There’s a man on our family tree that is a mystery to my generation. His name is there, Lawrence Carr, and his death date, 1930. That’s all. No pictures that I could find. No specific details of his life before he met and married Ellis, my father’s sister; no details of their life together – except this one – he hung himself in the barn after losing everything in the 1929 stock market crash.
I peer over photographs of over eight decades ago, looking for clues. Who was this man? How was Ellis impacted by this early marriage that ended in shock and sorrow? How did the rest of the family react to his short stay in the family?
Charley, Crile, Katie, Ellis Dean and friend, c 1925
I found this picture of the family in Daddy’s old photograph album. It was taken a few years prior to 1930, probably about 1925. On the far left is my grandfather, Charley and my grandmother, Katie, with their daughter Ellis, and their youngest son, my father Crile, on a bridge of rough-hewn boards that span a low creek at the edge of a canyon, the walls of the creek held in place by a retaining wall of stones to keep the water from washing the hillside away. The girl at the far right is about Ellis’ age and is probably a friend or cousin, but I know nothing about her.
As the photograph is in black and white, there are no colors to jump out or inform the mood, rather there are shapes and designs that vary from dark to light, from pattern to solid, from small to large, from rugged rocks to dainty detail on the hats. There are hints as to the lives lived by these people captured in a casual photo on a cool day.
This is a family that lives and works on a ranch with sheep and horses and cattle just outside the small town of Moriarty, about forty miles northeast of Albuquerque. Moriarty is flat land covered with sagebrush, some desert plants and a few houses scattered around one main road with a short line of small businesses. The family’s home, known as the Dean Place, is about five miles out of town, toward the hills. The town hasn’t changed must in the years between then and now, so it surprises me how trendy this family is dressed.
Grandmother Katie wears a shin length, heavy, dark coat with a wide fur collar and fur cuffs; her hat is a 1920’s cloche with a wide brim that is low on her face, her eyes shaded. At the top of her hat, there is some small decorative piece that reaches for the sky above. It is small enough that using a magnifying glass doesn’t give much detail, but this is a stylish hat that covers all of her piled up brown hair, gone gray at the sides. She wears dark stockings and dark, leather flats that lace up the front.
Ellis is about fifteen to sixteen years old, slim and with a vibrancy that suggests energy even as she stands next to her mother. She’s about the same height as Katie, which suggests she will be taller by the time she gains her full height. Ellis’ hair is styled in the late Twenties, short, flapper style, bangs drawn across her forehead; her dress is Twenties style loose, straight, ending just below the knee, low waisted and long sleeved, wide lapels along the collar with a contrasting placard opening at the neck; she wears dark hose and low heeled Mary Janes. Her hat, a beret, sits on the crown of her head above her bangs. The look on Ellis’ face is lively and alert; her smile wide, her eyes bright.
My father, Crile, is about five and is perched on the bridge railing between his mother and father. His ankle high leather shoes lace up the front, he wears heavy cotton pants and a long sleeved shirt with either a cowl neck or a scarf around his neck. The lens caught him with his eyes closed, which is unusual for this wide-eyed child who smiles big for the camera. I’m told they called him “Hap” as a boy because of his happy nature. Life on the ranch meant hard work but it also meant freedom to explore and to grow into responsibility. He told the story of packing up a frying pan, a rasher of bacon, a bedroll and a canteen of water then riding out into the desert on his horse to camp overnight by himself. He was twelve. His parents didn’t fear for his safety nor were they afraid he couldn’t handle himself. He did it for fun.
His father, next to him in the photo, tall and slim, a full head taller than Katie, perches comfortably against the rail, his ankles crossed, hands in the pockets of his cuffed suit slacks, his shirt a long sleeved white and his tie, thin and dark, stops a full three inches above his waist. His light colored hat is a ten-gallon with a wide brim that hides all of his brown hair with hints at gray to come.
This family, far from a large city, seems right up with the times. Perhaps they copied clothing from the Sears, Roebuck & Co catalogue. They might have gone in to Albuquerque to window shop. Katie sewed, as did most of the working women of her generation, so as many clothes as possible were made at home. There was plenty of food for the ranch family but actual cash was more rare.
Daddy’s album has no more pictures of the family until about ten years later. The world did not stand still in that time, nor did the family. The children grew and matured, spread their wings and made choices. Those choices led Ellis and Lawrence Carr together. Ellis was twenty when she became a widow in 1930, so this was a marriage of her youth. Daddy talked about how strong willed she was. She had determination and drive to be something different than a school teacher like her mother or a wife on a ranch. She moved into Albuquerque after high school and went to secretarial school and I’m guessing it was sometime in those days that Lawrence Carr entered her life.
This was The Roaring Twenties and those years carried with them a feeling of excitement and prosperity for those who had money and for those who could dream of making something of themselves. The Great World War was behind; the future ahead was bright. The world economy was riding a wave of excess, people borrowed to have the capital to live life to the full, banks allowed borrowing heavily against the value of investments and the speculative bubble of stock values grew until 1929, when the market made a correction that burst the bubble. Many investors lost everything
Production of goods, that had taken off when money was flowing, were no longer affordable by most as there was no money to pay for goods and food and so businesses and farms began to fail. The world of the jazz age and gangsters lost their glamour in a wave of financial panic that affected even Europe as Weimar Germany had built up its economy on American loans. As America demanded payment of those loans, its economy fell and Germany’s politics were ripe for the rise of Nazism.
The Stock Market crash was not the only news of the day. 1929 was the birth year of future Civil Rights leader Martin Luther King, who was born in his grandfather’s house in Atlanta, Georgia. In Chicago, Illinois, gangsters working for Al Capone killed seven rivals and citizens in the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre. JC Penney opened its Store #1252 in Milford, Delaware, the last state in the Union to have one of their stores. The growth of the nationwide chain indicated the prosperity of the decade only two weeks before the stock market crash of 1929 would ensue.
In other depressing news, The Teapot Dome scandal came to a close when Albert B. Fall, the former Secretary of the Interior, was convicted of accepting a $100,000 bribe for leasing the Elk Hills naval oil reserve. He was sentenced to one year in jail and a $100,000 fine.
Plummeting stock prices led to losses between 1929 and 1931 of an estimated $50 billion and started the worst American depression in the nation’s history with the economy not fully recovering until war production with WWII. Some investors took their lives. Lawrence Carr was one of them.
Still, many found hope and a reason to push forward. Penicillin was first used to fight infection in 1929. 1930 saw many firsts: Mickey Mouse cartoon strip began; first radio broadcast of “The Lone Ranger”; Planet Pluto was discovered and photographed by Clyde Tombaugh, American astronomer; the first red and green traffic lights were installed in Manhattan, NYC; Clarence Birdseye developed quick freezing for foods; Gandhi began a 300 km protest march; “Blue Angel” starring unknown Marlene Dietrich premiered in the US; synthetic rubber was first produced; Britain, US, Japan, France and Italy signed a naval disarmament agreement; BBC radio reported on April 18, that on this day “There is no news.”; the Great Salmas Earthquake in Iran killed 4,000 people; the sculpted head of George Washington was dedicated at Mount Rushmore, South Dakota; and the Chocolate Chip cookie was invented at Toll House Inn, Whitman, Mass.
Life went on for most, but not for Lawence Carr. All I have are pictures of the family before he joined it and after he was gone.
Bud and Ellis Neel, Bruce, Crile, Katie and Charley Dean 1935, Dean Place, Moriarty, New Mexico
The next photo I have of Aunt Ellis was taken in 1935, around five years after the death of Lawrence Carr. The original photo is tiny but with a magnifying glass, I could see intriguing details. It looks like a spur of the moment photo as the family is arranged in front of a car (probably a late 1920’s Ford), the flat, empty high desert of New Mexico stretching out behind them, the car hidden by the people standing in front of it. There’s Grandfather Charley, dressed much as he was ten years before: long sleeved white shirt and dark, thin tie that ends three inches from his waist and dark suit slacks. Grandmother Katie wears a light blouse, a slightly darker, flared skirt that ends mid-calf and a sweater with a ruffled border down the sweater front. Both Charlie and Katie are in their mid-fifties by this time, their hair has gone white and they are looking older and less energetic than they did in the 1925 photo. A row of bushes directly in front of the car hides most of the feet in the photo, but the dust that blows across the desert can be seen on Charlie’s and Katie’s serviceable shoes.
The oldest son, Bruce, is looking in his prime at twenty-seven with a dark mustache, slicked back, dark hair, long sleeved, white dress shirt, dark slacks and light colored, thin tie. Both his arms and his ankles are crossed as he leans casually against the fender in front of his brother, Crile, who at fifteen sits on top of the fender and rests his chin on Bruce’s shoulder. Crile’s face is shaded by a light colored, banded, fedora hat tipped down over one eye. The weather must be warm as Crile is wearing a cotton shirt with the sleeves rolled up above the elbow and light colored cotton pants, his work shoes covered with dust. Crile looks like contained energy, as if this pose won’t last long.
To the left of Bruce is Ellis, who is again up to date in the latest fashion with a short sleeved, light colored blouse tucked into Katherine Hepburn style palazzo pants; her hat a close fitting beret. Her smile is wide and her body is slightly angled towards the man to her right, F.M. “Bud” Neel, her second husband. Bud is angled toward Ellis, her right hand tucked into the curve of his arm. Bud wears a light colored shirt with sleeves rolled above the elbow, light pants and dark belt and his hat is a wide brim fedora. He looks strong, confident and in control. Ellis is taller than Katie in this photo but still more than a head shorter than Bud.
My father, Crile, must have told Mother the history of his family, but by the time we kids were old enough to care to listen, it was Mother who was the historian and told the stories so it was from her that we learned Ellis had been married to Lawrence Carr before she married Uncle Bud.
We spent our growing up years in California and Nevada while the rest of Mother’s and Daddy’s families were in Moriarty and Albuquerque, New Mexico. About once every four years we took trips back across the deserts of the Southwest to see extended family which made us mostly strangers who had to get reacquainted on each visit. I don’t recall a time in those trips that anyone talked of Aunt Ellis’ husband, Lawrence. A suicide by one’s first husband would hardly be topic for polite conversation. Instead those trips were jam packed with visits with the living as we moved from house to house, making full use of their generosity to feed and house two adults and four kids.
Uncle Bud was a genial person who loved to tease and never met a stranger. I remember him fondly. I remember he and Ellis were deeply devoted to each other and their relationship, at least to my childhood and teenage eyes, was strong and exclusive.
I’ve often wondered if Bud was the opposite of Lawrence; if Ellis was swallowed by the relationship in response to the loss and betrayal of a young husband who couldn’t handle stress and difficulty. Not that she was retiring or shy or house bound, after all this was the girl who left the small town ranch for the big city of Albuquerque, who wore pants that scandalized her conservative family and who worked for more than thirty years as legal secretary to an Albuquerque attorney, but her life outside the work world was Bud and his life with horses and the Shriners. Bud and Ellis had no children, which added to their two-some solidarity. Some portion of their summers were spent at their cabin in the mountains above Albuquerque and included involvement in the lives of Bruce’s children as well as Bud’s nieces, but we kids, the children of Crile, were too far away to be included in those times.
Still, Daddy and Mother stayed in touch with Ellis and Bud and saw them whenever a trip to New Mexico was possible. After I grew up, Daddy and Mother began going to the extended family reunion in New Mexico where Ellis and Bruce and their spouses got together with their cousins on their mother Katie’s side. I took work vacations and met Daddy and Mother at three or four of those reunions and enjoyed getting better acquainted on those trips with Ellis and Bud, and Bruce and his wife, Bertha.
The last time I was able to spend time with Ellis was in Albuquerque when she was ninety-nine. Bud had died nearly thirty years earlier and she had sold her home in Albuquerque and had taken an apartment in an assisted living community. At that time she had a two bedroom apartment with a full kitchen but didn’t like cooking so used her walker to go to the dining hall for lunch and dinner. She was pleased to see me and was anxious to go with me across town to another assisted living home to visit Bruce’s wife, Bertha, ninety-eight, in her one bedroom apartment. Uncle Bruce had been dead about twenty years.
Ellis Neel, May 2010
On this trip we were again semi-strangers who needed to get acquainted. We talked about family and about Ellis’ house and her life after giving up her home. I thought I might not have another chance, so I found the courage to ask her about Lawrence Carr.
“Who?” she asked as we stepped into the elevator on our way to the dining room.
“Lawrence Carr? Your first husband who killed himself?” I pushed the button for the first floor.
“Oh,” she paused as she thought, “that was so long ago. I’ve forgotten,” she said as the door opened and the sound of tinkling silverware and chatting people drew us from the elevator.
She was tiny and frail with a full head of short, white hair. She carefully made her way ahead of me into the dining room and found a table. Lawrence was not mentioned again. It had been nearly eighty years by that time and she had moved on.