Saturday, May 15, 2010

Frank Murray pt 1: From Rocking Babies to Herding Cattle

My great-grandfather Frank Murray was what you'd call a self-made man. Born in the early 1880s, as a young adult he left the family farm near Kearney, Nebraska, with dreams of starting a new life for himself further west. Eventually, he settled in the area around Pullman, Washington, bought a farm, and raised his family.

Frank didn't have much to his name when he left home, so he
worked his way West, doing anything he could to earn money “from rocking babies to herding cattle,” he said. (Murray-Ryan Packet)
This seems to have been Frank's favorite phrase to describe his journey, since I've also heard it from both Grand*a Murray and my mother. Not very much is known about where he went or exactly what he was up to (we don't even know when he set out), but he had a repertoire of colorful stories he liked to tell about some of his adventures, and sometimes the stories give clues to his movements. For example, I once asked Grand*a Murray if *e knew anything specific about what Frank did on his early travels. "Well, he spent a little while in Wyoming," *e told me--and went on to relate the following tale.

Once, while Frank was driving cattle in Wyoming, he returned to camp very late after a hard day's work. He was exhausted and very hungry. Desperate for something to eat, he spotted a pot of navy beans near the fire. Seizing the pot, he wolfed down the beans--with an eagerness he would later regret. As the ominous rumblings of his stomach soon made clear, those beans had sat out too long.

"Dad said he was never so sick in his life," Grand*a laughed. "He thought he would die."

Frank probably spent most of his journey doing seasonal work on farms and ranches, but he also sometimes earned money by working as a barber (according to the Murray-Ryan Packet, Grand*a Murray, and my mother). This was apparently a very important skill to him, and he liked to tell his children and grandchildren about the kinds of characters he ran into on the job. Mom often talks about how he kept his barber's kit and used it to cut his children's hair (and how Grand*a Murray never liked the results).

Frank may have learned the barbering trade in Nebraska. We're not really sure, but it would have been a sensible profession for a young guy on the move without much cash. You only needed a few items to get going: razor, strap, scissors, comb, shaving mug, and brush. And it was, as Mom put it, "a very portable trade--you could pretty much take it anywhere" and find guys who needed a trim and a shave.

In the early twentieth century, though, local barbers did more than just cut hair--especially in rural areas. Barbers provided a listening ear, a word of advice, and even basic first aid to their clients. (Before the 19th century, barbers doubled as surgeons and dentists, and even in the early 20th century many people still went to their barber rather than their doctor to get minor ailments treated.) Barbers got to know their regular customers, who came from all walks of life, in a different way than any mere hairdresser would.

Frank told Mom that Two-by-
Four Johnson was the spitting
image of Hoss Cartwright.
My mother recently told me what she said was a typical story from Frank's barbering days. According to her, Frank's client list at one point included a number of Swedish immigrants named Johnson. These Johnsons tended to be tough farm-laborers who were known by nicknames: Johnny, Goose, Two-by-Four. One day, Goose Johnson came in looking a mess. "What happened to you?" Frank demanded. "Well, I hit a fella!" Goose replied--and presented his black eye for treatment. No doubt, he told Frank all about his dust-up.

Eventually, Frank's travels took him to Washingon, where he found steady work in a barber shop in the little town of Waitsburg, according to both the Murray-Ryan Packet and Grand*a Murray. He apparently stayed in Waitsburg for an extended period--but again, we don't know much in the way of specifics. Who did Frank work for? No idea. When did he arrive? Not sure, except that it was before 1910. How long did he stay? Most estimates range from "some time" to "quite a while." After some thought, Grand*a Murray ventured that she believed it was about two years.

An even larger question, though, is why Frank chose to go to Washington in the first place. Why not Idaho, Oregon, Montana, California--or some other part of the country entirely?

My mother believes that Frank was inspired by one of his uncles, William H. "Bill" Kincaid, a Washington pioneer. Bill, who was Frank's mother's brother, had left his family's farm back in the 1860s or '70s with his own dreams of a new life out west. In the 1880s, when Frank was still a baby, Bill had homesteaded in Whitman County, not far outside the town of Pullman.

According to Bill's homestead records, he and his wife and two children spent about a year and a half living in a 16-by-26-foot, wood-frame shack to secure their claim. Those months of hard living paid off later, though. With 160 acres of land officially his by 1884, Bill began a successful career as a farmer, livestock-raiser, and real estate investor. Within a few years, he became one of Whitman County's more prominent and prosperous citizens.

Bill Kincaid tried his hand at all kinds of enterprises.
Think of this one as the Avis of the 19th century. (Click image for more info.)

My mother says that Frank Murray, like his uncle, had some idea of homesteading in Washington--but that by the time he got out there (ca. 1905-1909), all the best land had been claimed. She says he used to talk about how he'd wanted to homestead. When I asked Grand*a Murray why Frank chose to go to Washington, though, *e simply responded, "I don't know"; so it's Mom's memory against Grand*a's on this score.

Whether or not Bill Kincaid's example directly inspired Frank to head to Washington, once he got there he couldn't help thinking about the old pioneer. Sometime around 1909, Frank decided to pack up his barbering kit, leave Waitsburg, and look up his uncle. By that time, Bill had more or less handed the day-to-day operations of his farm and ranch over to his eldest son, Charles H. Kincaid, and retired to a spacious townhouse in Pullman.[1]

When Frank arrived in Pullman (so the family story goes), it was the Fourth of July, and celebrations were underway. Frank had probably never met his uncle before and didn't know how to find him. So he asked somebody he met, "Do you know Bill Kincaid?" "Well, sure!" they said. "There's a parade coming by, and he's in it!"

Horse parade, Pullman, Washington, June 28, 1913. (Click image for more info.)

Sure enough, pretty soon down the street came Bill Kincaid in his horse-drawn buggy. Beside him sat his youngest daughter, "Nita" (Mary Anita), decked out in her patriotic finest. When Frank saw his uncle and cousin, he ran right up and jumped in the buggy--scaring Bill half to death (but accomplishing his mission). Uncle, nephew, and cousin finished the parade together.[2]

Frank soon began working the Kincaid land with Bill's son Charles, showing up as a "hired man" in Charlie's household in the 1910 federal census. It's lucky that Charlie's place was in the Ewartsville neighborhood just southwest of Pullman, because the local paper, the Pullman Herald, ran a regular column on Ewartsville happenings. In 1911, Frank's name started appearing in that column--and at first, the items were not very cheerful:
Frank Murray went to Juliaetta Saturday to receive treatment for appendicitis. (28 July 1911, p. 4, "Ewartsville" column; view page)
Frank Murray is at the home of his uncle, W[illiam]. H. Kincaid, having sufficiently recovered from his recent operation to leave the hospital [in Juliaetta] last Wednesday. (25 August 1911, p. 8, "Ewartsville" column; view page)
Frank Murray is at home again, after his recent operation. (8 September 1911, p. 3, "Ewartsville" column; view page)
Clearly, Frank's story about the spoiled beans was a little stretched: that appendicitis took him out for over a month! By October of the same year, though, he was starting to find his place in the Pullman community, as the Pullman Herald shows.
Among Ewartsville visitors to the Lewiston fair were Mr. and Mrs. C[harles]. H. Kincaid and Frank Murray. (13 October 1911, p. 4, "Ewartsville" column; view page)
Mr. and Mrs. W[illiam]. H. Kincaid and daughters, Anita and Belle, and Frank Murray visited the J. M. Klemgard home Sunday. (29 December 1911, p. 6, "Ewartsville" column; view page)
The Kincaids were active in their community and had a large circle of friends and extended family within a few miles of Pullman. Frank was a solid, affable fellow, and his aunt, uncle, and cousins introduced him to many of their friends and relations. He began getting invited to Christmas parties and weddings, and when there were fairs or other celebrations going on nearby, he had people to enjoy them with.

Frank made another social connection, as well. "One day," says the Murray-Ryan Packet, "when he and his Uncle were building fence he saw a 'beautiful lady' ride by in a buggy, and he told his Uncle he would like to meet her. Her name was Jennie Ryan."[3]

Frank's story will continue in Part 2.


[1] This is an inference from census records (which show Bill, after about 1900, living in a house in town, while Charlie occupies a farm outside of town) and the Pullman Herald (which makes repeated mention of the "W. H. Kincaid home" in Pullman and the "C. H. Kincaid home" in the country; "C. H. Kincaid" also starts appearing in agricultural stories more often than his father after 1905 or so). By June of 1910, when census records show that Frank was definitely in the neighborhood, Bill would have been 65 years old. 

[2] Grand*a Murray told me this story. I don't think it has been told much to my generation, but Mom says she has heard it "many times." I gather that it was one Frank told often. I'm not sure whether Frank actually arrived in Pullman on July 4th or not. As I show in later paragraphs, Frank had definitely connected with the Kincaids by June of 1910. Based on his age and the amount of time it must have taken him to work his way west (stopping for weeks or months here and there to earn money), I suspect he had only recently arrived at that time. I'm guessing that he first made it to Pullman around 1908-1910--which would have been during a four-year hiatus in the town's usually lively Independence Day celebrations. There were, however, other summer festivals in the area that featured parades--and some even overlapped with the 4th of July (here's one). So perhaps Frank turned up for one of those. Bill Kincaid very likely did participate in the parades, though I couldn't find any specific references in the Pullman Herald. As a long-time breeder of both horses and cattle, he would certainly have taken every opportunity to show off his best animals.

[3] Frank was more likely to have been "building fence" with his cousin Charlie than with Bill (who was in his mid-to-late 60s by the time of this story). On the other hand, Bill Kincaid's townhouse was closer to Jennie's father's townhouse than Charlie's farm was to the Ryan farm.

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