Russell Vachel “Bill” Erwin was born June 1, 1899, in Longton, Elk County, Kansas, a short time after the family arrived in Elk County from Carroll County, Arkansas. Regretfully, little is known about Bill. He married Irene Parker, but we don’t know when or where.
During the early years of the Odes and Hazel Erwin family, when Grandfather Mike and his sons – including my father – were following the oilfield work in Oklahoma and Kansas, Bill was often around our family. Helen Erwin Campbell remembers Uncle Bill as a colorful and flamboyant figure, and that he was fun-loving and daring, as well as a practical joker.
Clifford, with a chuckle and a grin, recalled an incident to Helen when Uncle Bill cured a neighbor’s dog of barking at the family’s teams of horses and mules. It seems that the dog was a large shepherd, and when they drove their teams by the neighbor’s house the dog would rush out, barking and nipping at the heels of the horses or mules. Naturally this would agitate the animals, making it difficult to keep them under control. There were other annoying dogs in the area, but Clifford remembered that Bill was especially irritated with this particular dog. At the time Bill owned a big white bulldog named Bruce. On one occasion he brought Bruce along on the wagon. Clifford, fairly small at the time, was riding with Bill that day, and Bill told him:
“You’ll have to help me Clifford. You keep old Bruce covered up with this horse blanket until we get near where that dang barking dog lives.”
There were several teams and wagons, and Bill was in the lead with his team of big black mules. When they got near the neighbor’s house the offending dog came rushing out, barking as usual. Uncle Bill yanked the horse blanket off Bruce, and yelled:
“Get him Bruce!”
Bruce jumped down off the wagon and raced towards the barking dog. According to Clifford old Bruce almost killed that shepherd. Uncle Bill told Clifford later that the dog never barked at the teams again. When they passed by he dog wouldn’t even leave his yard.
Helen further recalls that the family saw a lot of Uncle Bill during the summer of 1926. She remembers that he was wild, sometimes doing downright outrageous things, but that he was also a good-natured tease, and always fun to be around. According to Helen he always seemed to find a way to liven things up.
He started calling two-year-old Buddy “Bawl Baby Buddy,” and Buddy called him “Bawl Baby Bill” in return. Buddy would sometimes see Bill’s car turn in from the road down at the bottom of the hill.
“Here comes Bawl Baby Bill! Here comes ole’ Bawl Baby Bill,” Buddy would yell, his feet dancing with excitement.
Helen recalled that Bill had been helping Dad get his prairie hay cut and put up in the barn that same summer, but after the haying was done he never came around much. Mom later told Flossie that Bill had wanted Dad to go in partners with him and start a whiskey still in a cave in back of the house. Apparently the cave was quite large and fairly cool, even in the hot summer months. Mom used it as a cellar, and kept her canned fruit and vegetables there, as well as the family’s fresh milk until the cream rose to the top in the big crocks. This was during the days of Prohibition, and Mom said Dad that was tempted. Times were tough, and he certainly could have used the money, but the thought of getting caught prompted him to turn down Bill’s proposition.
Uncle Bill was never conservative, and seldom held a conventional job. He had the reputation for always looking for ways to make an easy dollar. He did, however, work for three years as a heavy equipment operator in Canada and Alaska during WW2, helping to construct the Alaska Highway. Wages were high, and there was no place to spend it in the mountains and forests of British Columbia and the Yukon. As a result a large portion of his wages were delegated to his savings account in his hometown bank.
After the war Bill invested most of savings in a traveling donkey baseball game. According to reports from various members of the family, the business he bought consisted of about thirty donkeys, their feed and equipment, and several trucks to haul them. There was also a loudspeaker system to announce the progress of the game, as well as to play country music during the breaks. Apparently Bill was the announcer. He is known to have had a “gift for gab,” so he was no doubt good at it.
I remember that donkey ball games were—for some reason I could never really understand—very popular right after the war. They traveled around to various small towns, similar to the way carnivals or small circuses do today. Local athletes or personalities would be chosen as players. The routine was to play baseball with similar rules, except that each player rode a donkey. I saw a couple of them when I was a freshman in high school. They were funny to watch, but the general public soon lost interest in such things, or perhaps became a little more sophisticated, and after a couple of years Bill’s venture went out of business.
After the demise of the donkey baseball game business Bill joined brothers Jack and Jim Erwin in operating the Erwin Brothers Construction Company. The brothers would take on whatever business that came along, but their specialty was road construction, or any other project where they could utilize their earth moving equipment and dump trucks. This business only survived about three years or so, perhaps due to the fact that all three partners—and in fact all of Mike and Minnie Erwin’s sons—were strong willed and opinionated. Any business, to be successful needs one strong leader. Three equal bosses, pulling in different directions, spells disaster every time.
By 1949 Bill was broke, and took a job with the Saudi Arabian Oil Company in the Middle East. I recall him coming to my parent’s farm in Neodesha, Kansas. He and my father had their heads together out in the barn for a time, and then Bill unloaded several trunks, a gas welder and some other miscellaneous equipment, from his pickup. He left without coming back to the house, and I never saw him again. I found out later that my Dad had loaned him $100 to get to New York where, he said, he had passage on a ship that would take him to Saudi Arabia. As far as I know the family never learned when, or if, he returned from Saudi Arabia. I do know that Bill never reclaimed the tools that he left with my father. After a couple of years Dad began selling them piecemeal here and there.
It was also rumored that Bill had later worked in South America where he died, country unknown, cause unknown. My father always maintained that he never knew what ultimately became of Uncle Bill. I always suspected that he had gotten into some serious trouble, and that my father knew Bill’s fate, but would just not discuss it. Dad was always close-mouthed about any colorful or spicy happening where a member of the Erwin family was concerned.
A year or so before I went into the Marine Corps in 1950 I met Bill’s wife and three children. I don’t remember much about them, except that Irene was the name of his wife, and that they had a son and two daughters. The son, who was the oldest, was about two years my senior.
I recall my father mentioning that Irene and the children went to live with Irene’s people in Texas when Bill left the U.S. in 1949. At this point we still don’t know much about them. Jimmey Dean Erwin, son of Jessie Carroll “Jim” Erwin, recollected that one son was named Bobby Dean, and that he worked for the Erwin Brothers Construction Company during its short period of operation.
An old page of a notebook, which appears to be in Grandma Minnie Erwin’s handwriting, lists the children as Bobby Dean Erwin, born January 30, 1931; Virginia Olin Erwin, born November 21, 1933; and Phyllis Irene Erwin, born May 19, 1936. Jimmey also recalled hearing that Bill’s daughters were married and living somewhere in New Mexico in the 1970s, but he couldn’t remember the names of their husbands. He believes that the youngest daughter was killed some years ago in an automobile accident.
Bill’s life and fate is thus a mystery, but the fate of his family is a mystery as well. As far as we know they did not keep in touch with any of their Erwin relatives in Kansas. I have attempted to trace them on the Internet, but so far without success. I am confident, however, that at some point someone will answer my queries. »»»