by Jan Erwin Dunham
So many of my family’s stories were told over and over to me that I thought at one time that I could recite them in my sleep. You know how it is when to go to visit an aging relative; they love to tell some of those old family tales over and over. Well – I guess now I’m one of the aging relatives, and I finally realize that it makes you feel good to remember and to share these with others. There’s no one near me now to listen to my stories, our children and grandchildren are far away … nor is there anyone who even will sit still to listen to the ones I’ve heard, so I’ll tell some of them to you.
Let’s start with my father, James Norman Erwin, and then work backwards. All of them are dead now, so I guess it’s safe to tell something of their lives. Now remember, we’re just talking about the men in the Erwin family for right now … the women will have to be a whole different story and we may have to wait a few more years for them to die out. You know how women are!
My dad, born in 1914, was the second child born to William Hockett Erwin and his wife Lottie Dee Holland Erwin. He was always told that he didn’t look like the Erwin family, that he looked like the Hollands. He was left handed, but in school they tied his left hand behind his back and forced him to write with his right hand...and we think we had it hard in school! I didn't know this until my teen years, and only discovered it then when I played golf with him. I discovered that he could swing a club right-handed as well left. Then it dawned on me that he could write and bowl with either hand!
My father was asthmatic, and grandmother told me often how he coughed every step of the way during his early-morning walk down the dirt road to Mr. Gillespie’s dairy farm. He did the milking seven days a week, night and morning, including school days. He got up early so that he could be finished before school started...and school early in order to do the afternoon milking. For this he received twenty-five cents a day, all of which he gave to his mother. Even though he left school early during this period he graduated when he was only sixteen, and was in the top ten percent of his Palestine, Texas, High School graduating class.
James Norman Erwin was accepted by the University of Texas in Austin. His mother secured a room for him in a rooming house with a lady she knew and sent him off ; she was so proud! While her Hollands claimed many college graduates he was the first Erwin to attend a college or university. When he arrived in Austin, and opened his small suitcase, he discovered all of the money he had so dutifully given to his mother all of those years, neatly tied in a bundle. He remembered the years of hardship, and her struggle to raise the family. He recalled his mother doing without, such as using cooking flour to powder her face because she didn’t have money for face powder. It was too much for him. He checked out of the university and the rooming house, took the money back to his mother, and went to Houston to “do it on my own.”
This one hundred seventy pound (or so), five foot eleven inch handsome young man had a sweet personality that earned him the nickname “Shug” (partly because he called everyone “Sugar” – including me). He got a job working for his aunt in the Port City Stockyards Café where he learned to be a “short order cook.” He later worked for the Keystone Sandwich Shop in downtown Houston, and that’s where he met Lucille Margaret Hartman, the love of his life and my mother. They fell in love, and in no time at all they were married. The marriage ceremony was a simple one, and took place in Galveston, Texas after a car ride from Houston. Mom’s older brother “Buster” drove them in his Ford roadster that had a rumble seat in the back. My grandmother Hartman told me that she went with them, and remembered that it was so cramped in the little car they were literally sitting on top of one another. Now “Buster,” and the Hartman’s, are another story; not a part of the Erwin one, but well worth telling. Remind me to tell you someday.
Mother told me that after the ceremony they had exactly three dollars and ten cents between them. They began their married life in a single room in Houston. There was a refinery nearby, and Dad got a job there as a laborer. They didn’t have a car at the time, so they walked everywhere. They joined the Broadway Baptist Church, and that meant a lot to them. Shortly before I was born they rented one side of a duplex to be even nearer the refinery. A couple they knew moved into the other side, and became their life-long friends. I was placed on the “Cradle Roll” at their church and Dad eventually became a Deacon, and Mom was active in Sunday School.
You may have noticed that I have been mentioning the “refinery.” There is a reason. It was never a safe place to work. Back then they didn’t worry about safety regulations as much as we do now. I didn’t notice Dad’s lack of an index fingertip until I was much older. He was always just “my Dad” and I accepted him without examining him. When I finally noticed it was not clear what happened. I believe that it had something to do with a turning one of the large valves in the refinery while he was trying to prevent a “problem.” The valve handle caught his finger and crushed it. He just didn’t want to talk about it. Later, when I was old enough to be aware of what was happening, I walked in on my Mom trying to ease the scalds on his back from another of the “problems” at the refinery.
For many years I was an only child. My dad never complained about the lack of a son. He took me to baseball games and taught me to record all of the scoring; strikes, balls, etc. Then when he thought I was old enough he took me hunting, giving me the same small .32 rim-fire rifle that he used as a boy to hunt squirrels and rabbits. I wasn’t much good at hunting, but I did master baseball scores.
He taught me not to be afraid and to try it first...if I didn’t try I wouldn’t know if I could do it or not. Part of this came from the fact that during World War II he didn’t get to come home a lot. Everyone’s working hours were increased to maximize the airplane fuel output that was so necessary for the war effort.
My father had a dream of becoming a “gentleman rancher.” About this time he acquired a herd of white-faced Herefords and a house and some land near Aldine, Texas, which is just a short distance from Houston. Mom was pregnant with my brother, and when Dad couldn’t come home in time to milk the cow that we had I was expected to do it. FAT CHANCE! My city-girl Mom was deathly afraid of it, and I cried every step of the way out to the barn—and never got more than one cup of milk from the groaning in-pain-cow. Eventually Dad got the picture, and gave up on that dream. After my brother was born we moved back to Houston .
When WW II ended Dad’s work load decreased, and life became better—for all of us. I will say though, that all of the bunny rabbits that I thought I was raising, because they were so cute, somehow or other mysteriously disappeared, and the next day we had “chicken.” It took me a long time to figure that one out. I did learn to fish, and was decent enough at that, so Dad and I enjoyed fishing together. When he was old enough my brother joined us, and he loved it too. Bass fishing was one of my favorites, and Dad knew it, so we bonded many times as a result of our bass fishing trips.
This wonderful man, my father, put himself through college after I was born; earning an engineering degree while working at the old Eastern States Refinery in Houston. So an Erwin in his family finally did earn a college degree! Eventually he went to work for Arabian American Oil Company (ARAMCO), and our family went to Saudi Arabia. Mom and Dad were there for fifteen years before he retired and came back to Houston. He was such a workaholic that he retired from Trunkline Gas next, and did consulting work for both companies until he died. He was never happy just sitting, and had to be busy doing something all of the time. Does it show that I’m proud to be his daughter? I hope so, because I am. He taught me a lot and I’ll always love him, even though he didn’t understand why I couldn’t master algebra and geometry. It was so easy for him, why couldn’t I understand it? “Dad … I think I’m my mother’s daughter too!”
Now, let’s talk about Dad’s family. You’ll no doubt notice that I’m not putting my father in the same category as his brothers. He just wasn’t like them at all, so I guess my grandmother’s statement that he was “a true Holland” was pretty accurate. None of the Hollands were ever fighters.
On the other hand, William Edgar Erwin, Dad’s older brother, looked and acted like (or so I was told) all of the traditional Erwins. He became a prizefighter in the early 1930’s and legally changed his name to “Pat” Erwin. He was small by today's heavyweight fighter standards. He was a solid six-footer and tipped the scales at one hundred and seventy-eight pounds in his prime, and was known for his punching ability in the day of four-ounce gloves. His curly red hair and fierce fighting methods were great newspaper material. He fought under the name of “Pat McDuff, the Fighting Irishman,” and began his boxing career at the age of twelve, earning fifty cents per fight. Eventually “Pat McDuff” became the top-ranked heavyweight fighter in Texas. Those were the days before the boxing gloves had a lot of padding in them to protect the hands, and eventually almost every bone in his hands were broken … but imagine the other guys! It was said that he never ducked an opponent. He fought such boxers as George Brown, Tom Blanton, Tony Musto, Jack Rocco.
He also fought former light-heavyweight champion Malio Bettina, and won a close decision over him despite being felled three times. Gene Tunney, the legendary ex-heavyweight camp of the world, was the referee in his match with Bettina, and earned Tunney’s praise for his performance in the match.
Pat did his fighting out of Houston under the guidance of Hugh Benbow, who later managed heavyweight contenders Roy Harris and Cleveland "Big Cat" Williams. During his fighting days he worked out in an open-air ring on the site of the present Post Office building in Old Baytown. Sam Como, a retired Humble Oil electrician and former sparring partner of Pat’s, managed the club. When Pat finally had to give up boxing he went to work on a construction crew building pipelines. He later became a small businessman in the Channelview, Texas area. When he died the newspapers in the area recorded his boxing career along with his other accomplishments.
Pat’s marriage to the love of his live was sometimes corrupted with his “flings” with other women that started even when he was engaged to be married. He couldn’t resist a beautiful woman and they couldn’t resist him. He was just too good-looking and too famous. It was a bad combination. Nevertheless, he stayed married to the same wonderful lady (my aunt was a “saint” if there ever was one) and they had a daughter and a son.
I’ve always heard that my Dad had serious problems with his older brother. It seems that Pat was a typical bully, and rarely passed up on an opportunity to harass and beat up on my Dad (who was much smaller in stature). One day—as the story goes—my Dad had finally had enough and told Pat to leave him alone and leave his room. Pat, ever the bully, said something off color. My dad told him to leave him alone or else! As Pat was finally exiting the room Dad picked up a hatchet and threw it. The hatchet just missed Pat, and lodged in the door. Pat never bothered Dad again. I don’t know if the story is really true, but I do know that in later years Uncle Pat had a great respect for my dad.
Alfred Dee “Jiggs” Erwin, the brother just younger than my Dad, also tried his hand at boxing. He oftentimes fought for as little as five dollars a fight...and also in Houston. But he never wanted to make a career of it. “Jiggs” was a lover, not a fighter, but he did fight in WWII with the Army's 14th Corps in the Asiatic Pacific Theatre. He received the American Defense Service Medal and Asiatic Campaign Medal. The battle for Iwo Jima was his most trying period, and he came home with a full-fledged case of battle fatigue. It took him several years to overcome those problems...if he ever did. After he was discharged he took up watch making, and lived in California for a while before he came back to Texas. He built a good jewelry and watch repair business in Texas City, and eventually retired and sold his business there. The mercury (or whatever, I’m not sure) from the many years of repairing watches eventually caused his lungs to fail and was the major cause of his death (or so I’ve been told).
Uncle Jiggs was an avid hunter and fisherman. I thought that he was absolutely crazy when he told me about going rattlesnake hunting in the swampland around Texas City. I was sure of it when I learned that the friend who had gotten him interested in the sport eventually died from a rattlesnake bite. But his hunting did pay off one day when he came back with some geese and had them smoked. Now that was “good eating.”
I visited with them often as a young married lady. On one occasion my Aunt Billie (his wife) asked me to cook a turkey for the family while they were at work. I’d never even seen a turkey in plastic from a grocery store much less cooked one. She gave me a four-sentence explanation and left. But like my Dad often said—I couldn’t know if I couldn’t do it if I never tried. So I tried—I did and we ate it. It wasn’t bad. They had only one surviving daughter – two other children died due to the RH negative blood problems with newborns—back then there wasn’t the ready answers that we have today.
Well...let’s talk a bit about my grandfather, William Hockett Erwin and his family. His parents were John A. Erwin and Henrietta Isadora Jane Morgan Erwin (she was called “Dora). He was the fifth son/child born to them. He was born in Yell County, Arkansas, and went to school in a one-room schoolhouse in Drew County, Arkansas. I have a photo of him with the other children in front of the school. It must have really been a hard life.
Grandpa, and probably his whole family (I don’t really know for sure), left Arkansas to live in Texas. While he was living in Jacksonville, Texas he met his future wife, Lottie. His first job was as a stone monument cutter for a cemetery monument company in Jacksonville. Then suddenly, it seemed, he was married with a family and he and his wife were farming sweet potatoes just East of Palestine, Texas during World War I. One old photo shows Grandpa, Lottie, Pat and my dad standing in the sweet potato patch. After that, they tried their hand at the dairy business, selling milk from a wagon on a regular route. They bottled the milk themselves outside with goats and chickens running around. Talk about unsanitary conditions! But that was the way of life then. People left doors and windows open for any breeze, and sometimes the chickens and other farm animals came in as well. This was during the Great Depression, and often people could not pay for the milk, so Grandpa gave it to them anyway. He said he would just have to pour it in a ditch, so why not give it to them. People paid with what they could. Sometimes he came home with chickens or fresh vegetables; things like that. Lottie’s sisters would send their children to live on the dairy farm just so they would have something to eat. Although my grandparents didn’t have a lot they generously took in the extra children.
Eventually Grandpa took a job working for the Missouri Pacific Railroad in Palestine. He was what they called a “stationary engineer.” I think he cleaned and repaired the engines; a dirty job. He worked shift work and long hours. I remember summers when I would spend a week or two with them; he was always working. I found out later, however, that he wasn’t really working all of those hours. After my grandmother divorced him it all came out…this is where the “lusty” part comes in. He had a string of “very young women” that he “financed.” His own daughters put themselves through the local business college, but found out that their father was “financing” several of the young ladies who were their fellow students! Some of them were only in their teens. On the other hand perhaps he was the source of their tuition money. So who was using whom? I heard the story over and over from Dad’s sisters and others, so I guess it was the truth. I hate that…but I guess I have to believe them. Now the authorities would put people like him in jail, as he was “paying for sex.” But I’ve never had bad thoughts about my grandfather. He was always nice to me and seemed to care about me. I still have sweet thoughts about him.
Much later, when he finally had to quit chasing young girls, he decided to build a house all by himself. He was in his late sixties when he bought a piece of property just outside of Palestine. He cleared it, dug a well, and built a frame house. A group of family members visited him shortly after he had finished the house. We were impressed; it wasn’t bad at all. He told us that when he was clearing the land he saw a metal object in the dirt, and when he dug it out he found that it was an old Colt 45 revolver. He really enjoyed telling the story and showing off the old gun.
My grandpa’s first two brothers (Robert Edgar Erwin and St. Elmo Erwin) died in their early years. I always wondered about the name St. Elmo, and if it could have been for St. Elmo’s Fire? St. Elmo was born in in Arkansas in 1877, but I’ve never found any accounts of St. Elmo’s Fire recorded during that timeframe, so maybe Dora & John A. just read about it.
There were two more boys born before William: they were Claude Murray Erwin and Redmond O’Donnell Erwin. I have to tell you that I think either John A. or Dora read a lot and had vivid imaginations, or they had some wild friends and named their sons after them. John A. and Dora only had one other child born after William; a girl, and they named her Eva Flower Dew Erwin. So you can see why I think they must have had vivid imaginations.
Dora died not too long after Eva Flower Dew was born, and John A., who thought of himself as quite a “lady’s man,” found a young woman, married her, and expected her to be a mother to his motherless children. It turns out that she locked up all of the food in the house and refused to let the children have any. My grandfather said it was so bad that he ran away from home to relatives in “West Texas.” I never found out who those relatives were, or exactly where in “West Texas” he went though.
John A. didn’t stay married to her very long. Next he lied about his age (by about 20 years!!) and married Etta Thompson, a much, much younger woman. They had two children together, and their relationship was very stormy. They were living in the Heights area of Houston, and operating a small grocery store next door to their home when something, or some argument, got out of hand. It is said that he picked up a meat cleaver and tried to scalp “Miss Nettie.” He then tried to cut his own throat. The supposition was that he missed his throat and just cut his chest. I was told that this story made the front page of the local “Houston Press.” A comment heard often from relatives was: "John Erwin didn't cut high enough." Someday I’d like see that newspaper report; sounds juicy to me.
About this time you may be wondering where the “barrel-chested” part comes in, or maybe you’ve forgotten that part of the title. Well, Grandpa William H. Erwin was very barrel-chested, as were Uncles Pat and Jiggs. Again, I will tell you that my dad favored the Holland side of the family, and did NOT have a barrel-chest. I’ve heard from other Erwin families (not supposed to be related) that their Erwin men were also barrel-chested. Do you think it is inherited?
There is one Erwin gene that I believe did get passed down from my father to my brother and me, and that’s the degenerative disk disease that makes you lose some of your height. By the time Grandpa, Dad and Uncle Jiggs died they were extremely “stooped” and bent as a result of this problem. Dad’s death, however, was the direct result of a mistake by an orthopedic surgeon who did not ask for a neurosurgeon to assist in an operation. My father’s back problems were so bad, and so painful, that he finally consented to surgery, only to have his spinal cord punctured by the surgeon. He subsequently died from an infection that went to his brain. I don’t know if any other Erwins have the degenerative disk problem or not, but my brother and I do.
Part 2 of this story will cover William Hockett Erwin’s parents: John A. Erwin and Henrietta Isadora Jane Morgan, as well as John A. Erwin’s parents and his cousin Priscilla L. Erwin.
Stay tuned ……………… Jan Erwin Dunham