Multiply This By Millions and You Have a Mess²

I can’t imagine what it would have been like having a new baby and dealing with locusts. Besides the crops, wells would have to be covered. The attempt to save the vegetable garden by placing a cloth over the plants would fail as the cloth would have been devoured. Even clothes could have been eaten off one’s back if one ventured outside. The sound would have been unbearable not to mention locusts everywhere one stepped. It must have been a terrible thing to experience.

Over the next several years the family continued to grow. Sophia was born in 1877, Thomas Carroll was born in 1880, and their last child, Samuel Bunn, was born on 27 February 1883. Tragedy struck the family later that year when Thomas died on 30 December 1883. He was thirty-nine. Mollie was a widow at twenty-nine with five children under the age of eleven.

To the rescue came James Ferguson. James was the brother of Thomas Bunn and uncle to Mollie’s children. She is shown living with him and the children in the 1885 Kansas census. The older children were attending school, she was keeping house, and James was farming. James most likely played a huge role in helping Mollie raise the children and keeping her farm afloat. He was single and would remain so throughout his life. He had land of his own and when he died in 1920 the bulk of his estate went to Mollie’s children.

Unfortunately, the 1890 U.S. census was destroyed so we have no idea of Mollie’s situation between 1885 and 1895. However, by 1895 the family is still in Kansas, the boys are older and are helping forty-year-old Mollie with the farm. Sophia is helping with the housework. Adeline has married and left home. Mollie has several parcels of land in Vernon County which she bought and sold during this time period. Walter, Tom, and Samuel are still helping Mollie with the farming in 1900. Sophia has married and left home.

Baker, Mary E.

Mollie Later in Life

All good things must come to an end, unfortunately. Each of the boys married between 1901 and 1906. Most likely they wanted to start families of their own and set their own course in life. Mollie never remarried and like most widows of that time, they often wound up living with their children. This is born out by records from 1910 in Sedalia, Missouri that show Mollie living with Thomas, Lola and their children, Mildred, Clyde, and Dorothy. She is still living with Thomas’ family in Webster Groves, Missouri in 1920. Two more children, Russel, and Mary have been born.

According to her death certificate, Mollie moved to Grass Valley, Nevada County, California about 1930 to live with her son Walter and his wife Hattie. Hattie died in 1931. She and Walter had no children so life was probably much calmer for Mollie who was seventy-five. When the 1940 census was taken in March, Mollie was living with Walter, and her widowed daughter, Rebecca Clary. Also living in the area was her daughter Sophia Emmerson.

Baker, Mary E. Death Certificate

Mollie’s Death Certificate

On the 21st of May, 1940, the life of this tough, courageous pioneer woman ended from a cerebral hemorrhage. She was eighty-five years of age. She had seen her father die at the age of nine, endured the trials and tribulations caused by the factious sides of Kansas and Missouri during the Civil War, lost her husband at the age of twenty-nine, and had somehow managed to raise five healthy children who went on to lead successful lives.

Baker, Mary E. HeadstoneMollie’s funeral was held on the 24th of May at the W. R. Jefford and Son Chapel in Grass Valley, California. She is buried in East Lawn Memorial Park Cemetery in Sacramento, California.

My husband’s Baker Line:

Augustus Baker m. Rebecca Pryor
Mary Elizabeth “Mollie” Baker m. Thomas Carrol Ferguson
Thomas Carrol Ferguson m. Lola Devin Pope
Russel Ferguson m. Mary Eizabeth Parry

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¹Patrick Brophy, Three Hundred Years, Historical Highlights of Nevada and Vernon
County Missouri (Boulder, Colorado). Donna G. Logan, DGL Info Write, 1993), p. 198.

²Locust, in the Public Domain from pixabay.com

Thomas Bunn Ferguson…Orphan

Ferguson, Thomas Bunn Children #2

Thomas Bunn’s wife Mollie (left) and children Thomas Carrol, Rebecca Adeline, and Sophia Ferguson.

There were three orphans…so goes the Ferguson family lore. The Fergusons came from North Carolina. The story between North Carolina and Missouri was lost. When family members became interested in the genealogy of the family, Grandma Ferguson, Lola, was in her eighties. She knew that Thomas Bunn Ferguson was one of the three orphaned children and their parents had come from North Carolina. Thomas Bunn was the father of her husband, Thomas Carrol Ferguson. It was assumed that the family lived in Fort Scott, Kansas but that led to a dead end.

Fast forward to today and we know that Thomas Bunn Ferguson was born on 28 February 1844 in Cass County, Missouri to Russel Ferguson and Sarah [Miller] Ferguson. Thomas was one of four children. Jackson (Jack) was born in 1842, Martha was born in 1847, and James C. was born in 1851. The family lived in Cass County, close to other Ferguson relatives who lived in Johnson County. The Ferguson clan had migrated from Tennessee to that area as early as 1821.

After the death of their parents in 1854, the three orphans were scattered among their Miller relatives in Vernon County about eighty miles south of Cass County. It’s interesting that none of them went to live with their Ferguson relatives that were close by. They lived with their Uncle Jacob Miller for a year as evidenced by a receipt turned in to the probate court for their upkeep. After that James went to live with his aunt, Margaret and uncle, William Miller. Martha went to live with her aunt, Elizabeth [Miller], and uncle, Jackson Beard. Thomas went to live with his uncle, Jacob Miller who was also the executor of Russel’s estate.

James and Martha were still living with their aunts and uncles when the 1860 census was taken, but Thomas was nowhere to be found. Then, in 1870, he is found living in Richland Township, Vernon County, Missouri with the Shackelford family. Rebecca was the widow of Augustus Baker and had married Samuel Shackelford after Augustus was killed by Bushwackers in 1863. Rebecca was the mother of Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) Baker.  Thomas was working as a farm hand for the Shackelfords. In the fall of that year, Mollie became the wife of Thomas on 23 October 1870. He was twenty-six and she was sixteen.

When Rebecca’s daughters married she deeded to them a part of the land homesteaded by their father, Augustus Baker. Thomas and Mollie lived in a log house on her portion of the land. This is in section thirty-one in Richland Township in Missouri. The land abutted the border between Missouri and Kansas. Mollie owned this land well into the 1900s. Many in Vernon County knew this land as the “Old Ferguson Farm.” According to Grandma Ferguson, it is on this land where the family lived the entire time the children were growing up.

Platbook Vernon County, 1903

From the State Historical Society of Missouri, Vernon County Plat Map, Page 26

However, the Ferguson’s also owned one-hundred and sixty acres in section fourteen located in Scott Township, Bourbon County, Kansas across the state line. Records show that the Fergusons sold a portion of their land in Missouri to J. H. Densmore on 28 March 1874. According to census record of 1875 and thereafter, the family lived in Scott Township in Kansas.

Within ten years, three lively children were born. Their first child, Rebecca Adeline was born in 1872. Walter Augustus followed in 1875, and Sophia in 1877. At the time of the 1880 census, taken on 3 June 1880, Thomas was listed as having the mumps. Hopefully he was over the mumps as a little more than one month later Thomas Carrol was born. The final child, Samuel Bunn, was born in 1883.

The family has often wondered where the middle name Bunn came from. There were no Bunn’s enumerated in any of the census records for Vernon County in Missouri or Bourbon County in Kansas. There was, however, a Bunn family who lived close to the Ferguson family in Cass County where Thomas’ mother and father lived. Perhaps this Bunn family was somehow related to Sarah’s Miller family. Perhaps more research can help to identify the connection between the Bunn’s and Ferguson’s.

Ferguson, Thomas B. Headstone

Grave Marker for Thomas B. Ferguson

Thomas Bunn Ferguson died on 30 December 1883 at the age of thirty-nine. Mollie was left a widow with a nine-month old baby and four children ranging in ages from three to eleven years old. My husband’s grandfather, Thomas Carrol, was three at the time. It’s safe to say that he remembered very little of his father. While the children weren’t orphans, they did lose their father at a young age like their father Thomas did.

Mollie continued to live on the farm in Kansas with her growing children. It is here that Thomas Carroll Ferguson and Lola Pope grew up in close proximity of each other which would eventually lead to their marriage. Thomas Bunn Ferguson is buried in the Coleman Cemetery in Richards, Vernon County next to his grandson Glenny, son of Thomas Carrol.

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My husband’s Ferguson line:

Moses Ferguson m. Elizabeth Cox

Russel Ferguson m. Sarah Miller

Thomas Bunn Ferguson m. Mary Elizabeth (Mollie) Baker

Thomas Carrol Ferguson m. Lola Pope

Russel Carrol Ferguson m. Mary Elizabeth Parry

Happy Birthday Dave Ferguson

ferguson-david-8th-grade-1960-61Happy birthday to David…the boy I first saw when I was thirteen and he was twelve. He stood at the top of the long wooden stairs that went from the first floor to the second floor of our junior high school in Maplewood, Missouri. He was a hall monitor. His job was to literally keep us pre-teens in line as we ascended or descended the stairs. He was funny and would tease me as I went by. He walked me home from school one day, but I was madly in love with someone else.  

Happy Birthday to David…he smoked cigarettes, and sat on the stone wall that separated the high school property from that of the municipal swimming pool. He sat there with the “hoods.” He didn’t fit their profile of sleeked-back hair, T-shirts, and jeans. He wore button down shirts and khaki pants and he smoked. He teased me as I passed the wall on my way home from school. 

Happy birthday to David…he sat across the aisle from me in our geometry class during our sophomore year in high school. He called me rabbi because someone had carved the Star of David on the wooden top of my school desk. One day, the boy who sat at the desk in front of me kept talking during class. The teacher warned him to be quiet, but he kept talking. Without warning the teacher hurled the chalk-board eraser at him. He ducked, and as I looked up, the eraser hit me square in the face leaving a cloud of dust all over me. The class laughed and David laughed. The teacher apologized. He probably would have been fired had he done that today.

ferguson-david-and-tonya-in-coatsHappy birthday to David…the boy who asked me to go on our first date to the Thurtene Carnival at Washington University in April; we were seniors in high school. That day I had my ears pierced by a mid-wife, who had to have been at least eighty years old. She lived over a sausage factory on the “Hill,” the Italian community in St. Louis. The mid-wife deadened my ears with ice, and with a long darning needle and a piece of thin twine, pierced both ears with shaking hands. She tied off the twine and told me to move the twine through my ears so the holes wouldn’t heal over and to clean my ears with Fels Naptha soap. Ouch! Those were the days before one was able to get their ears pierced at the mall. Needless to say I wasn’t feeling very well that night, and tried to hide the twine behind my ears. True to form he teased me about the rope in my ears. He was such a good sport!

Happy birthday to David…the boy who didn’t ask me to the Senior Prom or graduation; I waited and waited. To this day I’ve never quite forgiven him.

Happy birthday to David…the young man who saved his money to buy a foreign car; he bought a diamond ring instead. He eventually bought a convertible Triumph Spitfire. It was a powder-blue beauty. He married me and became a father when he was twenty years of age. Two’s a party but three’s a crowd so the Triumph was sold. 

Ferguson, Darin and Dad, About 6 weeks old.jpgHappy birthday to David…the young father who quit smoking in his twenties. Non-smoking ads were prevalent on TV. When our oldest son asked him to quit smoking he quit cold-turkey and has never smoked a cigarette since then. Cigars yes…cigarettes no. Talk about willpower.

Happy birthday to David…the father who never missed a game, scouting event, concert for his boys. He was a tough disciplinarian, but a rock. He is the husband, father, and grandfather who has been a steady force in our lives. He is the boy who had perfect attendance all through his school years and never missed a day of work until he had knee surgery in his late fifty’s. You can’t ask for a better role model for a boy.  

Happy birthday to David…the man who celebrates his birthday on Veterans Day. He got off on his birthday every year because it is a national holiday. No fair. My birthday is on Cinco de Mayo but I never got off on my birthday.

Happy birthday to David…the man I’ve known for fifty-five years and with whom I’ve lived the last forty-eight years. He still teases me, amuses me, and drives me crazy sometimes, well much of the time. We’ve weathered good times and bad, but mostly good.

As Cesare Pavese said, “We do not remember days, we remember our moments.” Happy Birthday Dave, we’ve had a lot of good moments. I pray we have many more.

tonya-and-dave-2015

 

Remembering Lola and Hattie Pope on Mother’s Day

flower_rose_green

 

 

 

Hattie and Lola Pope were sisters who grew up on the edge of the prairie near Fort Scott, Kansas. Born nine years apart, their father and mother were William David Pope and Elizabeth Ellen Smith. Down the road from them lived two brothers, Walter and Thomas Ferguson. Their parents were Thomas Bunn Ferguson and Mary Elizabeth Baker. The two families were destined to be intertwined when Lola married Tom and Hattie married Walter.

Lola, the younger sister, married early at the age of eighteen. Hattie married at the age of thirty-two. They were both tiny women. In a time when babies were born at home, Lola delivered six children; one died in infancy. Hattie delivered three children; all died. We don’t know if the children died at birth or in infancy, but how sad for Hattie. And while her children thrived, it must have been sad for Lola to see her sister lose one child after another.

Mother’s Day became a national holiday in 1914 and by the mid-1920s people were wearing red or white carnations to honor or remember their mothers. On Mother’s Day, Lola’s children wore a red carnation to church to honor her and a white one to remember her in later years after she was gone. While Hattie was loved by her husband and extended family, no children would wear a red or white flower for her. Was Hattie sad to know there would be no child to remember her when she was gone? Perhaps she was, or perhaps she accepted what life gave her.

Today people are more likely to send their mothers flowers for Mother’s Day or get together as a family to honor Mom. Hattie and Lola are gone, as are my mother Bonnie and my mother-in-law Betty. So Happy Mother’s Day. We love and miss you everyday. And this white rose is a symbol of our remembrance, especially for you Hattie, you are not forgotten.

Cowboys Rule

Ferguson, David on his Horse Altered

My husband Dave and I grew up in Maplewood, Missouri, a middle to lower middle-class community. World War II had been over for several years. The economy was growing, and anyone willing to work could find a means to make a living.

It was a time on Saturday evenings when boys pushed carts down our streets loaded with Sunday newspapers to sell to those who were ready to catch up on the latest news.

It was a time when we locked our skates onto our shoes and buzzed up and down sidewalks, balancing precariously trying to avoid the cracks in the concrete. And sometimes running home with skinned knees expecting a kiss from mom and a dab of stinging iodine on the wound to make it all better.

Those of us of a certain age remember a variety of people personally coming to our door to collect insurance payments, sharpen our knives, and deliver milk. On a hot summers day we would meet the man who was delivering ice for our “ice box’ in hopes he would chip off a little piece for us to help chase the heat away.

It was a time when Dave was about five or six and a man came through the area taking pictures, for a price, of the would-be cowboys in the neighborhood. The TV show, Hapalong Cassidy, was the rage at the time. Each week Hapalong, and his horse Topper, fought the bad guys. Is it any wonder that all little boys wanted to be like Hapalong?

So along comes the man with a pony, and Russ and Betty Ferguson saw the opportunity to make their little boy happy. It’s doubtful they were able to buy the full cowboy regalia; the outfit probably came with the pony. It doesn’t matter that the pony and outfit weren’t Dave’s. The picture is a snap-shot in time in the 1950s when life was simple and cowboys ruled. It was a time when a little boy, on a pony in full western regalia, could pretend that he was a cowboy, if only for a moment.

 

Memories of Spring

Spring has come early to my little corner of the earth. Every year I look forward to the sun and pop of color that springs up from lawns and trees. Maybe that’s why they call this time of year spring. 

I got my love of flowers from my mother. But even at a young age, I remember the flora and fauna of my homes as much as the details of the houses we lived in.

Our first house in Maplewood, Missouri was on Greenwood Avenue. My parents rented a three-room house that sat behind a larger house. This little house was probably the servant’s quarters. The big and small houses are long gone replaced by an apartment building.  

To get to our house from the street we had to walk on a sidewalk that wended its way along the side of the house to a gate in the back that divided our yard from the yard of the big house. Along this path to the back was a row of Rose of Sharon bushes. I’ll never forget the abundance of pink and white flowers when the bushes bloomed.  

Perhaps I remember the persimmon trees in our yard the most because my mother would yell at us not to walk on the persimmons after they fell because we would drag the mess in on our shoes. Also in the yard was a bush that had long, thin branches. This was the source of the dreaded “switch” of which my brother Bill and I were threatened if we misbehaved. It only took feeling the switch once and from that time on we quickly fell in line with the mere mention of “do you want me to get a switch?”

cornflower_ladybug_siebenpunkt

Corn Flower or Bachelor Button

Our second house was on the corner of Rannels and Oakland Avenue in Maplewood. It was in this house that my love for flowers grew. My mother loved peonies and planted two pink bushes close to the sidewalk that led to our back-door from the street. On the east fence was a long row of pink, white, and blue cornflower also known as bachelor buttons. The flowers were so prolific that they reseeded themselves every year. On the south side was a bed of purple iris that extended the entire length of the fence. In the middle of the yard was a circle of a variety of roses. The fragrance of a rose today takes me back to that little yard I enjoyed so much.

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Peonies and Iris in My Garden

By today’s standards, this was the simplest of gardens, but it was loved by my mother and sowed the seeds of my love for gardening today. So I welcome all that goes with spring– sunshine, the greening of grass, the yellow of the daffodils, and the aroma of flowering trees and bushes. Thanks Mom!

Remembering Christmas Past

Our youngest son and wife are off with prayers for their safe journey home. I’ve turned to “undressing” the 2015 Christmas tree of its finery. Our tree is not a glitzy, glamorous tree filled with big shiny balls and glittery ribbon. Rather it is a tree of all Christmas pasts filled with ornaments gathered through the years representing the ever-changing moments in our life and the lives of our children.

Our first hand-made Santa ornament and a sugar and icing ornament made in a wooden mold from Germany

 

Our first ornaments were hand-made. Being short on funds we went to the dime store and purchased craft items that turned into Angels floating on clouds, Santa Claus, and other shiny orbs. Only the Santa remains.

One of my favorites is an Angel of gold paper and a white doily for wings made by our oldest son when he was in kindergarten. Today it is a tattered Angel but no less loved. This ornament was the first of many other ornaments made by the children while in school and cub scouts. The last “school-made” ornament to hang on our tree was crafted by our granddaughter Mollie last year.

Cherished ornaments include egg white and sugar ornaments that my mother and I purchased from a gentleman in south St. Louis County. These ornaments were made using wooden molds brought to the United States from Germany. The ornaments are fragile works of art.

Christmas Ornament2

Through the years we have added to our home-made ornaments and been given many more from family and friends. There is a wooden ornament painted by my mother, a little paper church with stained glass windows made by my brother, and vintage ornaments that hung on my husband’s childhood trees.

We have decorated 48 Christmas trees. Each year, as the ornaments are hung on the tree, there is anticipation and hope for another Christmas to be celebrated and remembered. And each year as the ornaments are taken from the tree there is a little bit of nostalgia as they are put to bed for another year. 

Our parents decorated their Christmas trees and the circle of life has gone on as we and our children have decorated ours. Merry Christmas to all and let the memory of your Christmas warm your heart for the year to come.

 

 

 

 

Mary Elizabeth Parry Ferguson…Sweet and Pretty

Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Parry

Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Parry

If anyone could put in a request for a great mother-in-law, they would ask for Mary Elizabeth Parry Ferguson. Born of Welch stock, she was born April 23, 1911 in Youngstown, Mahoning County, Ohio. Her parents, Thomas Morgan Parry and Sarah Elizabeth Mitchell were first generation Americans, their parents being born in Wales. She was the third child of four. Her older sister Margaret was born in 1903, brother Howard was born in 1909, and her younger sister Jane was born in 1913. They were a close-knit family.

We know a bit about Betty’s childhood from an interview that her grandson Brian conducted for a college course in 1991. Betty was ninety at the time but mentally sharp. She remembered the false Armistice during World War I that took place on November 7, 1918. Her sister Margaret was fourteen, soon to turn fifteen, and was invited to attend a celebration of the Armistice. Not allowed to go the party, and very disappointed, Margaret soon found the war had not really ended; however the war would end a few days later. 

Sometime after 1920 the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. Betty remembered the family purchased a large, three-story, brick house close to the Missouri Botanical Garden. The girls shared a large front bedroom, while her parents shared the middle bedroom. Her brother Howard had his own room and a student, who studied Botany at the Missouri Botanical Garden, rented another room. The house had electricity, running water, and a coal furnace provided heat.

When young, the Parry children roller skated in the summer and went sled riding during the winter. Their mother Sarah read to the children at bedtime; as the children grew older reading was the biggest pastime, one that lasted a lifetime for Betty. Their father Tom built a crystal set, which according to Wikipedia, was sold and homemade by millions, and “contributed to the development of radio as an entertainment medium around 1920.”

Holidays were celebrated with family dinners. The family always had a Christmas tree. The children were not able to go into the room to see the tree until all the candles were lit. Santa placed oranges, apples, and nuts in each child’s stocking. Their mother made them a gift and each child received a toy. The social life of the family revolved around the Shaw Methodist Church. The children were in Christmas plays and Easter pageants. One year Betty remembered she was supposed to be a mean girl in a play. Everyone commented that she couldn’t make herself mean enough, and that was true of Betty.

When Betty was in the eighth grade, her grandmother Margaret Parry, sent each of the children one hundred dollars; a lot of money in those days. Betty bought a bicycle and a graduation dress with the money.

Betty attended Bryan Milanphy grade school and Roosevelt High School, a state of the art school considered a progressive model for other schools in St. Louis. She graduated from Roosevelt in 1928. Next to her picture was the poem, “Sweet and pretty, Gentle and true, she always has a smile for you.” No truer words could be said about her throughout her life.

During the depression the family survived by pooling their money together. Betty worked as a file clerk for the Frisco Railroad, Jane worked for Ralston Purina and Howard was a printmaker. During this time their mother, Sarah, suffered from colon cancer and died in 1937.

And then Betty met Russ on a blind date and their life together began.

The Ferguson Kids … Introducing Russel Carrol

Russ Ferguson's Baby Picture

Russ Ferguson’s Baby Picture

I first met Russ Ferguson when I attended a family bar-b-q in 1965. I was dating his son David and it was the first time I was to meet my future in-laws. The family was warm and welcoming and I loved them at first sight. When introduced, I was asked to call him Russ and his wife Betty. Even though they were more like mother and father to me, rather than in-laws, I always called them by their first names.

Russel Carrol Ferguson was born December 16, 1912 at the family home in Webster Groves, Missouri. The fifth child of six born to Thomas and Lola Ferguson, he lived in Webster Groves at the beginning of his life and the end of his life until his death in 1990. He had two older sisters, Mildred and Dorothy, an older brother Clyde and a younger sister Mary.

In 1914, as the city of St. Louis was celebrating its 150th anniversary, people were moving to the suburb of Webster Groves. Webster Groves, about eleven miles from downtown St. Louis, was dubbed “Queen of the Suburbs” by developers and was a fast growing community. By that time the family had lived in the community for several years. I’ve seen pictures of Webster Groves at the beginning of the 1900s and many of the roads were still unpaved. In fact, Grandma (Lola) Ferguson stated this in a history she wrote about Webster Groves. It was a great place to raise a family; the houses were large and away from the smog filled skies that plagued St. Louis at the time.

Russ went to Avery Elementary School, which was one of the first schools in the area to have a kindergarten. Russ was left-handed, and the teachers forced him to write with his left hand. His father tried to get the teachers to let him write with his left hand, but they refused to listen. This gave Russ a bad taste for school and he eventually dropped out of school in the 11th grade. He worked as a soda jerk for a local pharmacy which allowed him access to “premium” liquor during prohibition. Apparently doctors could write prescriptions for “medicinal” alcohol. I’m sure Russ was the hit of many parties as he pulled out his “Bottled in Bond” whiskey while everyone else had home-brewed alcohol.

Betty and Russ

Betty and Russ

Russ and Betty met each other on a blind date to Cahokia Mounds, Illinois, an Indian burial grounds across the river from St. Louis. Russ knew Bob Wood; Betty worked with Esther Church. Bob and Esther knew each other and set them up on the date. They liked to party and many times went dancing and gambling at a place called the Whitmore in St. Louis County.

Russ married Mary Elizabeth Parry on September 4, 1936. They married in the parlor of the home of a minister in Union, Franklin County, Missouri. They were able to keep their marriage a secret for several years. During those times it was likely that a woman would lose her job if she married. Betty’s mother was ill with cancer and Betty, her sister Jane, and brother Howard, lived at home and helped financially provide for their mother. Unfortunately Betty’s mother died of colon cancer in 1937. By 1940 Russ and Betty were living at 231 Oakland Avenue, a four-family flat, in Maplewood, Missouri.

I’ve Been Workin’ on the Railroad

Lola with Mildred

Lola with Mildred

Within two years after the birth of their first daughter Mildred, the young Ferguson family moved to Sedalia, Missouri. While in Sedalia, Tom took a job with the U.S. Postal Service as a railway mail clerk. This job provided a good middle class income for the family that would see them safely through the Great Depression of the 1930s. His route went from Sedalia, Missouri to Parsons, Kansas. While in Sedalia, their second daughter Dorothy, was born May 2, 1908. Clyde followed shortly being born on May 7, 1910.

In June of 1911 the family moved to Webster Groves, Missouri. Tom was transferred to St. Louis where he worked on the St. Louis to Sedalia line. Mary Elizabeth Baker, Tom’s mother, lived with the family in Sedalia and moved to Webster Groves with them. She stayed until the early 1920s when she moved back to Fort Scott, Kansas. Russ was born December 12, 1912 and Mary was born June 13, 1915.

Railway postal clerks spent long periods of time away from home. They loaded the mail onto the car, sorted, cancelled, and filled sacks with the mail for delivery to post offices across the U. S. The postal rail car, officially known as the Railway Post Office (RPO) car, located behind the locomotive, was in a precarious position in the event of an accident. In early days they were made of wood making the cars vulnerable to fire. Because postal rail cars carried mail containing money, jewels, and other valuables, they were often the focus of robberies. I’m sure Tom carried a shotgun with him while working. Railroad postal clerks were looked upon as the elite of the postal service and Tom Ferguson was one of them.

    Sorting the Mail on the RPO

Sorting the Mail on the RPO