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  • Donna Hanson

Strong Backs & Sound Mules

Updated: Sep 6

This blog started about twelve years ago with my search for my ancestors: in specific, for Ellen, my father's grandmother. I thought I knew about my mother's family and so delved into my father's with a fervor. This research resulted in my eventually finding Ellen, discovering my father's ancestors, and subsequently, finding out more about my father. This resulted in "Heroes All," a book dedicated to my father and his shipmates during WWII. Not that the work on that project is finished by any means, but I've turned my attention back to my mother's family and her life in a small town just northeast of Kansas City, Missouri during the days following WWI, the depression, and the dust bowl. I thought I knew everything there was to know about my mother; I was wrong.


Just before my eighth birthday, my father left. I'm sure there were things leading up to my parent's divorce, but children don't always see beyond playdates, birthday cakes, and doing what chores were required to be allowed to play with friends until it's time for bed. My mother said that when my father left, I stopped eating. I stopped talking. I remember staring at the empty space where his car should have been, waiting for him to return and take me in his arms at the end of the day.


I can't imagine, as an adult, how she managed to keep breathing when his leaving had drawn the very air from our home. How she gathered herself and continued a routine of brushing teeth and reading bedtime stories to three small children. How she divided into not one, but two parents: one who rocked and kissed tears, and one who took whatever job necessary to feed, house, and clothe her family. She rarely ate, opting to smoke in the back yard as she pinned clothes on a line rather than take a bite of food from a child. How, in the midst of her own pain, she filled us with hope and stories of her family: farmers, bankers, and explorers. Strong people who endured floods, the dust storms of the 1930s, the depression, and wars. Proud people who worked the earth and at the end of the day, looked across green fields of corn and potatoes and gave thanks for strong backs and sound mules. I never heard her complain. She spoke of her parents with love and respect. Of her town as a jewel on a wide and unbroken river, it's people, deeply rooted in their love of the land and their town. And I grew to love this place, and these people.

Great-grandparents
Thurman Dudgeon & Julia Ann Pigg

I know that I've posted this letter from my mother before, but I just returned from a visit with dear friends from Orrick, Missouri--this small town on the bank of the Missouri River. It's a good reminder to me to square my shoulders and stand straight in the face of adversity. To give thanks for strong backs and sound mules and the tenacity of my ancestors.


Letter from Mama around 1976:


I would like to tell you about people you already know: your parents and grandparents, and those that you didn't get to know: your great-grandparents and the heritage of which you are a part.

On your Grandmother Frances' side of the family, a long time ago in Canada, Andre Roi and Frances Nicolet Chapart were married. They came to Missouri and their youngest son was Joseph: this was Grandpa Roi of whom you have heard me speak. He married Mary Louise Chalifore on October 27, 1813 in St. Charles, Missouri; Joseph was born September 22, 1792 in St. Charles and died in Orrick, Missouri on December 22, 1866. When Grandpa Roi married Mary Louise, the marriage contract was in French. There were 36 witnesses to this marriage, signing their names with a cross, as none could write. They had 12 daughters--no son to carry on the Roi name.

Grandpa Roi and his brothers built a fort in 1812 near Jefferson City, a town that would later become the state capital. In 1808, they founded a settlement near Jefferson City, building a fort to stand against Indian attacks. In 1827, he bought lot 13 in Independence and built the first house. They lived for a time in Westport (now Kansas City) Landing where they owned 600 acres of land. Later, they moved to Sibley and on to Orrick.

One of Grandpa Roi's daughters, Julia, married Jefferson Pigg. They had a large family and one of their sons, John M. Pigg, later had a family of his own leading to my grandmother: Julia Pigg Dudgeon, her daughter Frances Dudgeon, and then me. When Grandpa John was 16, he drove a stage coach over the Oregon trail. When he married, they build a big house where my cousin John Pigg still lives in the valley knows as Egypt. At one time, the Roi family owned 1,100 acres of land--the biggest part of the valley.

Grandma and Grandpa John went through the Civil War and had many hard times and heartaches. So did Grandma and Grandpa Dudgeon. Their first little house was one room, the walls papered with newspapers. Grandpa Dudgeon worked for Grandpa John and saved his money to buy land and built a little house on the levy known as the "Riverside Home." One of his daughters, Frances, married a young man from Tennessee who worked a team of oxen, dragging large timbers down the Tennessee mountains, and then giving his money to his parents to pay for food and clothes. This young man fought in France during WWI against the Germans in one of the worst battles in history: the Battle of Argonne. This young man was Tillman Hicks, my father.

These wonderful people lived through history's greatest depression. Many knew what it was to be poor and hungry and cold, but they never gave up. Then, there was the generation of my youth, your father's and your uncle's. They lived through and defeated the tyranny of Hitler and the terrible surprise attack by the Japanese on Pearl Harbor. Many of them endured two wars because Korea soon followed. No one likes to go to war, but always, your people were ready to protect what past generations had built and the God-given gifts that we so often forget to be thankful for. They went to other countries and lived through hardships even though they were often so tired, and there were so many attacks, they had to sleep at their guns onboard ship, or in a fox hole half full of water, without food, or in the bitter cold. They never quit. Some were taken by the enemy as prisoners, and some died. They were determined that it would not be like this for you. You would have a better life. You would have food to eat, milk to drink, vitamins to nourish you, a warm home, betters schools, and greater opportunities to succeed. Because they gave you the best in medical care, and food, you are the tallest, healthiest, brightest and probably the best-looking generation to inhabit the land. True, there have been mistakes for they have not yet found an alternative for war, nor hatred, but they made progress by the sweat of their brows. If your generation can make as much progress in as many areas as your forefathers have, you should be able to solve a good many of the Earth's remaining ills.

Be proud of your heritage and strong. Just because things get tough, don't give in to the enemy, whether that be in war or the temptation to give up and take the easy way out of school, work, or anything that you do. Always try to do your best and remember, if your parents, grandparents, great-grandparents and so on had taken the easy way out, you wouldn't be able to enjoy the country you have today: modern conveniences, TV, cars, airplanes, good food, medical care, and a chance to be whatever you want to be when you grow up. So when you get to feeling that you don't have much and that things are pretty rough for you, look around and be grateful for what you have.

And remember always that you are loved and cared for.

Always be honest and be proud of whatever work you do. Do your best to serve God, your country, and your fellow man. You weren't born of weak people, but of pioneers. I hope that you won't have to fight in a war, but it seems every generation does. Perhaps you will be the ones to help bring peace to the world. Who knows. All things are possible. Just remember that it is only human to make mistakes, but we must learn by our mistakes and not make the same ones over again. Then, we grow strong.

May God walk with you and help you all the days of your life.

My love always, Mama.


Bertha Frances Hicks (Hanson) 1922-2009

Born at the Riverside Home, Orrick Township, Missouri.


Riverside Home, Orrick, Missouri
Dudgeon, Hicks, and McMullen Family


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