Chapter 1. Some Family History
Wright J. Small was born the second child of Jacob B. Small and Lou Ella M. Eversole. He lived from 1890 to 1981. Jacob Small, Wright’s father, was born in Shelby County, Illinois, July 15, 1860. Wright’s mother, Lou Ella, was born September 13, 1863, in Lancaster, Ohio. Both were from large families; Lou Ella had nine brothers and sisters, and Jacob was the first-born in a family of nine children.
When Lou Ella was about ten years old, she and her family traveled with a caravan of covered wagons from central Ohio, across Indiana to Illinois. They settled in Shelby County. Jacob and Lou Ella were married in Shelbyville, Illinois, on February 14, 1886.
Jacob and Lou Ella had eight children, two of whom died in infancy. Surviving were Emery, Wright, Gertrude, Grace, Elmer and Ora. The first four of these children were born in Illinois; Emery, Wright, Gertrude and Grace, in 1887, 1890, 1892 and 1898. Jacob and Lou Ella moved the family to Rock Island, Texas, in 1898 soon after Grace was born. Wright was eight. Elmer and Ora were born in Rock Island in 1902 and 1907. The Smalls settled in Texas for 13 years.
ROCK ISLAND, TEXAS
When the Smalls lived in Rock Island, it was a small town with a rail-road depot, a church-school house and seven or eight buildings that included the bank, post office, drug store, grocery store and lumberyard.
The family was poor. Gertrude (Gertie), who was six when they moved to Texas, later talked about those days in Rock Island: “We had a hard time down there. Everyone in the family had to work. When we would go home from school at night, why, we knew we had to go to the truck garden and cut cab-bage or pick strawberries or something to make a living.”
Jacob was strict with the children. Elmer later said they never learned to play because they worked all the time. Elmer remembered being beaten by his father once for stopping on his way home from school to play ball with classmates. Elmer, Wright and their brothers sold milk door-to-door, and Jacob sold meat from a one-horse cart. In addition to hand-milking 27 cows every day, Jacob slaughtered and cured the beef he raised. Wright and his siblings grew up in horse-and-buggy days. There were no telephones or radios in the house, and the children studied by coal oil lamps. The children went to Rock Island’s public school which was also the church. It was a one-room, wood frame structure with a steeple and bell tower. Wright graduated from eighth grade here in 1909 among a class of 28.
In the summer of 1909, a hurricane devastated Rock Island. Jacob covered the windows of their house with table boards, feather beds and bedspreads, and the boys put the cows in the shed.
Finally the wind died down, the sun came out, and they thought the storm was over. However, another cloud appeared from the opposite direction. Gertie and her husband, Frank Wagar, recalled the storm, which lasted three or four days: “The wind came up and we got it from another direction. My dad told the boys to get the cows out of the barn real quick because he was afraid they’d get penned in. They got the cows out, and it (the storm) took the barn down.”
Frank was at work at the soda foun-tain in the drug store when the storm came. He said they “braced the north side of the building with 2 x 6’s from the lumberyard.” He said the storm “racked them some” when it first came from the south. “Then about evening, it laid down for a little bit. The sun came out, and we thought it was over. People started home from their stores. I got home, but some of them had to stay in ditches to keep things from hitting them, and they never got home until morning because after the wind turned, it was worse than when it came from the south. It took down our bank building which was made of cement blocks. It took down the building where I worked and the hardware store, then another one or two, and it moved quite a few houses off their foundations.”
The Wagars, who had moved with the Smalls from Illinois to Texas, relocated to Nash, Oklahoma, after the storm. In 1911, Jacob also moved his family to Nash. The train ride from Rock Island to north central Oklahoma was more than a thousand miles. Wright rode in a boxcar with the farm animals and the most valuable family belongings.
STARTING OVER IN OKLAHOMA
Characteristic of the times, Jacob was a “horse trader.” He was good and usually came out ahead. In 1897, he traded Illinois land for the Texas farm. In 1911, after the hurricane took most of Rock Island, Jacob traded the Texas farm for a farm and mercantile store in Nash, Oklahoma. Jacob managed the farm in Oklahoma, and the two oldest boys, Emery, 23, and Wright, 21, operated the store. Jacob raised cattle and grew strawberries for market. Meanwhile, nine-year-old Elmer ran the family’s one-horse delivery wagon, hauling eggs and chickens to the railroad depot for shipment about 30 miles to Enid, Oklahoma.
The mercantile store was large for a small town; it was also the only mercantile store in Nash. One side was stocked with dry goods and clothing; the other, with groceries and hardware. Emery bought clothing at the wholesale market in Kansas City, and it was delivered to Nash by train. Most other merchandise was brought by railroad from Enid. One of Emery’s sons, Adrin, later explained the men’s system for selling clothing: Emery bought it at half the retail price, never more, and sold a fourth of it for retail price, a fourth marked 25% off, and a fourth marked 50% off. By selling three-quarters of the clothes at discount prices, Emery and Wright recouped their investment. The clothing sold at full price brought pure profit to the family.
The boys ran the store on a tight budget, sometimes not able to pay bills. A relative who worked at the store recalled that more than once, Wright slipped out the back door to avoid bill collectors. These were the years just before World War I, a time of depression for nearly everyone, especially farmers. The store burned in 1914, the first of many fires that Wright would experience in his life. It was not known what caused the fire.
The fire heated peanuts that were stocked in large barrels, causing peanut oil to run out of the barrels and down the street. Many people gathered this small stream of oil right off the street to use at home for cooking – an indication of how poor they were.
The Smalls had followed their longtime friends, Rose and Will Wagar, to Oklahoma. The next year, Wright and Gertrude Small married two of the Wagars, Hazel and Frank; the brother and the sister of one family married the sister and brother of the other.
Wright and Hazel were married in Oklahoma on March 23, 1912. Wright was 22 and Hazel was 18. They had two children in Nash; Earl, born September 6, 1913, and Gwendolyn, September 4, 1915. Earl and Gwendolyn were born at home.
SETTLING IN KANSAS
The Smalls worked hard to survive in Oklahoma. It was a depressed time for farmers, and even with the store, they were struggling. After the store burned, they talked about relocating where farmland looked better and opportunities came easier.
In 1916, five years after moving to Oklahoma from Texas, the Wagars and Smalls, now encompassing four family units, moved again, this time to Kansas. Jacob and his oldest sons, Emery, 28 and Wright, 26, purchased two farms in Neodesha which they operated as a partnership, sharing work animals and equipment. At that time, they still farmed with teams of horses.
Neodesha was a small community situated on two rivers, the Fall and the Verdigris, and beside the Missouri Pacific and Frisco Railroads. The surrounding farmland was rich and black, and the town was commercially successful. Neodesha was partially supported by Standard Oil Company’s first successful oil well west of the Mississippi River, Norman No. 1, which was thriving on the War, higher prices, automobiles and new roads. Although the United States didn’t enter World War I until 1917, farm prices were also up as war-torn Europe demanded more food from America.
Most of the Smalls made Neodesha their permanent home. Emery and his wife, Addie, lived with Jacob and Lou Ella and three younger children on one of the two Kansas farms. They raised wheat and cattle.
Wright, Hazel and their two child-ren lived on the other of the Neodesha properties, the Whitlock farm. Wright owned horses and cows. He sold prairie grass that grew naturally on the land, and 10 to 20 acres of alfalfa, the new foraging crop that had migrated east from California.
After four years, Jacob, Emery and Wright reorganized their partnership in the two farms. Jacob and Lou Ella moved to a farm known locally as the Mat Hudson farm. Emery kept one of the two family farms, and Wright moved with Hazel and their two child-ren into town. The children were four and seven. Wright and Hazel bought a three-bedroom bungalow for $4,000 where they lived for another four years.
Jacob’s health began to fail after he and Lou Ella moved to the second Neodesha farm. Jacob suffered for several months from symptoms of what we know today as Alzheimer’s disease. Finally, he could not remember what he was doing or where he was. Wright and Emery took their father 300 miles to a Kansas City hospital for treatment. Jacob didn’t recover and passed away in Kansas City in January of 1922.
Wright and his older brother, Emery, settled Jacob’s estate. Jacob had deeded the farm to his five oldest children. He left half his estate for the children to divide and the other half to his wife, Lou Ella. The two boys had a farm sale to dispose of Jacob’s farm equipment and livestock, and they helped their mother, Lou Ella, move to town.