Sunday, July 6, 2014

52 Ancestors - #27 Ruby Burris – Not Your Typical Grandmother

Willful and Spoiled - At least that is how my Grandma Ruby’s sister Pearl once described her 14 years younger sibling. Actually Grandma Ruby described herself that way also. It is no wonder. Their father Burrel Williamson Burris (born June 25, 1858) and mother Rosetta (George born September 17, 1871) had Pearl on March 5, 1888 and then a son W. Edgar born on March 9, 1889 who only lived ten days and another daughter Opal born on September 9, 1891 and died when she was 10 months. They lost two children in three years and then it would be almost 10 years later before Ruby was born on April 24, 1902 while the family was living in Pueblo, Colorado. Burrel and Rosetta spoiled Ruby from the start and seemed incapable of telling her “no”.  While they lived in Colorado Burrel worked as a dairyman for the Riverside Dairy.

From Colorado they moved to Viola, Arkansas where they lived for three years and Pearl met her first husband. The family then returned to their home state of Missouri and settled in Raymondville, Texas County, Missouri where Burrel and Rosetta lived for the rest of their lives.  Rosetta was postmistress and Burrel had a store.

 Ruby at age 7

In the 1910 Census, Burrel is listed as a retail merchant in his own dry goods and grocery store. Rosetta is a saleswoman in the store. Ruby is eight years old and her life-long friend Madge Shipp lives next door to them. Ruby is also listed as Ruby B. Burris although on her birth certificate no middle name is listed.  I do have a picture of Bryant and Sarah George, Ruby’s maternal grandparents, that says on the back: “For R. Kandace Burris” which Ruby had among her pictures. So at least for awhile Ruby was using Kandace as a middle name.

Madge Shipp and Ruby Burris

My Aunt Dorothy told me that in 1916 Pearl came home for a visit and found out that Ruby, at age 14, had gone off and married a 25 year old. Their father, Burrel, was not too upset about it but Pearl did not think it was right so she had the marriage annulled. Ruby’s first husband’s name is unknown.

On June 19,, 1918 Ruby was sent a postcard in Raymondville, Missouri from Roscoe Mitchell. Roscoe had written, "How are you! I'm just fine. I'm coming home Monday if I don't get lost. R."   The other side said, "Picture of oil rig in operation - Augusta, KS." Roscoe was from the neighboring small town of Licking, Missouri. I have no idea of when they met or started seeing each other.

On September 2, 1918 he sent Ruby another postcard which said, "Sept 2 Just arrived in Seattle this eve. Will write you again when I get to camp. Roscoe." Ruby is in Chicago, Illinois living at 6100 Champlain, Apt 2. I believe that Ruby’s sister Pearl may have been living in Chicago at that time.

1919 Ruby and Roscoe

Roscoe, at the age of 22, married Ruby, who was 17 years old the month before, on May 19, 1919 in Springfield, Greene County, Missouri.  (This information was from Roscoe’s sisters because I had never been able to find the marriage records. While I was researching for this, it struck me just to Google “Greene County, Missouri Marriage Records” – and one of the results was a search page for marriage records. I first tried Roscoe A. Mitchell and there were no results so then I tried Ruby Burris and the result was a record for 5-19-1919 R.A. Mitchell and Ruby Burris!) Two months after they married Ruby was again living in Chicago.

Ruby and Roscoe Mitchell
May 19, 1919

 On the back it says: Mrs. Mitchell

My father Lionell Burris Mitchell was born on January 11, 1920 in Raymondville, Texas County, Missouri – though for the first couple of months he was Lionell Randall Mitchell. Ruby was staying with her parents when the census was done on January 7, 1920 four days before he was born. 

 Lionell Randall Mitchell
One Month and 24 Days

 Lionell Burris Mitchell and Ruby Burris Mitchell

Roscoe traveled a lot and worked in various oil fields. On May 22nd of that year he was in Fort Worth, Texas and wrote Ruby in Raymondville, Missouri that "Sunday morning just arrived in Weatherford - will go on down to Mineral Well this morn. Hope you and Lionell is well. Roscoe" On August 14th he sends Ruby in Raymondville a postcard from Necessity, Texas "Dear Ruby, Hope all are well; I am fine will write letter soon. Roscoe"

Ruby’s mother Rosetta died at the West Side Hospital in Chicago on August 27, 1920. Ruby’s sister Pearl was living in Chicago in September of 1920. Ruby is now in Chicago and Roscoe is in Raymondville. "Chicago, Ill Oct 28 -'20   Dear Roscoe: I rec'd your card today and was so glad to get it. I was so worried about Lionell. I will be so glad when I can go home. Ruby" The other side of postcard has boy following man and the caption "Following in Father's Footsteps." In November, Roscoe is back in Fort Worth, Texas and Ruby is still in Chicago staying at the Drexel Arms Hotel and then at the Sherman Hotel, "Dear Ruby Hope you are almost well by this time. I am feeling fine only a little lonesome. Hope I will hear from you soon. Guess Grandma is tickled over election. Roscoe" Ruby often left my dad with friends in Raymondville while she stayed in Chicago. I am not sure when Ruby and Roscoe divorced but they remained friends and wrote or called each other over the years.

I know that Ruby claimed to have partied with Al Capone’s gang during her time in Chicago and that she even married one of them, but I have found nothing to support this claim. Well, at least not the claim of marriage, it is entirely possible that she partied with them.

On Friday March 24, 1922, Ruby Mitchell is living in Raymondville with her father when the house burned. Her father Burrel Burris had been sleeping upstairs and Ruby and two year old Lionell were downstairs. As she related to her mother-in-law Effie Mitchell, “It was just breaking day. I heard things falling in the kitchen and fire cracking and burning. I thought that Papa was in there and had built a fire. I called to him and he answered but he was upstairs. I got up and went in to see what was wrong in the kitchen and when I opened the door the flames came through the whole kitchen was afire. I hollered to Papa that the house was on fire. He started down as soon as I called him but he could not get down the stairway. He called to me to get Lionell out and call for help….I was at the front door with Lionell trying to get the screen unhooked then. There was so much smoke I could not see. I got out with Lionell and called for help and went back and got Mother’s picture…Papa threw a feather bed, two pillows, two sheets, and five light quilts out the window from upstairs. Then Papa jumped out the window. He got his eye lashes, eye brows and hair on the sides singed when he tried to come down the stairs.” They had not had a fire since Thursday morning so they were not sure how it started. They saved a few items from the west room including two of Ruby’s dresses and the piano but the piano had some fire damage. Nothing of Lionell’s survived the fire. She does close by asking Effie if she has heard from her son Roscoe and asks where he is.

A year and a half later Ruby married Albert M. Miller. In the Washington, Marriage Records, 1865-2004 there is a Certificate of Marriage record kept by Pierce County, Washington that states that Al M. Miller and Ruby Burris Mitchell were married on October 4, 1923 in Tacoma, Pierce County, Washington. They were joined in wedlock by a Justice of the Peace. Al is of San Mateo County, California and Ruby Burris Mitchell is of Texas County, Missouri. Ruby is 21 years old. I do have the actual marriage certificate which states that Albert M. Miller of San Francisco, California and Ruby Burris Mitchell of Raymondville, Missouri were united in marriage on the 4th day October in the Year of Our Lord 1923. It is possible that Pearl may have been living in California and that they met each other when Ruby came out to visit her sister Pearl. For some reason they decided to travel two states north to Tacoma to get married. Ruby never let a little thing like distance get in her way.

1924 Lionell and Al Miller

Ruby and Lionell traveled with Conklin and Garrett’s Shows by train from Vancouver BC April 26, 1926 to Dauphin MB on July 10, 1926 and then back to Vancouver BC on October 10, 1926. She worked as a seamstress. I have no idea if Al was with her or not.

Ruby and Lionell in front of the show train
On February 3, 1927 Ruby Burris Mitchell Miller is back in Missouri and her father has given her a check from $320. In the fall of 1927, Lionell is in first grade at Vollmer School where Ruby has enrolled him as Lionell Miller. I do know that Ruby and Al were divorced by May 28, 1928 because Al M. Miller of the County of San Francisco, California was marrying a woman from Carbon County, Montana in Vancouver, Washington. Traveling two states north to get married must have been his idea.

 B.W. Burris, Lionell Mitchell, Ruby Miller

Ruby had married William John “Champ” Champlin by April 3, 1930. At that time she was living in Raymondville, Missouri. It was thought that they were married sometime 1929. I don’t know when or where they met. Knowing Ruby it could have been in any one of 50 states or any of the Canadian provinces. Their son Jack Burrel was born in Raymondville, Missouri on August 3, 1930 and David Denzel Champlin was born April 17, 1932. Champ (Bill) and Ruby Champlin were still living with her father in Raymondville on December 18, 1933. 

B.W. Burris with Denzel and Jack
February 1, 1934

Ruby’s father B.W Burris died on February 3, 1934 while taking a nap with his grandson Jack. Ruby and her family continued to live in his home. My Aunt Dorothy Irene was born on January 10, 1935 the day before Lionell’s 15th birthday. 

1936 Denzel, Jack and Dorothy Champlin

Aunt Dorothy thought that Ruby may have been married after Al Miller and before her father but I have not been able to find any record of it. Ruby in her later years told her that “they were all nice men but I was just a brat.” At some time in her life Ruby who was baptized in the Baptist Church converts to the Catholic Church.

At this point in Ruby’s life I have diary that she kept. On July 19, 1937, the Champlin family left Raymondville, Missouri. My father stayed in Missouri with his grandparents Hubbard and Effie Mitchell. Times were hard during the depression and they had basically lost the property and headed for California to look for work. Bill and Ruby arrived in Los Angeles on July 22, 1937. They were staying with Bill’s sister Maude who rented a house for them on August 12, 1937. Her sister Pearl is sending Ruby money - $25 to $100 about every week – a lot of money during the depression. On September 5th Bill Champlin started a job in Los Angeles. Pearl wires Ruby money to meet her in Seattle. On September 13th, Bill went to work while his sister Irene takes Ruby and the children to the train station. They arrive in Seattle on the 15th but Pearl is not there to meet them. Pearl who was in Ketchikan, Alaska does not arrive in Seattle until September 20th. Ruby says in her diary, “How glad I am to see her. She is so much like Papa.” Ruby thought about moving back to Los Angeles but receives a letter from Bill saying that his family doesn’t want her down there. Pearl helps her rent a house and furnish it on September 28th. By October 25, 1937 Ruby has moved again to the Loch Kelden Apartments on 41st and Madison (809 41st Ave N Apt 206) in Seattle. On November 7, 1937 Bill Champlin surprised Ruby by showing up at her door. Ruby had regularly been seeing a dentist since her arrival in Seattle and has all the rest of her teeth pulled on December 11th.  On Christmas Eve 1937 they move to the Virginia Lee Apartments at 1420 4th Avenue West on Queen Anne Hill because the rent is cheaper and Bill has not been able to find work.

By the 1st of March 1938 Pearl is still sending Ruby a little money but is not making as much at her gold mine in Ketchikan. In her letter of March 23rd she is not able to send Ruby any money. Bill is working part of the time at their landlord’s ranch. On April 2nd Ruby says, “We went for a long walk looked over and around the sound. This is a pretty country but too cold for us and Bill can’t get work.” The kids have been extremely sick with very bad coughs and Dorothy got the mumps. Ruby still doesn’t have her false teeth. On April 16th they are moving again to a different apartment. On April 22nd Ruby’s mouth is very sore from the temporary plates but the dentist hasn’t gotten her new teeth made yet. She finally receives a birthday card and $5 from Pearl. “April 24th – Am 36 years old today. Not so old in years but awfully old in feelings. Can hardly move pains in chest aches in shoulders and back sides so sore and painful.” On May 7th Ruby gets her upper plate but the lower one doesn’t fit (and as late as July her dentist is still trying to make it fit better.) Ruby never feels well and some days doesn’t not eat at all or get up off the couch. If she is out and about it is to visit the doctor or the clinic or Harborview Hospital. Sometimes Bill is not able to go to work when he does have work because he is up all night with a sick wife or sick children. In July 1938 the landlord wants them to move to a different apartment. On March 31, 1939 they are still living in the apartment building at 1420 4th Avenue West. Lionell is in Cherry Creek, Arizona in the CCC (Civilian Conservation Corp) and after his discharge heads for Seattle.

After we entered World War II, the economy finally improves and Bill Champlin found steady work. On September 30, 1946 Champ does a Quit Claim Deed to Ruby Champlin for the property they have purchased at 1214 East Columbia, Seattle. 

Champ (Bill), Ruby, and Frank Champlin
November 7, 1946
Champ was gone 3 months later

Champ dies on February 7, 1947 of lung cancer at the age of 46. As late as 1951 Ruby is still living at 1214 East Columbia.

In 1958 Ruby is living at 4307 34th Avenue NE in Seattle. On June 2, 1960 Ruby’s sister Pearl and her husband Walter are killed in a car accident in Imperial, California. Pearl owned several homes in California including one in Indio. Pearl and her husband had purchased property in Mexico and had moved a lot of their money there in preparation of permanently moving to Mexico. They were most probably heading to or returning from their home in Mexico when the accident occurred. The medical examiner determined that Pearl had outlived her husband by a few minutes. There was a will leaving Ruby $1, but it was unsigned and since Pearl had never had children Ruby inherited everything. Ruby spent a lot of time tearing out walls and searching for hidden money and even had my older brother take the bus down to help her. There was no record of what they had in Mexico and Mexican officials could “find” nothing. 

Ruby would come to visit us in Portland and let my sister and I wear Pearl’s diamond rings and watches when we were 8 and 9 years old. She also brought an array of medicine bottles that she would cover our dressing table with. She would sleep in my sister’s bed and then we would sleep together in my bed. If I think about it I can still smell our bedroom smelling like Vick’s Vapor Rub. I remember her offering me $50,000 if I would come live with her. I declined. And yes, Ruby managed to spend every dime in just a few years – as her sister Pearl had feared.

I can remember my family visiting Grandma Ruby in Seattle and I was fascinated by the cages filled with Chinchilla’s in her basement. I remember thinking they were so soft and cute not realizing that Grandma Ruby was hoping to get rich selling them to make coats.

 Grandma Ruby and ?

Ruby used to write our family letters – or as we referred to them “books” – they would run to ten to twenty pages and she would run of ink and use several different pens in one letter. I can remember them as being entertaining because all four of us grandchildren would read them even though it would take awhile to do so.

In November 1968, Ruby is living in the Lake City area of Seattle at 14336 32nd Avenue NE. She died at home on December 23, 1975 at the age of 73.

I remember asking my mother how long Ruby had been dying (one of the main themes in her letters in the early 1960’s.) My mother replied that Ruby had been saying she was dying every since she had met her in 1940 - so 35 years. It is obvious after reading her diary that among other things she suffered from severe depression. She was never that “grandmotherly” but she was definitely unique.


  1. Mauve, I couldn't stop reading Ruby's story. Ruby was one of a kind. Well done!

  2. Thank you.I have so many questions I would like to ask her - though she was known to really clam up and not answer if she didn't like the question (or maybe it was the answer!)