Sunday, June 1, 2014

52 Ancestors - #22 James Vernon Graves – A Thoroughly Rotten Relative

Every family has one. What can I say about not so Grand Uncle Vern? Nothing good. I have to say that I never ever had any desire to meet my mother’s Uncle Vern. She didn’t care for him and neither did her sisters. Her brother did not speak highly of him either.

James Vernon Graves was born on May 27, 1899 in Horicon, Dodge Wisconsin, to Jefferson Thomas (JT) Graves and Martha “Mattie” Matilda Riches.  He was named for JT’s father James. Both of his parents absolutely doted on him. In June 4, 1900 at age one the Graves Family including big sister Effa (who was 2 ½ years old) were living at Bridge Creek, Eau Claire, Wisconsin. Three years later the family followed JT’s father James out to Washington State and settled at Jackson Prairie. The closest post office to them at that time was at Forest just south of Chehalis.

JT, Mattie, Effa
Cousin Irma, Vern

According to my Uncle Arnold, Vern was always pampered and became an alcoholic in his early teens. He said that Vern was lazy and never stayed with anything or place for long. Vern was also always good at borrowing money and not paying it back.

 Vern age 16

 Vern is on the right

On Vern’s September 12, 1918 WW I Draft Registration paperwork, he stated that he was staying at the Arlington Hotel, Hoquiam, Grays Harbor County, Washington and that he was working at the Carlton Dairy. He was described as short, with medium build, light brown hair and blue eyes. In a January 30, 1919 letter to his father, Vern says that he has received a letter from Captain Cameron stating that he has Vern’s passport and turned his papers over to the Sea Service Bureau and he will call Vern as soon as they have a ship assigned. I can find no record of military service for Vern but I do have a picture of him in a uniform.

On July 29, 1919, Vern was married in Chehalis, Lewis, Washington by a Justice of the Peace to Mayme Cheney. He was 20 years old and she was just 16. Their witnesses were his mother Mattie and her father John Cheney. On February 3rd of the following year, census records show that Vern and Mayme were living next door Mayme’s parents John and Christina Cheney and family in Lewis County, Washington just south of Chehalis and east of Napavine.

In October 1921 Vern’s sister’s husband Alva built a gas station and garage at Mary’s Corner in Lewis County, Washington.  Vern was always trying to stash liquor at the gas station, and Alva was always getting rid of it. In a letter from Alva to Effa, Alva says, “I sure am glad I didn’t pay any down on that house, after the way Vern ended up. I told him to keep that stuff out of the house.” His mother Mattie was frequently bailing him out of jail for his drinking and moonshine busts.

Alva repeatedly found jobs for Vern. In a letter dated April 5, 1927 Alva says, “Vern was going to quit the other day but hasn’t said anything about it so far.” Vern was working with Alva as crew on the Tug Warren. Then on April 15th, “Vern seems to be pretty well satisfied with his job so far.” Alva repeats that again in his April 20th letter. A May 7th 1927 letter from Alva in Seattle to Effa in Aberdeen says, “Will send you a few lines by Vern. He has lasted about as long as he usually does. He will be out of luck for me to ever get him a job for he sure is hopeless.” In Alva’s May 13th letter he says, “So Vern says we had lots to drink over there (Victoria, BC). He is speaking for himself – he should have added in his letter. If drinking got me in as much trouble as it does him. I’d leave it strictly alone.”

Mayme - May 1927
The Warren left Seattle on Monday, May 23rd at 3:15 pm for Victoria, British Columbia. Alva was not even scheduled to work that night but Vern talked him into taking his shift.  According to family, they had been testing a new type of 170 hp diesel engine. On the return trip to Seattle the Warren sunk during a horrible storm and everyone was lost.

Vern and Mayme divorced and he started seeing Angeline E. (Eva) Coppinger in late 1927 or early 1928. On June 8, 1936 Vern and Eva were married Skamania County, Washington by a Justice of the Peace.

1938 Vern, Eva, Arnold

On March 21, 1940 Vern’s mother Mattie died. She had made her wishes known to everyone including Vern about who was to get various things of hers upon her death. Vern refused to honor a single wish of hers – even if he couldn’t sell it (as he did with most of her things) he threw it in a shed and locked it up so no one else could have it. In the shed pictures rotted and teapots and cups were broken.  I am sure that is where the family bible ended up also. Vern talked his father into signing the property at Jackson Prairie over to him and then Vern sold it.

On April 23, 1940 Vern was living at Amboy, Clark County, Washington.  His occupation was listed as “burning brush.” Vern’s father JT was living with him as was his stepson Howard age 12. Vern was 40 and Eva was 53. When JT became ill Vern sent him to a charity hospital. JT died August 12, 1949. Vern was still living in Amboy in January of 1950.

By September 29, 1962, Vern and Eva are living in Eugene, Oregon according to a letter from his sister Effa.

In a letter from my Aunt Stella dated February 24, 1977, Vern is convalescing from and auto wreck and is a little foggy yet. My Aunt Stella was trying to get some family history from him and he promised to go through his stuff which didn’t happen.

Vern died January 3, 1991 at Long Beach, Washington at the age of 91. He is buried at Mills and Mills Memorial Park, in Tumwater, Thurston County, Washington. It was not a well-attended funeral.


  1. You are right we all have them like this. Sorry to say.

  2. I debated on doing a post on him but I wanted to set the record straight. He hurt so many people by his actions and we lost so much family history. My mother and her sisters were just devastated that they didn't get the little trinkets their grandmother wanted them to have or the pictures. I love to post the old family pictures on and sometimes it might be the only copy that is available. I scanned all of my ex mother-in-law's old pictures just before and after she died at 93 and before they were divided up amongst the siblings. I sent CD's out to all the family members so everyone could have copies of them.

  3. Ever wonder why there are no stories about this amoral ahole not fighting in WWII? I hadn't thought about it, but Dad just said he had joined the Navy, but his folks paid $25 to buy him out of the military. Let's not forget his moonshine activities. I have Aunt Mayme's interview on tape where she talks about that.

  4. Well, if the folks had just waited - the Navy would have either paid them to take him back or they would have put him in prison for his not so charming ways.