Tuesday, September 2, 2014

52 Ancestors - #32 Lionell Burris Mitchell – Surviving His Childhood

I can remember Dad showing me a small bible with his picture in it once when I asked about his childhood. He is nicely dressed. He said it was the happiest time of his childhood when he had been abandoned and left alone at age 6 by his mother Ruby. His Aunt Pearl came home to Raymondville to visit and found that he had been left home alone for an extended period of time and took him to a Catholic convent. His said that his time spent with the nuns there was wonderful and happy. The nuns pampered him, loved him, fed him, and found him some nice clothes to wear. They showered him with attention until Ruby finally returned to claim him. My sister Lisa now has the bible they gave him with his picture tucked in the cover – all dressed up looking just adorable.
 Picture taken in Seattle 1926

Dad never talked about his childhood or volunteered any information but if you could ask the right questions you would get an answer – not easy to do. My Uncle Teck on my mother’s side said that Mitch never talked about his life or his childhood.

My father Lionell Burris Mitchell was born on January 11, 1920 at 7:20 p.m. in Raymondville, Texas County, Missouri. His father Roscoe Arthur Mitchell was 23 years old. His mother Ruby Burris Mitchell was 17 years old. He was Lionell Randall Mitchell for the first couple of months, but by the time the birth certificate was filed on May 1, 1920 he was Lionell Burris Mitchell. (As my Dad said when I asked him about that, “She must have been trying to curry favor with her father.”)

Ruby was staying with her parents when the census was taken in Raymondville, Missouri on January 7, 1920 just four days before Lionell was born. I have not been able to find Roscoe on a 1920 census but he traveled a lot from oil field to oil field and state to state – where ever he could find work.

 Lionell Randall Mitchell
One Month and 24 Days
 Lionell Burris Mitchell and Ruby Burris Mitchell

For the most part my father’s childhood was rather grim – Ruby would not have won “Mother of the Year.” She and Roscoe were close friends and kept in touch their whole lives by mail and phone, but they divorced either just before or just after my father was born. My father never knew Roscoe and only saw him maybe a couple of times before he saw him the last time at Roscoe’s mother Effie’s funeral on March 15, 1936. Roscoe also had very little contact with his siblings over the years either.

When my dad was just a few months old Ruby left him with a neighbor lady, while she headed to Chicago either to visit her sister Pearl or to visit her mother in the hospital. Ruby’s mother Rosetta died at the West Side Hospital in Chicago on August 27, 1920. Ruby came home for the funeral but was back in Chicago by the middle of September – on this rare occasion with her baby Lionell. Ruby really liked to party while she was in Chicago so on October 28, 1920 Ruby is in Chicago and Roscoe is in Raymondville when she sent him a postcard.  “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." She must have brought Lionell home to stay with Roscoe’s parents. In November, Roscoe is back in Fort Worth, Texas and Ruby is still in Chicago, "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"

On Friday March 24, 1922, Ruby Mitchell is living in Raymondville with her father when the house burned. Her father Burrell Burris had been sleeping upstairs and Ruby and two year old Lionell were downstairs. Burrell could not get down the stairs and had to jump out of the upstairs window, and Ruby had problems unhooking the screen door but managed to get out with Lionell. Nothing of Lionell’s survived the fire and Ruby only had a couple of dresses in the front room.
Lionell 1922
1922 Aunt Tabitha, her brother BW Burris and Lionell

1923 Lionell playing in the car Ruby sent him

On October 4, 1923 Ruby married Albert M. Miller in Tacoma. Washington. She must have met him in California when visiting her sister. 

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. [I only learned of this after Dad had died and Kay had me come get Ruby’s old trunk that Dad had some of his and her old pictures and papers in. Dad had the laminated Route Card (he loved to laminate pictures etc. long before it was common,) pictures and the tickets. On a visit to my brother Terry in Toronto, Dad and Terry were standing on a corner downtown and Dad noticed a poster for the Garrett-Conklin circus and mentioned in passing that when he was a kid he had traveled across Canada by train with that circus.]

Ruby and Lionell in front of the show train

Dad’s artwork while on the road

On February 3, 1927 Ruby and Lionell are back in Missouri. 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 remarried on that date.

September 1927

B.W. Burris, Lionell Mitchell, Ruby Miller

Dad had a list of everywhere he lived starting in 1928. He states that he was in Licking, Missouri from 1928 through July 1938 which also includes the neighboring town of Raymondville.

For the 1929-1930 school year he was now known as Billy Mitchell and he was in Amelia Goldsbury’s 3rd grade class at Vollmar School. By April 3, 1930, Billy (Lionell) at age 8 had a second step-father William John “Champ” Champlin. In August of 1930 his first half sibling Jack was born in Raymondville.
 1930 Billy Mitchell

For the 1930-1931 school year his teacher at Vollmar School was Virginia Edwards for 4th grade, and then is 1931-1932 school year teacher for 5th grade was again Amelia Goldsbury. Billy Mitchell was promoted to 6th grade on March 25, 1932 which was then followed by a second baby brother David on April 1932.

Billy’s 1932-1933 6th grade teacher was again Amelia Goldsbury and on March 31, 1933 he is promoted to the 7th grade. Champ (Bill) and Ruby Champlin were still living with her father in Raymondville on December 18, 1933.  Lionell’s beloved grandfather B.W. Burris died on February 3, 1934 while taking a nap with his grandson Jack.

One day Dad was walking across the street in Licking, Missouri and someone stopped him and asked if he was related to Roscoe Mitchell. Dad said, “Yes, he’s my father.” They told Dad that the two of them walked just alike – even though Dad had virtually no contact with his father. (The same thing happened to my brother Terry when we were living in John Day, Oregon. Someone spotted him as Mitch’s son from the way he walked.)

In early 1935 my Aunt Dorothy was born the day before Lionell’s 15th birthday. Lionell was allowed to name his new baby sister – and he was sweet on a girl named Dorothy. Lionell and Dorothy were always close. A few months later on April 13, 1935 Bill Mitchell receives a certificate for finishing eight elementary grades. Sometime during this year my Dad started working for a bootlegger and picked up a number of skills that would serve him well in later life when he became legendary for his home brew.

I am not sure if it happened Christmas Eve 1935 or earlier but Dad told me had had gone out hunting with his Coon dog one Christmas Eve and came home to find that mother Ruby and step-dad Champ had left. Dad spent the night in a cave with his dog. His grandparents Hubbard and Effie Mitchell took him in. Dad and that dog had a number of adventures including one where the dog decided to tangle with a skunk that then got both of them.

(Pictures from Gwen Mitchell Wiggins)
"A sad day of Mama's funeral 
Norman, Gwendolyn, Veron, Papa
Lionell, Roscoe and my daughter Bonnie 17 mos"
March 15, 1936

 "The day of Mama's funeral
Norman, Papa, Roscoe, Lionell
C.D. Keller (neighbor boy)
In front -Gwendolyn, Veron"

My Dad had just turned 16 years old a few months before his grandmother Effie died and this was the last time he would ever see or hear from his father.

My Dad also competed in Golden Gloves Boxing competitions and went to St Louis to fight in a Golden Gloves Tournament. I can remember him telling me that he got to meet the famous boxer Jack Dempsey who was at that time retired and also Joe Louis, the 1934 Golden Gloves Champion and World Heavyweight Champion from 1937 to 1949. They thought he had a future in boxing but his stepfather Champ, a former boxer, talked him out of boxing.

Dad and his girlfriend – labeled A long, long time ago
The Champlin’s must have returned because they moved permanently to the West Coast on July 19, 1937. Champ was unable to find work and on the verge of losing the farm, so the Champlin family departed Raymondville, Missouri for California. My father was left in Missouri and was taken in by his grandfather Hubbard.

Ruby wrote in her diary on March 1, 1938, “Lionell up against it.” On April 11, 1938 Lionell wrote his mother telling her he was still looking for work. As of May 6, 1938 he is trying to get in to the camps and is working on a farm at Edgar Springs at 50 cents per day. On May 16th he writes her that he still has no job and no money.

Finally, on July 6, 1938 he was accepted into the CCC, the Civilian Conservation Corps. The Civilian Conservation Corp had been created by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as part of his New Deal program. It was designed to provide jobs for young men ages 17 to 28, and to relieve families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression. It provided unskilled manual labor jobs related to the conservation and development of natural resources in rural lands owned by federal, state, and local governments. Each young man received $30 per month in wages, of which he received $5 and his family was sent $25. The CCC operated under the Army’s control. From 1933 to 1942 2.9 million men served in the CCC and were trained in trades and took education classes. Camps were set up in all 48 states plus Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. An estimated three billion trees were planted in a reforestation effort to renew decimated forests. In addition, the men built roads and bridges; strung telephone lines; erected fire towers; fought forest fires; protected natural habitats of wildlife; built drainage systems; performed emergency work during natural disasters; provided disease, insect, and erosion control; inventoried and surveyed timber; and  developed forest recreation areas with campgrounds, picnic shelters, swimming pools, fireplaces and restrooms.   (More about the CCC here and here.)

The CCC camps were set up as temporary communities with barracks for 50 enrollees, officer or technical staff quarters, medical dispensary, mess hall, recreation hall, educational building, lavatory and showers, offices and shops, and motor pool garages. Each camp had Department of War personnel or Reserve officers, a company commander and junior officer who were responsible for overall camp operation, logistics, education and training, ten to fourteen technical service civilians which included a camp superintendent or foreman from either the Department of the Interior or Agriculture, and non-technical supervisors with knowledge of the work being done and the ability to provide guidance to the inexperienced enrollees. Each camp was divided into two sections of enrollees, and each section had an enrollee senior leader and assistant leader who were accountable for the men at work and in the barracks.

Lionell spent from July 6, 1938 to July 11, 1938 in processing at CCC Company 1731 in Winona, Missouri and traveling to his first assignment in Hardy, Arkansas at CCC Company 1705. He worked in Forestry at Company 1705 from July 12, 1938 to October 9, 1938 on Project F-70 where from a letter to his mother he told her he was Acting Leader of Barracks on August 9, 1938. According to the letter his mother received from the commanding officer, the camp was situated near the town of Hardy and it was an Arkansas State Forestry Camp. The work there consisted of building roads, bridges, and telephone lines and when necessary fighting forest fires. He spent October 10th and 11th in route to his next assignment which was DG-121 at Cherry Creek, Nevada for the Department of Grazing. From October 12, 1938 to March 31, 1939, he worked in road construction with a pick and shovel. He decided not to re-enroll and upon his discharge he was listed as 5 feet 8 inches tall at age 19. He then started to head to Seattle to join his mother. The Champlins are now living in an apartment at 1420 4th Avenue West, Seattle, Washington. It must have been on his way to Seattle that he obtained employment in Wyoming working for a rancher guarding the sheep from a bear. Unfortunately, the job only lasted one night. On his first night of work he emptied his gun into a bear and then was out of a job. He then made his way to Seattle and moved in with the Champlins and started looking for work.

1420 4th Avenue West

1939 Lionell at age 19 and his mother Ruby

His father Roscoe in 1917 age 21


  1. I have the picture of my grandfather above and also of his mother's funeral. I never realized that was his son next to him.

  2. Hello Maeve - I am not a blogger and tried to post last night but I think it failed as I just posted one successfully. I am David Kunkle - your 1st cousin. My grandfather who I knew growing up is Roscoe. My mother is Rita Luella Kunkle. My mother passed away in 2002. I would love to correspond with you on our families. I have lots of photos and information as well. Let me know how we can connect.

    1. Hi David! I am so glad you found me - a couple of months ago I was trying to figure out how to find you! We had a trip south planned in August 2002 so I contacted Cousin Bonnie - Grand Aunt Gwen's daughter to get your mother's contact info and found out that she had just passed away. We ended up doing a 5760 mile trip - 18 states in 17 days (We had a couple day layover in Oklahoma) on motorcycles. You can contact me a maeve dot mitchell at yahoo dot com .