Sunday, July 17, 2011


In late May, 1933, Ernest Robinson delivered his soon-to-be-8-year-old daughter to his parents-in-law, Julian and Ina Dobson, at their farm near Gilbert, Idaho. At that time Ernest and Ethel lived in Havre, Montana, where he was a government agent under the National Prohibition Act. Ina explains more about Shirley Jean’s visit in her letter of June 6, 1933:

“Shirley Jean is here for an indefinite visit. Ernest came down in Jean’s [his sister’s] car so his visit was short but we put in the time. He gave us many descriptions of the country, Indians, etc. We hadn’t seen him since ’31 and then only overnight and it had been a year since his last visit before that. He doesn’t know whether his job is safe or not but will have a better idea after July 1st. Ethel is having her tonsils out while her family is away. They borrowed part of the vet bonus to invest in good securities and her tonsils came out on that – see.
“We are very busy now with gardening, the lawn, flowers and chickens. I have 135 chicks, all I’ll need and then some. The hens hatched good so that job is over, and we are so glad. Our garden is late and fruit will be scarce. Shirley Jean is to have a little garden all her own and we are going down to plant it in a little while. Teeny has five cute kittens which Shirley Jean enjoys much and she also rides old Taft as Dad goes back and forth, but she hates to sleep alone and that makes it hard on Shirley and me. – Off to the garden now.”

In her letter of July 30, 1933, Ina tells about Shirley Jean’s 8th birthday:
“. . .  we had Shirley Jean’s birthday to fix for on Thursday, June 29. Shirley took her that afternoon to Wilbur Miller’s for his girl’s birthday is same. Shirley made a pretty cake for her, and Luella [Wilbur’s wife] made ice cream, and a fruit salad. Ethel [Shirley Jean’s mother] sent a box of things for the event, and put in candles and holders, and a pretty centerpiece for the cake, also pink ice cream dishes and pretty pink napkins and a gift each for Juanita and Neil, the Miller children. Part of the celebration was spending the nite with Juanita and Shirley stayed coming home next a.m. but leaving Shirley Jean to spend that day there. She came limping home that nite carrying her shoes because of a blistered heel, and just played out!” 

[Can you imagine – “carrying her shoes”! She was walking across fields! I wouldn’t care to walk across the fields carrying my shoes. What a little trooper!]

If all this can be believed, little Shirley Jean had a marvelous two months on the farm: the attention of a loving grandmother, doting grandfather, and playful young aunt; plenty to eat; riding the horses; feeding the chickens; plenty of space to play. Just reading these passages from Ina’s letters inspired me last year to buy the American Girl historic character doll, Kit Kittredge, whose story is of the Depression era. And I named her Shirley Anne, not so much for Shirley Jean but for the playful young Aunt Shirley.

Well, the story of the Hard Times Summer of 1933 will continue.

[The photo is of Shirley Jean and her mother, Ethel Dobson Robinson, in 1936, when Shirley Jean was 11. Shirley Jean appears taller than her mother in this photo. Aunt Ethel was barely five feet tall while Uncle Ernest was well over six feet. As a woman, Shirley Jean was not exceptionally tall.

I wish I had more photos of this era. I can't believe there weren't some, but they probably went to Ethel and Shirley Jean, maybe even other family members.] KW


Leah said...

What a great age Shirley Jean was to visit grandparents. I'll bet she had a perfectly wonderful time. When a child who has never lived on a farm steps into the country life, it's almost like they stepped into a fairy tale.

My son's paternal grandparents lived on a farm as caretakers when Brian was just a toddler. Grandma couldn't wait to have him to herself. She loved him dearly. But Brian was too young (around 2) to be away from mom and dad for long. He was there for about a week and was really homesick. He told her, "Grandma, I'm a sick and a tired of you and I wanna go home!"

When Brian was older, of course, he loved to visit their farm.

Chris said...

It sounds as if Ina was happy to have Shirley Jean for the summer. Neil Miller was a friend of mom and dad's, so it was fun to see his name and think of him as a child. The summer of '33 my dad was ten and mom was seven, turning eight in September, so Shirley Jean and my mom were the same age. I think I've mentioned it before, but mom's sister's name was also Shirley Jean.

Kathy said...

I'm sure Brian's grandmother forgave him for being "a sick and a tired" of her. One of my mother's favorite stories was of L.J., my nephew, when he stayed with us as a little boy. As he put it, he had come to stay with us "nights and nights and nights!" When his parents came to pick him up, he cried and said, "I had more nights!" (He was probably three -- not more than four.)

Chris, I knew you had an Aunt Shirley but I'm not sure I knew she was "Shirley Jean." Anyway, I know you can relate to the time reference in these letters through what you know of your parents' childhoods. And as you well know, Neil was a wonderful friend, and he also took such good care of our farming interests. We miss him.

Hallie said...

Can you even imagine 135 chickens??? I believe they lay about two eggs a week (docM can confirm). I guess you said the coop was out by the woodshed, yes? That coop must have been just as big as the woodshed! That must have really brought in some income for them.

I didn't have the experience of a summer on a farm...I do think it would be fun but I wonder if I would have been a bit bored at times. It certainly doesn't bore me now!

Leah said...

Hallie, you wouldn't have been bored on the farm when you were a little sprout. You would have been given chores to do and your day would have been filled to the brim. Maybe you would have made pets of the baby chicks and then felt sad when you had fried chicken for dinner. At night, you would have been exhausted and happy to go to bed. Just having all that open space would have been a child's delight.