VILLAGE TOUR - Sunday, Aug. 7 at 10 a.m. Click on "Tours" for info.
At right, Hank and Betty Jean (Cornwell) Gaines in front of the farmhouse at 206 Gotcher. Mrs. Gaines' grandparents owned the property that's now the Lake Dallas Tiny Home Village when it was a farm and sold it to Urban-Retro with the request that the farmhouse not be torn down the pecan trees left alone. Mrs. Gaines' parents were Ralph and Mary Helen Cornwell. Her grandparents were Luther Ellis and Georgia Annie Parkinson Cornwell. Her uncle Ellis Tilford Cornwell wrote an autobiography that details his life, including his time in Garza. When the lake was built the community's name changed to Lake Dallas. His story, printed below, is a wonderful account of life in the community.
Coleman Cornwell. Married Ann Indian. They had the following child:
1. Francis Cornwell, was born in 1745 in Pennsylvania, Virginia. He married Mary Hanes before August 1769 in Virginia. She was born about 1745 and died before March 1827 in Smith County, Tennessee. He died before August 1834 in Smith County, Tennessee.
Francis Cornwell was born in 1745 in Pennsylvania, Virginia. He served in the Revolution. He married Mary Hanes before August 1769 in Virginia. She was born about 1745 and died before March 1827 in Smith County, Tennessee. He died before August 1834 in the community of Difficult in Smith County, Tennessee.
Francis and Mary Hanes Cornwell had the following children:
1. John L Cornwell was born Aug. 8, 1769 in Virginia. He married Mary Garland on May 28, 1792. He died in 1813 in Smith County, Tennessee.
2. Samuel C. Cornwell was born on March 16, 1772 in Virginia. He married Rhody A. Moore on Dec. 28, 1811 in Pittsylvania, County, Virginia.
3. Anna Cornwell was born on Oct. 1, 1775 in Virginia. She married Augustine S. Thorn. She died in 1847 in Smith County, Tennessee.
4. Dolly Cornwell was born Sept. 21, 1782 in Virginia. She married John Flippen. She died before Dec. 11, 1830.
5 Milly Cornwell was born Mary 28, 1784. She married Charles Cornwell. She died on Oct. 11, 1877.
6. Foucher C. Cornwell was born Feb. 27, 1785 in Virginia. He married Betsy Cheatham on Oct. 5, 1807 in Pettsylvania County, Virginia. He died before June 1830 in Smith County, Tennessee.
7. Thompson Cornwell was born June 4, 1788 in Virginia. He married Jane Yeahman on March 26, 1812 in Pettsylvania County, Virginia. He died Oct. 11, 1877.
8. Silas C. Cornwell was born March 18, 1792 in Virginia. He married Jane Shields on Feb. 15, 1813 in Pittsylvania County, Virginia.
Thompson Cornwell was born June 4, 1788 in Virginia. He married Jane Yeahman on March 26, 1812 in Pittsylvania County, Virginia. She was born on March 16, 1794 in Virginia. She died after Oct. 18, 1860 in Tennessee. He died Oct. 11, 1877.
Thompson and Jane Yeahman Cornwell had the following children:
1. Elijah W. Cornwell was born June 19, 1813 in Virginia. He married Paulina Mickleborough. He died in November 1891.
2. Enoch Cornwell was born Sept. 3, 1814. He married Lucy Austin on March 2, 1851 in Sumner County, Tennessee. He married Nancy A. Beard on Oct. 2, 1856 in Sumner County, Tennessee.
3. Barnett Cornwell was born Nov. 4, 1817 in Virginia. He married Mahala Sutton before 1845 in Smith County, Tennessee. He married Martha Sutton. He died on April 28, 1898.
4. Perthana Cornwell was born March 31, 1816. She died about 1920 in Smith County, Tennessee.
5. Josiah Cornwell was born on Nov. 4, 1820 in Tennessee. He married Parzetta Lorance on Feb. 27, 1845 in Sumner County, Tennessee. He died before 1880.
6. Susannah Cornwell was born Feb. 20, 1822.
7. Luranie Cornwell was born Feb. 26, 1824 in Smith County, Tennessee. She married Silas C. Russell on Feb. 12, 1846 in Tennessee. She died before Oct. 21, 1868.
8. Amanda Cornwell was born Feb. 19, 1826 in Smith County, Tennessee. She married William B. Williams before 1948 in Smith County, Tennessee.
9. Foushee Cornwell was born July 13, 1828. He married Sarah Martin Garrett on Dec. 24, 1851 in Sumner County, Tennessee. He died on March 5, 1915.
10. Matlida Cornwell was born June 21, 1832 in Smith County, Tennessee. She married William Parkhurst in Tennessee. He died in 1862 while serving in the Civil War. She married Silas. C. Russell. She died March 9, 1915.
11. Jane Cornwell was born on May 22, 1834. She maried Silas F. Austin. She died in March 24, 1907.
12. Thompson Cornwell, Jr. was born August 16, 1838. He died young and unmarried.
Josiah Cornwell was born on Nov. 4, 1820 in Tennessee. He married Parzetta Lorance on Feb. 27, 1845 in Sumner County, Tennessee. He served as a Private in B Company, 7th Calvary Battalion and Private Co. E, 22nd (Barteau's) Calvary in the Confederate Army. He died before 1880. She was born about 1822 in Tennessee.
Josiah and Parzetta Lorance Cornwell had the following children:
1. F.R. Cornwell was born in 1846.
2. J.S. Cornwell was born in 1854.
3. R.M. Cornwell was born in 1855.
4. Elijah Hazelwood Cornwell was born on Jan. 5, 1860 in Hartsville, Macon, Tennessee. He married Lydia Calpernia Meadow on March 11, 1875 in Hartsville, Tennessee. He died Nov. 9, 1930.
Elijah Hazelwood Cornwell was born on Jan. 5, 1860 in Hartsville, Macon, Tennessee. He married Lydia Calpernia Meadow, daughter of Joel W. Meadow and Mary Ellen Sullivan, on March 11, 1875 in Hartsville, Tennessee. He died Nov. 9, 1930 in Lake Dallas, Texas. He is buried at Swisher Cemetery in Lake Dallas. She was born on Dec. 24, 1856 in Tennessee and died in October 1929 in Lake Dallas, Texas. She is buried at Swisher Cemetery in Lake Dallas.
Elijah Hazelwood and Lydia Calpernia Meadow Cornwell had the following children:
1. Polina Alencia Cornwell was born March 2, 1876 in Tennessee. She married John Thomas Johnson on Oct. 26, 1904 in Denton, Texas. She died May 1, 1927.
2. William Lee Cornwell was born Nov. 5, 1877 in Macon County, Tennessee. He married Margaret Howe about 1904. He died in November 1969.
3. Ira D. Cornwell was born Jan. 23, 1884 in Tennessee. He died July 2, 1929.
4. Joe W. Cornwell was born on Sept. 16, 1880 in Tennessee. He maried Obye Dial. He died in April 1965.
5. Luther Ellis Cornwell was born April 7, 1882 in Tennessee. He died July 21, 1927.
6. E. Guy Cornwell was born April 9, 1891 in Tennessee. He died April 6, 1954.
Luther Ellis and Georgia Annie Parkinson Cornwell had the following children:
1. Christine Edith Cornwell Binnio - 1910-1993
2. Ellis Tilford Cornwell - 1912-2002
3. Ralph A. Cornwell - 1915-1991
4. Audell Cornwell - 1917
5. Jesse Bill - 1919-1998
6. William Evann Cornwell - 1922-1974
7. Mary Louise Cornwell Bell - 1923-2012
8. Tom Roby Cornwell - 1926-2012
9. Sarah Ellis Cornwell Cain - 1925-1995
Ellis Tilford Cornwell (written in May 1991)
I’ve been wanting to tell my story for a long time. One reason I wanted to put this on paper is because people just won’t listen. Lots of times when I’d tell someone of my experience, someone else would cut in or they just wouldn’t care about hearing it. None of my four brothers and four sisters have heard most of my story. I sure don’t want to offend and will not offend anyone. I will write only what everyone can read or hear.
I will call it MEMORIES, TRIALS, TRIBULATIONS, EXPERIENCE, ETC.
I was born in Garza, Texas in 1912. Mother had a black nanny stay with her when Christene and I were born and for a while after. The black lady’s daughter had a girl and boy about the same time Christene and I were born and she named them after us – Christene and Tilford.
Daddy owned and ran a General Mercantile store. We were considered well off. Our streets were not named and we had no house numbers, no mail delivery. We had to go to the post office to get mail or mail a letter. Daddy and Mother were very devoted. They made a fine couple. They both were pretty strict on us kids.
Mother had lots of jobs, taking care of us kids, the house and most everything else. When we needed a switching, she sent us after a switch – and if it wasn’t big enough, she sent us after a bigger one. Sometimes I went back three or four times. I soon learned to get one big enough the first time. They could hear us squalling in the other end of town. She said a kid had to be broke, same as a horse or mule. We never heard of a kid getting an allowance back in those days.
We didn’t get to see Daddy a great deal. He got up at 4 in the morning, cooked his breakfast and went to the store before we woke up except in the springtime when he worked in the garden before going to the store. Mother had a cow. Her name was Babe. No one but Mother could milk Babe unless it was an emergency such as when Mother had a baby. Babe was really a pet. Mother let all of us kids try to milk her which, of course, we couldn’t. Mother would squirt milk into our mouths. Babe was so gentle, we kids would walk under her and between her legs. I think if Mother could have, she would have timed having a baby when Babe was dry. I don’t think Daddy could milk a cow; I never saw him try. Daddy wanted Mother to let him take Babe to a bull. She never let him so Babe never had a calf.
We had about two dozen hens, one happy rooster and plenty of good fresh eggs. Mother set the hens when they were ready in the Spring. After they hatched, we had little chickens running all over the place. We raised a pig each year and butchered it in the early Winter. I always got the job of grinding the sausage and building a fire under the pot to render the lard. Boy, was that crackling cornbread good. The tenderloin and sausage was better than any we get at the store now. Plenty of sage and other ingredients to make them laripen.
Our house was on a large lot, about an acre. We had a large yard and a garden. It was all fenced. Daddy made a fine garden each Spring. He planted corn, beans, peas, potatoes, carrots, onions, tomatoes and some other vegetables. He was in the garden at daylight each morning during the gardening season. Each year, Mother put up peaches, pears and berries and made jelly and preserves. We really ate good. We had hot buttermilk biscuits to butter, sausage or bacon (until it ran out), jam or jelly and coffee. About twice each week, we’d have hot biscuits and gravy with all the rest. We had eggs four or five times each week. We had fried chicken two or three times a week as long as the fryers lasted. A pot of red beans with a big piece of side meat to season them and a pot of fresh potatoes and two big pans of cornbread. We were a hungry bunch; we didn’t have very many leftovers.
Grandpa and Grandma lived across the street from us. Their garden was large – about the same size as ours. They had a row of dew berries and a row of black berries. I haven’t seen any dew berries since and I’ve wondered why many times. I think they were the best tasting berries I ever ate.
Daddy had built a picket fence at the front of the yard near the dirt road. He nailed the palings to 2x4s flatwise at top and bottom. We kids walked the 2x4s most every pretty day. The palings were sharp at the top. It’s a wonder some of us didn’t get hurt bad. Daddy built a three-car garage, a chicken house and the outhouse. The garage had no doors. It was open in the front. The only time a car was in the garage was when it was raining and Daddy was working on it. It was our storage house. The cow feed, chicken feed and all our junk and anything else you can think of was in there.
Daddy never owned a lawn mower. The cow eating the grass and we kids running on it kept it short. Mother kept having a baby about every two years. When I was 10 and could get hold of a dime somehow, I got out on the highway and caught a ride to Denton and went to the show and highwayed back after the show. It was 10 cents until you were 12 years old. Every Saturday in warm weather if it wasn’t raining or something didn’t stop me, I went to the show. Even after I was 12, I got in for a dime. I told them I was 11. I never failed to get a ride to Denton or catch a ride back home.
I never knew of Daddy or Mother attending church. We kids went to the Methodist Church (where the Lake Dallas Library is located) which was near our home. I was baptized in Hennen's muddy tank out west of town when I was 12. They must have had a quota to fill. I had never studied the
Bible. They put the pressure on us. They got the pretty girls to persuade several of us boys to join the church.
Mr. Wilson raised cotton each year just north of town. We older kids picked cotton each year and bought our own clothes.
Mr. Carter “west of town” raised the largest watermelons in the county. His melons won the prize several years at the county fair in Denton. Each year when the melons were ripe several of us boys would sneak through the woods behind the melon patch, run in and pull two or three. We’d take them out in the woods and eat them. Mr. Carter was pretty sure we did it, but he never caught us.
One day at school, the big boys were practicing baseball. I wanted to play with them, but they told me I was too little. They told me I could be the pig-tail. The school had a horse shed to shelter the horses the boys from way out in the country rode to school. The baseball field had no back stop. The catcher didn’t even have a mask. A foul ball went straight back into the horse shed. It was under the hind legs of a little sorrel pony. When I reached for the ball I got kicked in the head. I had a headache for a few days, but I never told anyone.
We had two swimming holes. One was in Hickory Creek a mile south of town. I learned to swim down there by first walking with my hands in water just deep enough to come to my chin, kicking my feet and it wasn’t long till I was swimming pretty good. The other swimming hole was Elm Creek three miles east of town. Uncle John took a wagon load of us boys over there most Sundays in the summer for a year or so. The land over there is slick black soil. We would pitch water up on the bank and climb up to slide down into the water. What a dumb bunch of kids. Every time we’d slide down the tree roots would skin our butts. One time was enough for most of us. On his first slide down, Homer caught his little toe on a root and almost broke it off. His Dad took him to Dr. Taylor who tried to put it back in shape and taped it to his other toes. He had to cut holes in his shoes to keep it from touching his toe for a long time. Big Elm was damned up to make Lake Dallas.
One fellow had several calves out on his ranch. We had lots of fun trying to ride them. One I tried to ride had little stubby horns. He pitched me forward. One of those horns stuck in my face. I still have the scar.
One day one of the basketball girls came to school without any pants on. How did I know? I don’t know why many of us young boys were standing on the sideline that particular day. The girls were shooting baskets. She fell down and her dress went way up. You can imagine the scrambling she did. That’s the kind of thing one never forgets.
One day Daddy came home in the afternoon and saw smoke coming out from the cracks of our outhouse. He told the people in town the smoke was boiling out of the cracks. He thought the thing was on fire. When he opened the door, there was never two kids as surprised as Ralph and me. We threw the nasty things down the hole, but way too late. We were always into something. We had picked up cigarette and cigar butts down behind Sweatman's Drug Store. We got the hardest whipping we ever got. At least I did. Can you believe an inch board of a bale of shingles? I lied to Daddy and Ralphy told him the truth. I couldn’t sit down for several days.
Ralph and I and Lynn and Dean got to be pretty good woodsmen. Lynn and Dean got their Grandad’s team of mules and wagon. We got permission to cut down elm trees down on Hickory Creek. We borrowed a crosscut saw and an axe. Mr. Brown, out in the country, sharpened the saw and the blacksmith sharpened the axe. Neither charged us. We could make a tree fall just where we wanted it to. We cut enough wood for both families for both heaters and cook stoves for several years.
Uncle Ira (they called him Shorty) was the leader of a gang of the older boys in town. They named themselves the R.A.D.N.s – Raggedy Assed Do Nothings. They ran all of us younger kids out of town at eight o’clock. One night Henry Hooker stayed in town after eight. The gang took in after him. He crawled up under the old Oddfellors Hall. One of the boys went to get Shorty. He was slow getting there because he was pretty well souped up that night. Henry was the brother of the girl Shorty was dating, so he had to be careful what he said or did. Talking pretty loud he said, “Henry, you are a good boy, but go home God damn you!” They got into all sorts of trouble, but they didn’t worry. There was no jail in town.
Our cow, Babe, was getting old. She was drying up. Daddy knew a fellow out in the country who had several jersey cows. Daddy traded Babe for the pick of the herd. The rancher said Daddy picked the best one he had. The hard part was when the rancher brought the jersey and put the rope around Babe’s neck and started to lead her off. If ever a cow was loved, Mother loved that cow. She could hardly stand to see her leave. She put her arms around Babe’s neck; then the tears came. Of course, all of us older kids cried too. Babe was the best cow of all – the pet of the family. We didn’t think it possible that we could get another to take her place, but the jersey came close. In a few weeks she became just about as gentle as Babe. Mother named her “Pet.” Both cows gave about the same amount of milk; about one and a half gallons each milking and she was just about as easy to milk.
Daddy’s health started failing and he sold the store and became a Model T mechanic. I handed tools to him when he was under the car. The 25 was an open end wrench, 7/16 x ½. It had 25 printed on it. The special was an open end ½ x 9/16. I don’t know why he called it special. Daddy invented two things for the Model T – crank shaft take up and plug in magneta post. He let a fellow named Honeycutt take them to the patent office. He never saw or heard from him again. Ralph and I became pretty good Model T mechanics. We heard Dad offered to bet some fellow in town that I could completely tear down a Model T and put it together again and it would run. I wasn’t sure I could. I was glad the guy didn’t take his bet.
Uncle Ira loved to fish and hunt. He had a trot line set down in Big Elm Creek where he had his boat. One day he took me and Daddy with him to run his trot line. On the way to the creek, the weeds were knee high. Uncle Ira leaned over and caught the tail of a black snake and popped its head off. It fascinated me. I wondered if I could do it. I got my chance some time later. I was walking one day down close to the lake. There was a row of blackberries. A snake was crawling on top of the vines. I caught it by the tail and tried to pop its head off. Instead of popping its head off, out popped a green snake the copperhead had swallowed. I didn’t know snakes very well. I‘m afraid I would have been snake bit if it didn’t have the green snake in it.
We kids seldom had a nickel back in those days. I don’t think Daddy ever owned a gun. Daddy and his four brothers were bald. I inherited baldness. Daddy’s rheumatism kept getting worse. He heard of salt baths in mineral water at Marlin. He loaded Mother and us kids in our 1916 Model T and off we went. I watched the guy rubbing salt on his back, then he would lay in the mineral water for 30 minutes or so. He thought they were really helping him all the time we were down there. We stayed about a week. On the way back home, he told us he didn’t think they helped him very much. He kept hearing about the mineral water at Glen Rose, so a few months later he loaded us in the car and off to Glen Rose we went. We kids really had a ball. We ran up and down the creek and explored everything. We stayed about a week down there and the same thing. He felt better while he was there and again he found out on the way home they didn’t help him. He kept working on cars, but making little money.
We had a bath tub, but no running water in the house. We had a well. It was 35 foot deep, walled with brick. I climbed down in it a few times to clean it out. We had no pump; we had to draw water with a bucket on a rope through a pulley. The water from the well was too hard to wash clothes. Our neighbor next door had running water to a faucet in their back yard. There was no limit to the amount of water they could use. They told us to get all we wanted. I had the job of carrying water for the wash pot and for rinse water and build the fire under the pot to keep it going.
Daddy was about out of money when he met a merchant in Denton because we needed something to eat. He traded our home for a home in East Texas plus $300 in groceries. He said we would cut cross ties for the railroad in East Texas. By 1927, our family had grown to 10 (five boys and three girls). I got a job selling papers, The Dallas Morning News. I bought a bicycle for $8. I don’t think I ever got it paid for.
One day, the druggist (who was our neighbor) and I decided to go fishing in Lake Dallas. It just happened to be three days before the season opened. Boy, did they take our line. We caught eight big crappies. They were called barn doors. Up the bank by a tree there was a hole filled with leaves and each time we’d catch one we’d put it in the hole to cover it with leaves. Just after we had put #8 in the hole and covered it up, the Game Warden drove up. He asked us if we were having any luck. I said, “No, I guess they’re not biting today.” Boy, don’t you know we were afraid those fish would flop. The warden then asked, “What are you fishing with?” We told him minnows and he said, “You’d better get rid of them. You may catch something you can’t keep.” We poured them out in the lake while he watched. Then he got in his car, turned around and left. Boy, were we glad. We walked up the hill to where we saw his car heading out. We then went back, got our fish and walked home. We had enough for both our families to have a big fish supper.
Dad would walk to Denton if someone didn’t give him a ride and would walk back with a load of groceries. On that black day in our lives (especially Mother’s) he had gone to Denton and carried a sack of flour all the way home – 10 miles. He lay on the bed and told Mother he felt awfully bad. She and I started rubbing him. He had told me many times I was his best rubber. He died in Mother’s arms about 30 minutes after he got home. What an awful shock to Mother, six months pregnant with Sarah. No one could know her feelings.
We kids couldn’t believe Daddy was gone. We were like robots, just standing around. I believe he didn’t want to die then, but the stress of so many things, no car, no money, his bad health, no way to support his family of eight children with one on the way. I don’t know, but there may have been other things. I believe a situation like his would be too much for any man’s heart. To say we were stunned is putting it mildly, especially Mother and us older kids. No one knew what to do. Mother sent Ralph to get Dr. Taylor. He came and pronounced Daddy dead, filled out all the papers and asked mother if she would like to have Daddy embalmed. He said she could. She said yes, so the people came in two or three hours. Most of you have never seen a person being embalmed. I watched while my Daddy was embalmed. The feeling I had cannot be described. Still, I can’t think about it without tears welling up in my eyes. I don’t recommend it to anyone. Most of the neighbors came over to see if they could help. The death certificate said he died of heart failure. Everyone knows that everyone who dies, dies with heart failure. I never found out what caused the heart failure.
Daddy had a $1,000 insurance policy. With no money coming in, it wouldn’t last long. Something had to give. I went searching for any job, any way to make some money. I am the oldest boy. Christene was 17. Someone told a man about our plight and he needed someone to help him mix concrete. He came to me and looked me over. We were about the same size, about 140 pounds each. He told me if I could stay up with him, he would pay me $2.50 per day. $1 was the going wage in 1928 and 1929. He had the contract to pour concrete slab for 16 large cabins at Nick Moore's Camp on Lake Dallas. He and I were the mixers. We mixed every shovel full. He almost got me the first few days, but I got stronger as time went on and I stayed up with him. His bragging on me helped quite a bit. It took us about two months. I was hard as nails. I could ever whip Ralph then and he knew it. I don’t know who started it, but he got the name Tuffy from someone. I know I was much tougher than him then.
Most of the money made went for food. Mother took in washing and ironing. Christene married Fred, so that was one less mouth to feed. I bought a '25 model Chevrolet and Ralph got hold of a '26 model. They were called touring cars. Cloth top and curtains you could snap in for rain or bad weather. They both needed much repair, so we finally made one car out of the two. We took turns using it. We seldom went anywhere together. I had my job and he did something – I don’t know what.
While I was working on the concrete job, the electric company wired homes in town. We pinched pennies and had our house wired. We couldn’t believe how much better electric lights were than our coal oil lamps. When my concrete job played out, we couldn’t pay the light bill, so they came and took our meter. I checked and the wires were still hot, so I hooked them back up. We didn’t know how the company found out about it, but they did. So the guy came and climbed the pole and cut it off up there. We sure hated to lose our juice. If I could have got hold of some climbing spikes, I would have climbed the pole and hooked it back up.
I had the job of helping Mother keep the kids in line. We all ate well on my $2.50 per day. Ralph was the hardest for me to keep in line. He was always into something that would make me mad. I chased him many times, but never caught him. I think he was afraid of me. One time after he hit me with something and ran, he stayed gone for three or four days. When he came back, he promised me he wouldn’t ever hit me again. He kept his promise.
Audell was dating Ed Ashby. Ed played guitar and sang. I bought an old guitar and learned to play it. JB and Audell learned to strum it later.
When my concrete job played out, we had no income and the insurance money was about gone. Again something had to give. I got a job in the mess hall down behind the Dam of Lake Dallas. It didn’t last long as they were about finished with the rip rap and other jobs. We were feeding 35 workers when I started. Mr. Simpson was my boss. He was like a father to me. I did just about everything except cook. Mr. Jenkins and his wife did the cooking. I scrubbed the floor, set the tables and waited tables. After everyone finished eating, I took the bowls, dishes, silverware and everything else to the kitchen. The cooks saved the leftovers. I washed the tables, pots, pans, dishes and silverware, then took out the garbage and trash. Mr. Jackson picked up the garbage. He had a hog farm. I burned the trash.
Mr. Simpson had a model T pick-up truck. He let me drive it home at night and back in the morning. Part of my job was going to town and getting groceries, etc. Mrs. Simpson had bid for the job at Lake Waco and got it! I had a job whenever it started, but it would be a while.
Another tragedy came to us. There was always a pile of clothes in the bathroom – dirty clothes and rags, etc. Ralph and I slept in the bedroom just outside the bathroom. Fire woke us up about 1 in the morning. The house was on fire! I got everyone up and out of the house. Mother was hysterical. She’d say go get something, then turn around and say get something else. About all we got out was a burning mattress. Did you ever try to put the fire out of a burning mattress? We wanted to lay on it out in the street. Fire kept flaring up. I think it was still burning the next day.
Ralph got out without his pants. We guessed spontaneous combustion set the fire. There must have been a greasy rag in the pile. We had no insurance. Good neighbors took us in. We were scattered all over town. Ralph and I stayed with a family out in the country. None of us knew where all the rest of us were. It was terrible when we came back the next day. So black and flat and bleak. All of this happened in the big Depression in '29. Ralph had some change in his pants pocket. When it cooled down, I helped him find it. There was no relief back in those days.
We lost everything except our lives and our cow, Pet. We had three large oak trees in the yard. They all died. Can anyone imagine our plight? We had nothing, I mean nothing left. Not even a milk bucket to milk Pet who had to be milked. A neighbor volunteered to keep Pet until we could take her back. We were completely helpless. Not even a bit of food. Nothing. We can never repay the best neighbors anyone ever had.
Someone called Uncle Lee in Denton. He came down very quickly, saw our situation and he and the townspeople started things happening. Granddad and Grandma had died some years before and Uncle Lee was the executor of their estate. Granddad had what we called a rent house across the street from our place. Uncle Lee asked Mother if she would like to move us over into the rent house. She said no. She just couldn’t do it. He then asked her if she would like to have the house moved over to where our house had been. She said yes.
Uncle Lee started the wheels turning. He fixed up the paperwork, contacted a mover out in the country who said he wouldn’t charge us anything to move the house. He then spread the word in town and told them what we needed – people to clean up, wagons and trucks to haul off the ashes. That’s all there was left except what was left of the old mattress. Ralph and I worked as hard as anyone. We got it cleaned up and the house started moving across the street in a few days. The well house was about 20 feet behind the house. It was burned. A carpenter furnished the lumber and built us a new one, also an outhouse and a small chicken house. When the house was moved and completed, the neighbors started bringing in furniture, beds, dishes, pots, pans and many more things. Most people don’t think of the many things it takes to make a home livable. Would any neighbors anywhere have done more? I don’t think so. The neighbors started bringing in the kids. It was the first time we had been together since the house burned. The neighbors brought in lots of food – enough of some things to last a long time such as flour and meal, sugar, etc. The neighbor brought Pet back and enough feed to last quite a while. One neighbor gave us eight hens and a rooster. We didn’t lose our black pot, so Mother could boil our clothes. Ralph had to take my place helping Mother mind the kids because Mr. Simpson called and said my job at Lake Waco was ready to start.
I sent most of the money I made to Mother. I worked down there several months and when we were about to finish, Mr. Simpson told me he had bid for the job at Eagle Mountain Lake. He told me I had a job if he got it. Someone else must have under bid him because he didn’t get it.
I went home and we soon ran out of money. There were no jobs to be had. It was the deepest part of the Depression. I remember seven mornings in a row when we woke up there wasn’t a bit of food in the house. Mother had sold Pet earlier because she ran out of feed for her. She had sold the chickens too. There was no other way. Mother had to put the five youngest in the state orphans home at Corsicana.
Very few mothers had to go through what our mother had to go through. It was terrible for her to give up her kids. It was terrible on all of us. We had to hold Mother and, of course, all of us were crying. My eyes are so filled with tears now, I can hardly write.
Because I couldn’t stay and eat up from Mother, Dell and Ralph. Ralph was making a little money selling copper wire and whatever he found that would bring in a nickel. I kissed Mother and told her and Dell and Ralph that I didn’t know where I’d go, but I had to go somewhere. I walked to town and ran into Charley and Fred. They were in the same situation I was in. We decided to highway to Fort Worth. Once there, we got no good information from anyone. Charley said let’s go catch a freight train and head west. It’s several miles out to the end of the yards. We walked all the way. We caught he first train out. It wasn’t going very fast so it was easy to catch. There must have been 20 or more of us bumming a ride on that train. It was my first on a freight train. We saw some going to a box car and letting themselves down into the car. We all did the same. We had no idea where we were going.
I didn’t want to go very far before I got off and bummed something to eat. An old hobo sat beside me and asked if I was new at riding trains. I told him yes. He checked me out on several things. He said never catch the back end of a car because if a train is going pretty fast, it could throw you between the cars and you would likely fall down on the tracks.
When you lay down you always lay with your feet toward the front of the car. I had never bummed for food. We got off at Midland. I was hungry. I told Fred and Charley I would meet them at the depot. I passed several houses before I saw the one that looked most promising. I knocked on the door. A lady opened it. I told her I was real hungry. I hadn’t had anything to eat since the day before and not much then. She invited me in and we talked while she was fixing something for me. I think it was a couple of sandwiches and a bottle of pop.
I met Fred and Charley at the depot. They hadn’t done as well as I, but they had got some. Charley said I don’t think I want to go to El Paso. He said, “Let’s head back to Fort Worth.” I said, “I’m ready.” We caught the next freight back. When we got back to Fort Worth, we hung around the courthouse for a couple of days. Of course, we had to bum something to eat a couple of times each day. Charley said, “Why don’t we go to Houston?” We caught a box car they had hauled grain in. It still had the heavy paper stuck to the walls. I tore a large piece off and used it for my bed. Those box car floors were hard; some had splinters. I slept in many of them during those hard times. Several times when we’d get into a division late in the day, we would sleep in the sand house. The sand was nice and warm. It had to be kept dry. It was used to spill on the tracks in front of the driver wheels to give them traction on steep grades. Sand was all over us. It got down our collar, in our pockets and shoes. We had to be real careful to not get it in our eyes, mouth and ears.
We hung around Houston for a couple of days. There was nothing for us down there. I was never so homesick before. I told Charley and Fred I was heading for home. I intended to go out to the end of the yards and catch a freight. Here came a passenger train. it was going slow. I said, “Why not?” I caught it just behind the tender. Boy, did we move. Nothing compared to those slow freights. As soon as it slowed enough at Dallas, I got off. I walked out to the Denton highway and highwayed home.
One fellow I knew quite well did stop and gave me a ride. When I got home I found out why. Mother didn’t know me. When she decided it was me, she took me to a mirror. I didn’t know myself. I was black as a black man. That coal smoke was black. It wasn’t only my face, it was my clothes and everything.
Mother told me J.B. had run off from the orphans home four times. I guess he just didn’t like it down there. Uncle Lee was a constable at Denton. He took J.B. back three times. After Mother found out he just wasn’t going to stay down there, she found a family out in the country who would keep him. He stayed with them for about a year then he stayed with another family until he was old enough to get in the Army. He joined and was sent to Fort Sill, Oklahoma.
Charley and Fred came home. It took them a day or two longer to get home. At home, we cleaned up and we had to leave again. Again, we highwayed to Fort Worth. This time Fred said, “Let’s go to El Paso.” We highwayed out to the west end of the Texas Pacific yards and waited for a train. We caught the next one out It was late Fall in the early '30′s. The sun was shining; it was nice and warm. Charley had a brainstorm.
We were sitting on the walkway of a tank car with our legs hanging. He said, “I believe the cotton in south Texas may be ready to pick.” We decided real soon we would turn back. We were nearly to Midland. When the train slowed, we got off. I just happened to be real hungry again. I decided to try the same house that I had got something to eat the last time I was out there. The same lady opened the door after I knocked. She recognized me and said, “I’ll bet you’re hungry again.” I said, “I sure am.” She told me to come in and talk to her while she got me something. After she gave me the food in a sack, I told her I had to get back and catch the next train going east – that me and my buddies were going to south Texas to pick cotton.
When we got in the yards in Fort Worth, we got off and walked along the tracks in the yards. There was a big shed in the main part of the yards. When we got inside, we saw a big long box full of watermelons and ice. I told the keeper that I was broke and I asked him if he would give us a melon or a half of one. He gave us half of one. We took it outside and had a feast. Of course, we ate it with our hands.
When we finished the melon, we asked which tracks led to Waco. We walked down to where and old round house was. It wasn’t used anymore. There was a nice green grassy knoll beside the tracks. We lay on the grass and waited and kept waiting. I got hungry and went in search of something to eat. It was about supper time. Houses were close by. As I walked along the sidewalk, I saw a lady in her kitchen washing dishes. I spoke to her and she spoke back. I told her I was hungry and asked if she would give me something to eat. She said, “We have just finished supper, I’ll make you a sandwich if it’s OK.” I said it was fine. She had made me a large sandwich and put it in a little roll of 5 cent cookies. Charley was hungry, so I gave the cookies to him. I’ll never know why he didn’t eat them then. We all went to sleep on the grass. We guessed it was about 1 in the morning when a train woke us. It was moving pretty fast but we all caught it.
When we got in the box car, Charley said, “I wish I had those cookies. I left them laying back there on the grass.” It was morning when we pulled into Belmead yards at Waco. The fireman and engineers kept hollering and telling us we’d better get off – there was a railroad dick just ahead. None of us cared. We wanted to see what would happen. We were in a coal car. A man and woman were in the other end of the car. The dick caught the end of the car where we were. He hung on the stirrup until the train stopped, then he said, “This is where we get off.” We all climbed down. The man and woman had got off also. The dick said to us, “Wait here, I’ll be right back.” I wanted to wait to see what would happen, we could have walked off. The dick came back and said, “Let’s go over to that shed.”
We went in and he woke up a fellow. I think he was the meanest looking man I had ever seen. He put his clothes on and dabbed a little water on his face, reached in his locker and pulled out the longest pistol I had ever seen. He put it in his holster and said go out that door. We walked about a block and in a few minutes along came a vehicle they used to transport the train crews. The body of the vehicle was a cage, only one entrance. It was also the exit. He ordered us to load up. The driver knew where to go. He stopped by the county jail. The dick said, “This is where we get off.” He followed us into the jail and turned us over to the jailer. The jailer had his assistant put us in jail. We had hopes we weren’t too late for breakfast, but we were. We had to wait until dinner. Boy, were we hungry.
We each had a cot. I think I was asleep in a minute. We sure didn’t leave anything on our plates at dinner. The second day the inmates had kangaroo court. They tried Charley and Fred and sentenced them to wash some blankets.
While court was going on, I was sitting on a cot with an older fellow. He said, “How old are you, kid?” I told him 16. He said, did you know they can’t keep you in here; he said go up to the door and holler for Mr. Wright. I did and Mr. Wright came and said, “Now what do you want?” I said, “Mr. Wright, I’m only 16.” He said, “Who told you to say that?” I told him that was my age; I was born in 1912. He said he’d see about it and left. That afternoon the assistant came to the door and called my name. He opened the door, let me out and took me to his office. He got out a long form and started asking me questions. After that, he took me upstairs and put me in a southwest corner cell with a boy about my age. We talked. When I told him they would let me out in a day or two, he said, “I’ve got a good deal for you.” He said his home was up at West. He told me he had hid $300 by a tree in West and if I would play like I was asleep when they came to let me out, he would tell them he was me and he would tell me where the money was and I could get it.
I didn’t sleep real well that night. The sign on Goldstein Miguel's department store kept flashing on and off all night. That afternoon the assistant jailer came up and let me out. When I walked by Mr. Wright who was sitting in a rocking chair out in front of the jail, he asked me where I was going. I told him home. He said, “You better stay with us tonight and get an early start in the morning.” The next morning as I walked out, Mr. Wright said, “You go straight home.” I said yes sir.
I wasn’t ready to go home then. I got out on the highway to San Antonio. Uncle Joe and Aunt Oby lived there. I got to their house before night. They seemed real glad to see me. They and lost their only child, a son named Sundial, some months before. He was killed in a back alley. They never found out who killed him. I heard he was a real good baseball pitcher with the potential to go far. I stayed with them for about a week. Aunt Oby made me a lunch and Uncle Joe took me out on the highway heading toward Waco.
I soon caught a ride to the cut-off to New Braunsfel. In a short time, I thumbed down a guy in a Model T roadster. He opened the door and I got in. Neither of us said a word to each other. He pulled into a filling station in a small town just south of Waco. We both got out. He said to the attendant, “Fill her up and check the oil.” After the car was serviced, he asked the guy if he would take a check. The guy said, “No, what bank do you have your money in?” When he said Ardmore, Oklahoma, the guy said, “That’s easy, there’s a bank right over yonder and also Western Union is just down the street.” The fellow started over to the bank. I followed him. When inside, he wrote out a check; he started toward a teller’s window, but stopped about half way, wadded up the check and threw it in the wastebasket and walked out. He started over toward the Western Union. I figured I wasn’t going to find out anything so I went back to the filling station. The attendant asked me if I knew that fellow. I told him no, that I had thumbed a ride with him. He told me I’d better leave out because he had called the police from Waco. I thumbed a ride on a truck and just as we started the police pulled into the filling station.
When I got to Waco, I headed for the jail. I wanted to see Fred and Charley. I went around behind the jail and I smelled food. It was the kitchen where they prepared the food. It must have been about an hour before supper. I knocked on the door. I was going to bum something to eat. No response, so I tried the door and it wasn’t locked. I opened it and slipped in real quiet. There was a big pot of beans and a big pot of potatoes and a pan of cornbread. I got a plate and filled it with the beans and potatoes, got a big piece of cornbread. I didn’t chew very much, I swallowed it whole. I washed the plate, put it back where I had got it from, saw that everything was in place and I slipped out and went over to a back window of the jail. The first person I saw when I looked in was the fellow I had rode with. I didn’t let him see me. Fred and Charley finally saw me and came over. They had taken Charley out on a road gang. He wouldn’t eat so they brought him back to jail. They were sentenced to 30 days in jail. Charley slipped me a $5 bill and told me to go find a store to bring him some rolls and bread. I said, “Where in the world did you get this five?” He said he had it in his shoe. I found a store about a block away, got rolls and bread and brought them back to him and gave him his change and I left. I went down to the trade yard. I could usually bum enough money for a bowl of chili. I don’t remember where I spent the night. The next day a fellow walked up to me and asked me if I’d like to go to south Texas to pick cotton. I said, “What’s the deal?” He said he had a truck and he was trying to find a load of men. He showed me his truck and told me he would leave out at 5. I didn’t have any place to go so I hung around. He had rounded up seven of us. He told us the deal. We could eat anything we wanted at each stop he made. He would put it on our bill and whoever hired us would pay him for our bills plus so much for hauling each of us down there. We stopped at a café in a town about 10 p.m. I was hungry. I ordered a big meal and ate it all. He stopped on the side of the highway about 1 and we all slept on a grassy knoll beside the highway.
The next morning we arrived at in the yard of cotton gin at Port Lavaca. There were many wagon loads of cotton lines up waiting to have their cotton ginned. The first man contacted needed pickers. It seemed he was just waiting for us. He had a little house out back of his home. We rode out there, they made a deal and the truck left. There were enough cots for all of us, cook stove, lavatory, etc. The man, with our help, made up a list of the things we wanted. He asked a couple of the older men to go to town with him. They got in his Model T and left. When they were out of sight, I took off across the field heading for the highway. I thumbed my way back to Waco. I was hungry, so I headed for the jail. The situation was the same as before at the kitchen. I knocked and no answer. I slipped in and did the same as before.
I went over to the jail window and talked to Charley and Fred. I told them of my trip, etc. They told me Mr. Wright told them to tell me if he ever caught me around there again he would throw me back in jail. I spent that night down in the trade yard. After I bummed breakfast, I headed for home.
When I got home, no one was there. There was a big pot of white beans on the stove. They were still hot. You guessed it, I ate about half of them. Mother was so happy to see me, she didn’t complain too much. She and Dell were working here and there cleaning houses, etc. I didn’t see Ralph that trip. I found out they had been having dances at our house for several Saturday nights. The neighbors complained to me that the noise was keeping them awake until after 2 in the morning. I told them I would do something about it. The next Saturday night the cars started coming in – must have been 25. They lined both sides of the street. Only about 30 people could get in our little house, so part of them left. I played some with the band and I danced some. At 11, I got up, stopped the band and announced, “We have to stop at 12.” Oh no, many of them said; we just get going good by midnight. I told them it was too much for the neighbors to put up with past midnight.
I tried to join the Navy, but my feet are flat so they wouldn’t take me. Still nothing for me at home. After some thought I decided to go to Abilene. I had known some people who lived out there, but I didn’t find them so I decided to go to Lubbock. I thumbed a ride to Slaton. I was hungry. I picked out a house. A lady came to the door. I told her I was hungry and asked if she would give me something to eat. She invited me in. She wanted to know everything about me. I told her most everything. Her husband came in from work. She told him about me. It was supper time and they invited me to eat with them. I wasn’t very dirty; I had cleaned up before I left home. They had a little boy, age six, named Billy. Their name was Avant – Zell and Seaborn. She fixed a fine supper; afterward he asked if I had a place to spend the night and I told him no. He looked at Zell; she asked me if I would like to spend the night with them. I said I sure would.
Billy and I really hit it off good. Playing with the kids has its good merits. The next morning after breakfast, Mrs. Avant asked me if I would like to pick cotton and make some money. I said I sure would. We all got in the car. She took Seab to work and she drove to a house out in a cotton patch. She told me the people’s name was Turpin. Mrs. Turpin came to the door. We got out and Mrs. Avant introduced us and told her my name was Tilford. She said, “Well, our oldest son’s name is Gilford.” I found out he was a year older than me. They had four children: Gilford, William, Bluford, and the baby girl, Evelyn. She was eight.
I met Mr. Turpin and the boys at noon when they came in to eat. After dinner, Mr. Turpin said, “I have an extra cotton sack. Are you ready to go to work?” I said, “I sure am.” You that have picked cotton know what those burrs do to your tender fingers and hands. When you first start, I sure couldn’t pick very much for a week or so. After I got in shape, I beat all of them. Mr. and Mrs. Turpin had told me I could stay with them until all the cotton was out. They didn’t want to take that much, but I gave them half of the money I made. I bought an old guitar and started playing again. I had lost the corns off my fingers. It took a while to get them toughened up again.
After the cotton was all out, I stayed with the Avants about half the time. Mrs. Avant had a good voice and she loved to sing. She sang in the choir in church. I went to church with them most every Sunday. I knew about 50 or so country songs. Mrs. Avant thought I did pretty good picking and singing. We did some songs together.
One day she said to me, “Why don’t you go up to KFYO Radio station and see if they’ll give you a try-out?” It took a while, but finally I got up the nerve and decided to try it. She drove us up there. We went in and talked to a fellow. I wanted her to sing with me, but she wouldn’t do it. The fellow took me in a room and said, “Have at it.” Little Blossom is a long song. I sang several verses when he stopped me and said, “I think you’ll do all right.” He took down all the information and said he’d call me. They called in a few days. They had decided to give me a spot at 7 in the morning. I did it for a week. It was too trying and I told them so and quit.
Mr. Turpin had good news for all of us when he came in that afternoon. He told us he had contracted for farm about 100 acres on the halves for the next year. The farm was about 12 miles northwest of Lubbock. He asked me if I would like farming. I told him I never had, but I’d like to give it a try. He said, “I can’t pay you anything until harvest, but I’ll pay you the going wage for picking cotton, heading maize, etc.” He then told me everything we’d all be doing. There would be about 30 cows to milk, hogs to feed, mules to take care of and about 50 chickens. I told him it sounded good to me.
We moved out there in the late winter. The house was single walled. It sat up about two feet off the ground. Looked like it was on stilts – completely open underneath. The only heating was a small wood stove in the living room. We three boys slept together. We had three or four quilts in the cold weather. At night, we boys would urinate off the back porch. The outhouse was way down yonder by the barn. All of us except Evelyn milked the cows. I was not a good milker. They let me milk the big -titted cows. Every one of them would milk two or three cows while I was milking one. We boys would crank the separator and keep the cream in a large milk can. Once in a while, we boys would catch a little bit of cream in a cup, mix it with a little bit of the whole milk and have us a nice rich drink.
Mr. Turpin had a Model T Ford truck. He would take the cream and eggs to town once each week and get groceries and supplies. That’s the only time most of us ever went to town. It was dry that Spring. I’ve never see anything like the dust storms we had. I think it was worse than the desert because the dust is finer. Si, Mr. Turpin’s nephew, came to live with us to pick cotton. He brought a cot to sleep on. Just before the cotton was ready, he told me, “I’ll beat you every day.” I said that we’d see. Si never beat me. After frost, we started pulling bolls. On our best day I had pulled 800 pounds and Si 797. He said, “I’m going back and pick enough to beat you.” As tired as I was, I just couldn’t allow that. After a little while, he said, “I think I’ve got you this time.” We went to the wagon. He had 17 pounds and I had 20. Neither of us pulled very much the next day. We almost over-did it.
The Avants came to visit us quite often. Billy Seab would run to me every time. We were real buddies. Evelyn was my buddy too. I would help her with school work and teach her and the boys how to do things, especially how to keep the truck running. They all wanted me to drive everywhere we went. Mr. Turpin asked me to teach William to drive. It was six miles to church. We went most Sundays.
The next Spring I got a letter from Christene. She said Fred had a job working on a pile driver crew. She said he thought he could get me a job. It wasn’t easy leaving those fine folks. We were just like family. I told them I thought it best because I had to get out on my own sometime. We drove into visit the Avants and tell them I was leaving. It was hard for me to get away from Bill Seab when I left.
I hit the highway next morning and got home the next day.
I had been away for a long time. Mother was real glad to see me. We grabbed each other. I told her Christene had wrote to me and said I might get a job where Fred was working. They were driving piling for highway bridge foundations down on Hickory Creek just above our old swimming hole. The company’s name was Mills & Tway. Mr. Mills was the foreman on the job. Fred told him I needed a job. He said I was in luck. He needed a man. I liked the job. In three or four weeks, I was working Derrick. Of course, most of my work was still on the ground. One job was cutting up old tires to put on top of the piling to prevent the 10,000 pound Vulcan steam hammer and 1,000 pound follow block from cracking the piling.
We at well at home again. We finished the job there in three or four months. Mr. Mills told me and Fred they had a job at Nash, Oklahoma and he would like us to go up there. Christene and Fred rented a house up there and I stayed with them. We finished up there in three or four months. Mr. Mills said they had a big job at Guymond; Oklahoma and it should start in about a month. I stayed home with very little to do. After three weeks, I told Mother goodbye and hit the highway.
I got to Guyman in two or three days and found out that had had lots of rain and our job would be delayed. A man walked up to me on the street and asked me if I was looking for a job. I told him I sure was. He worked for the highway department and asked me if I could drive a team of horses. I told him I wasn’t expert at it, but I thought I could do it fine. I knew it wasn’t going to be easy when he told me what the job was.
The bridges had been washed out and I would pull the vehicles through the mud. It was quite a job holding the doubletree up by the long chain until I hooked onto each vehicle. I had pulled about eight across when a fellow handed me a dollar bill. I told him I was working for the state and wasn’t supposed to charge anyone. He said 'what the heck, you may as well get it while you can.' I charged everyone after that. Eight trucks were lined up. It was a carnival. I dickered with the head man for a few minutes. I finally got $8 out of him.
Some time the next day, it had dried up enough that the vehicles could make it on their own. I lost my job. The next day I hot the highway. I got to Amarillo. I spent the night in a box car on a side track. Next morning, a kid about my age came up and started talking to me. After we talked some, he said, “I bet you’re hungry.” I said I sure am. He said he knew where we could get something to eat. We started walking. It wasn’t more than a mile. He knocked on the door. A tall slender young man opened the door and invited us in. He fixed a good breakfast.
He asked if I played poker. I told him some for nickels. After a little while, the ante went up. He let me win three or four dollars. Then he fixed me and got me to dig out of my sock the $18 I had. Of course, I thought I had a cinch. I had a pair of aces queen high. Somehow he came up with a pair of aces and king high. I left feeling mighty bad. Sometime around noon, I went back and begged him to give me some of it back. He gave me $2.
I caught a freight out that afternoon and headed for home. I wondered later if just maybe the man upstairs had something to do with it because of my dishonesty.
The Civilian Conservation Corps had started opening camps. Someone told Mother she could get me in. They were right. I had to go to Denton to get the paperwork for me and Mother to fill out. I was in the next week. They loaded about 20 of us in the truck and took us to Bowie. Our first job was building a tennis court. The barracks were on a slope. They gave us picks and shovels. We dug the high side and built up the low side. We finished it in three or four days.
The next week, we went out on the job which was Soil Conservation Service. The soil there is loose and when it rains, the soil washes away. The farmers made terraces that would drain the water to a ditch at the edge of the field. We built check dams in the ditch that prevented the water from washing the soil. We build the check dams with sand rock and mortar. I became a rock mason – lots of sand rock west of town.
They had a typewriter school going, but the class was full. I got permission to use the typewriter and the aids at night after class was over. I taught myself to type. That was June of 1934. After about a year there, they closed the camp down and moved us to Sherman.
I had the mumps just after I got there. They isolated me in a six-man tent all by myself. Nolan Follis was the doctor’s orderly. He took real good care of me. A couple of days after I got out of isolation, I found out I was on a cadre going to Perryton. I didn’t even go out on the job at Sherman. It was also an Soil Conservation Service camp doing the same thing as Bowie, but there weren’t any usable rock over there. They made forms and poured concrete to make the check dams.
The jobs at Perryton were quite different. We dug cactus and built dams that made lakes. My first job was digging cactus. Cactus was real thick in the pastures. It was large prickly pears. We used spades and had to dig deep enough to get the dog knot. We had to work up-wind because the real small prickles would fly in the wind and stick in our clothes, etc.
A crew with pitch forks would come along behind us to pitch the cactus into wind rows, then they would be loaded on a truck and hauled to a location and unloaded into a large pile. Some time later after they had dried out, the rancher would set fire to the pile and burn the stickers off and feed it to his cattle.
I was glad Mr. Keith, a foreman, asked me if I would like to work for him on a dam job. He didn’t know much about figuring the amount of dirt we moved, so that became my job. I was promoted to assistant leader in a short time. Mr. Keith must have built me up to our commander, Lt. Darwin S. Holton. He called me in one day and asked me if I would like to help him run the outfit. I told him I thought I could handle it, so in short order I was promoted to senior leader. That’s the same as 1st Sergeant in the Army and Air Force. I attributed me getting the job to the fact that I helped Mother keep the kids in line.
I sure hadn’t been able to visit the kids in the orphan's home very often. The neighbors took Mother to visit them quite often.
We had only one kid in the 3 C’s to give us trouble. His name was Porter. He was one of the boys we had assigned to dig a hole way out back of the camp for our outhouse. For some reason, he thought he was having to dig more than the other boys. I was on my way to check on the job when he came up to me and started telling me about it. I checked with the leader who was in charge. He told me all were digging equal time. I’ve never figured it out, but Porter was so mad he wanted to fight me. I told him OK, we’d go out to the road off base.
We had to go by the orderly room. Lt. Holton heard us arguing and came out and wanted to know what was going on. After I told him, he told Porter to go back to dig or he’d give him a week’s extra duty. He was a pretty good digger after that.
I was a pretty good boxer. I would have hit him in the belly and it would have been over. One of the boys came to the orderly room one afternoon and told me he left his watch laying on the shelf while he showered and it was missing when he came out. I told him we would try to find it. I talked it over with Lt. Holton and we decided what we would do.
The next morning at Reveille after the flag was raised, I led calisthenics. Afterward, Lt. Holton announced to the group that a watch had been taken from the shelf in the bath house and if whoever took it will step out of ranks to bring it to him, there will be no punishment. We waited about five minutes and then he said, OK then, we’re going to search everyone. I instructed the leaders to search everyone, even the socks.
Just before they got to Porter he reached down, pulled it out of his sock and said, "here it is." I dismissed the group and then took Porter to the orderly room. Lt. Holton told the clerk to fill out the papers to discharge Porter. After he was discharged, I escorted him out to the road off base. He kept telling me he didn’t know why he didn’t step out and give the watch to the commander before he was searched.
I decided in December 1936 to get out to go visit Mother and the kids. I thought I could get back in as an L.E.M. (Local Experienced Man). I went back and found out that I couldn’t because the rules were one had to have lived in the community for three years.
I visited Ralph and Mary at El Paso for quite a spell, then I went to visit J.B. in the Army at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. It looked like he had a good deal which paid pretty good, so I went to the enlistment station in Lawton and enlisted. I was assigned to 1st Field Artillery.
After recruit drill which consisted of marching, shooting the Springfield rifle, the .45 caliber pistol, how to make up a bunk and all the other things one needs to know to become a soldier, I was assigned to motor vehicle maintenance in C Battery. We had an overweight kid in our barracks who snored so loud it rattled the rafters. The guys kept complaining to the 1st Sgt. and finally the 1st Sgt. had him move to a room down in the maintenance hangar. In a few days, he was begging me to move in with him. He told me I wouldn’t have to keep everything spick and span down there like in the barracks. He went and asked the 1st Sgt. He said OK, so I moved in with him. It’s funny, but whenever I would go away for a night I missed his snoring and couldn’t sleep well.
In 1938, we went on maneuvers to Columbia, South Carolina where we lived in tents. After about a week there, we were in simulated war back into Louisiana. It was a lot like I was back on the bum again, except we had plenty to eat and I didn’t have to bum it. J.B. was in B Battery and I was in C Battery. We didn’t see each other very often. The maneuvers lasted about two months.
Soon after we were back, I bought a Model A Ford. J.B. and I visited Mother and we went to visit the kids more often than we were able to before. Mother had stayed with Judge Onsley’s wife at Denton for two or three years, then she got a job at the Gladney Home in Fort Worth. She was working there when she met Pop.
Later in 1938, they sent me to motor vehicle maintenance school on base. It was supposed to last six weeks, but it was extended two weeks. Lt. Colonel Vandenberg ran the school. He saw to it that we were trained really well. He made General during the war. After we completed school, I was assigned to the motor vehicle maintenance squadron.
Mrs. Avant’s mother died in 1938. She told her Daddy about Mother being alone and asked her brother to take their Dad to meet Mother. They got married in 1939. They bought a rock veneer home in Baird. They made a fine couple. We called Mr. Maxey Pop.
After three years in the Army, I was discharged. Evann had graduated from high school at the orphans home. I met him in Fort Worth. We went to visit Mother and Pop. After a few days, we decided to visit Ralph in California. Evann said he would like to enlist in the Army. After a week at Ralph’s, we headed back to Texas.
On the way back, I decided to re-enlist in the Balloon Squadron at Ft. Sill, Oklahoma mainly because I got $75 to re-enlist. Evann and I got in the same day in September 1940. I was assigned to the motor pool and when Evann finished recruit drill, he became a rigger on balloons. We had two blimps about the same size as the Goodyear Blimp. We were training with barrage balloons. They were attached to a cable which was let up or down by a winch which was installed on the back of a truck. They were to be sent to England and let up in the air around London to prevent the German bombers from bombing London.
Early in 1941, J.B., Evann and I decided we would like to transfer to the Army Air Corps. We all three put in for a transfer to Will Rogers Field at Oklahoma City. Evann and I got our transfers to Will Rogers, but J.B. was transferred to Sheppard Field at Wichita Falls. It was a long time before we saw him again. Evann and I both trained as Aircraft Mechanics. We had A-20 aircraft.
In April 1942, we were told that our outfit would be going overseas. We moved to Savanna, Georgia in the middle of April. After about a week, they made out a list of men for overseas. Evann was on the list. I wasn’t, but just before quitting time they sent for me and told me one of the boys on the list was on a three-day pass and I was selected to replace him. There was seven sets of brothers in the outfit. It was against the rues to send brothers overseas in the same outfit. I kept quiet so we could go together.
They told us to turn in our tools and everything else that we wouldn’t take with us. The next day they loaded us on a troop train headed north. We went to Fort Dix in New Jersey. We stayed there about a week, then they hauled us to New York Harbor and sent us up the gang plank and onto the English ship Cathay.
In the dock next to us was the ship Normandy on its side – we heard it had caught fire and burned so badly it would not stay afloat. Early next morning, we pulled out of dock, joined many other ships and headed up the coast north. It was the last day of April 1942. The German U-boats had sunk several of the allied ships in the Atlantic. We went up the coast to Nova Scotia, Canada where we stayed in the harbor until daybreak next morning.
We were told we were the largest convoy that had every sailed the Atlantic. We heard there were 10,000 of us on that ship. The fourth or fifth morning someone yelled at us in our room to come and look. It was the thickest fog I ever saw. We could hardly see the water. That the fog someone said you couldn’t cut with a knife.
We got the bad news shortly. We were lost from the convoy. We heard the captain of the ship had said the fog was our protector from the U-boats. More bad news. We heard the ship had lost one of its two engines. We were told to sleep with our shoes on and to use our copac for a pillow.
After three days and nights of the thick fog, we looked out at one of the clearest days I have ever seen. Water is curved as all of the earth is. The lookout at the top of the conning tower saw nothing but water until late that afternoon when he yelled down that he could see something coming our way. He could see only the top of the mast of the ship that was coming our way. You can bet most all of us prayed a lot.
It took quite a while before he could recognize it as one of our destroyers. When the ship captain heard it, he threw his cap down and stomped it. What a relief it had to be for him and all of us. Evann and I had never been as close as we were through that ordeal. The ships had no communication such as radio, except secret codes. They used semi phone which is sign language with flags.
It took us 14 days to get to England. We went the northern route which was almost to Iceland. We landed at Phillipville on the west coast of England. We loaded on a train and went up by Oxford University to Grafton Underwood on May 14, 1942.
We were the 15th Bomb Sq. Light. Our aircraft, A-20s, came in about a week after we got there. WE moved to Molesworth, June 9, 1942. Podington September 13, 1942. B17s moved into Molesworth. They flew over us going on their bombing mission and coming back over us when they returned. Some of them were shot up so bad we didn’t see how they could stay in the air to get back to base.
There were large holes in their fuselage, tails, wings, stabilizers, rudders, elevators of about half that made it back. Some were shot down on most every mission. Some made it back with two or three of their four engines running. Many of them had to land on their belly because the landing gear was damaged.
The raids our planes made were of the much shorter distance, so we were lucky that they weren’t shot at near as much as the B17s. The damage our planes suffered was minimal. Shortly after our invasion of North Africa, we were sent over there. Evann went by boat on the second echelon. I went on the third. That was the only time Evann and I were separated during our stay of nearly three years in England, North Africa and Italy.
We landed at Tebassa, Algeria November 13, 1942. We were moved several times in North Africa: Tafaraovi, Sale, French Marocco, then back to Nouvion on October 1, 1943. We had three types of aircraft, A-20, DB-7 and A-36. We flew subpatrol. We lived in tents. We were mighty glad to get out of that blowing sand and to get to come home. We had been over there a might long time.
They moved us to Naples, Italy to wait for a ship to bring us home. I don’t remember the name of the ship that brought us back. We landed in New York Harbor January 11, 1945. I was sent to Florida for debriefing. Evann was sent to California.
After about two weeks in Florida, I was assigned to San Marcos, Texas. At the end of my enlistments, I would move to another base. Our outfit moved to Lake Charles, Louisiana. Next I re-enlisted at Biggs Air Force Base at El Paso, Texas. My next move was to Barksdale Air Force Base, Louisiana. In 1948 I was sent to Langley A.F.B. assigned to 84th Bomb Squadron of the 48th Bomb Group Light. The outfits I had been in had B-26 aircraft . They gave us B-45s at Langley. I was Crew Chief. It was quite a change going into jets.
I didn’t ask for it, but I became 1st Squadron. I played and managed our softball team. Our officers had a game with the 85th officers. Capt. Tomlinson asked me if I would umpire their game which I did.
A new Commander had been assigned to our squadron. He was playing short stop for our team. Capt. Tomlinson was pitching. His control was not good. He kept pitching balls. After he walked in two or three runs, he gave me a little static, I pulled my mask off, walked out the side and said, “Captain, if you want them called strikes, throw the ball over the base.” That afternoon was called to the office. The Commander said, “I liked the way you talked to Capt. Tomlinson. Our 1st Sgt. is going overseas. How would you like to be my 1st Sgt.?” I told him I would like to think about it overnight.
The next morning I accepted the job. We had a real good outfit. I had no trouble at all.
The line Chief and I were offered Warrant Office. We both turned it down. Our situation was real good and we didn’t want it to change. The starting pay was less than we were making then.
I had played sports all my life. We had a real good bowling team at Langley. Our softball team won the base championship two years in a row.
In 1951, I changed bases again. I re-enlisted at George Air Force Base near Victorville, California. I was in the Inspection Department while there. My next move was to Hensley Field near Dallas, Inspection Department ad Flight Chief of T-6s and C-46s. In 1952, I was sent to Japan, Kamocki Airbase.
Soon after I reported, the Commander called me in and told me the outfit had been having problems between the flight line and the maintenance hangar. He asked me to look into it. I called a meeting of the supervisors in the hangar first. They told me what they thought the problems were. I took notes and called a meeting of the flight line the next day and found out what they thought the problems were.
The next day we got all the supervisors together and we all found out everything could and would be worked out. We had a smooth running outfit from then on for the time I was over there.
We had F-84G aircraft. I had two jobs while over there – Flight Chief, PE and Aero Shop Chief.
Major Loudin, who was Captain when we were together at Langley, was over there. He came to see me one day and invited me to have dinner with him and his wife and their new baby. After dinner, he asked me if I knew anything about a washing machine. He said the Japanese had tried to fix it, but couldn’t. I said I’d look at it. I soon found the trouble. One of the magnets was installed wrong. I took it out and put it in right and it was fixed. Mrs. Loudin was a happy woman. I was invited to visit them quite often the remainder of the time I was over there.
In May 1953, I was selected as Maintenance Chief to come back to Nellis Airbase, Nevada to compete in a bombing event. I had gone by boat to Japan. We flew back. We came in second in Special Weapons Drop. My assignment after we completed our mission at Nellis was Carswell Air Force Base in Fort Worth. They assigned me to the Inspection Department.
After a short time, they gave me the job of VIP Flight Chief in Base Flight. We had many kinds of aircraft: C-97B, C54s, and C45s. I didn’t stay at Carswell very long. The 8th Air Force moved from Carswell to Westover Air Force Base, Massachusetts. They weren’t supposed to send me because I had only three months to do that enlistment, but they did. I was in Inspection Department the time I was there. I was discharged there in 1954.
I re-enlisted at Clinton Sherman Airbase, Oklahoma. It was a new base – no aircraft. We cut down trees, built a park, worked around the base, ordered aircraft technical orders. I was on the base planning board. In 1957, I re-enlisted at Biggs Air Force Base at El Paso.
My first job was Chief of Transient Alert. My second job was a Biggie – B-36 Dock Chief. We did inspections on B-36s. Sixty-six men were assigned plus the specialists. I was glad to leave that job. They sent me to B-36 flight training detachment. In 1959, I transferred to B-52s at Turner Air Force Base, Georgia. I was Alert Branch Chief. The jet aircraft ruined my hearing. I retired July 31, 1960 after almost 23 years.
I came to Texas and visited around not knowing what I would do. After about a month, I started looking for a job. Several of the men I had been stationed with told me they liked Enid, Oklahoma. I decided to go up there. My timing could not have been better. A civilian contract to operate Vance Air Force Base had just been given to Serv-Air.
Several of the people I had known in the service already had a job there. I had a choice of several different jobs. I took the job of supervisor of the scheduling section. We scheduled all specialist and maintenance of the aircraft. My supervisor was the Line Chief at Langley. When he and I were offered Warrant Officer, we had a very smooth running outfit.
I started playing golf. I got pretty good at it. I had two holes in one. One was with a three-wood over a lake about 220 yards. I got good write-ups from both of them and got nice trophies from each. Bob Thompson and I played 18 holes one Saturday when the snow was about four to six inches deep. We used red and orange balls. The ball would sink three or four inches in the snow. We had no trouble finding the hole.
We would dig out the ball, put it on top of the snow and hit it again. Course, we couldn’t putt. We pitched them in the hold with a seven iron. Someone called the paper and told them about the time we would finish our round. When we got to the 18th hole, a photographer took our pictures. The paper said we were true blue golfers. They gave us a real good write-up.
Three of us were sitting at a table at the snack bar eating one morning when one of us suggested we quit smoking. We made a pact. I quit inhaling and quit within a week. I haven’t had a cigarette in my mouth since. I had smoked for 35 years.
Northrop underbid Serv-Air in the late '60′s and took over the operation of the base. I kept my same job until I decided to retire in 1973. I moved to Fort Worth and played golf on the city courses until May of 1988. My fall gladder was full of stones (the doctor said over 100). They punctured my lung and I was in the hospital over a month. I haven’t golfed since. I keep busy around the place.
I had a seizure in 1990. After several tests, they told me I had a mini stroke. With medication, I kept working around our place until the morning of January 15, 1991. About the same time Desert Storm started, I had a heart attack. From the tests, the doctor said I had two diseased arteries. More medication. I did nothing but eat, sleep and watch TV for the next six weeks. I slept about 10 or 11 hours out of every 24.
I passed my stress test the March 5, 1991. The doctor said I could work a little around the place, but I must stop and rest after working 30 minutes. It really slowed me down. I was used to going headlong into most everything. I would mow and edge the yard without stopping.
I joined South Hills Baptist Church in Fort Worth and was baptized November 5, 1989.
Ellis Tilford Cornwell, a retired U.S. Air Force master sergeant, passed away at age 90 on Dec. 31, 2002.
July 8, 1973
For the first time in 46 years the nine children of Ellis Cornwell are being reunited over this July 4th holiday.
The nine, two of whom live in Denton, were split up during the Depression when their father suddenly died. Their mother supported the family as best she could during those already-difficult times by working in Denton as a practical nurse.
Five of her children were already grown and away from home, some of them entering the military service. But the four youngest needed more support than their widowed mother was able to give them at the time. So they were sent to school at the state orphan's home in Corsicana.
After the four finished school they were reunited briefly with their mother, then went their separate ways.
The oldest of the nine children is now 62, the youngest 46. They include;: Mrs. Eldon Cain and Mrs. Luther Anderson, both of Denton; Ralph Cornwell of Aubrey; Tom Cornwell and Tilford Cornwell, both of Fort Worth; Evann Cornwell of Bedford; J.B. Cornwell of Phoenix, Ariz.; Audell Cornwell Wall of Oakland, Calif; and Christine Cornwell Stroud of Houston.
The community of Garza, now Lake Dallas, was the Cornwell family home. Ellis Cornwell died in 1927 and his wife, the former Georgia Amy Parkinson, died in 1966.
The family celebrated July 4 with a fish fry at Ralph Cornwell's catfish farm in Aubrey. Events are planned for every evening during the reunion.
Photo taken at the 1973 reunion held at Ralph Cornwell's catfish farm in Aubrey.