In 1919, my great grandparents on my father’s father’s side underwent a journey by train from their home in Hannibal, Missouri to the west coast. Westward Bound is the story of that journey, based in large part on a 92-page hand-written diary of the journey kept by my great-grandmother, Ella Smith Hile. The diary was passed down through the years, from Ella to her oldest son, Wilbur Vernon Hile, my grandfather, to my father, Robert Eugene Hile, and now on to me.

Six people embarked on the trip, which began April 29, 1919. Ella Hazel Smith, my great-grandmother, was born on November 9, 1879 in Kingston, Illinois to Jesse Doran Smith and Josephine Lucretia McBride. Located in DeKalb County west of Chicago, the population of Kingston in the 1890 census was only 295, but that was more than double the 1880 figure of 138. Both Jesse and Josephine hailed from Hampshire County, Virginia (in what is now the state of West Virginia).

Jesse Smith was a farmer and Ella was the youngest of five children, the only daughter among the siblings. By 1900 she was still single, living in Adams County on the western edge of Illinois, and, according to the 1900 census, working as a servant for an elderly couple. In 1906, she married Oscar Lee Hile and moved across the Mississippi River to Hannibal, where Oscar had been born and where the Hiles had lived for more than half a century.

Oscar was born in Hannibal on June 16, 1880 to John Andrew Hile and Margaret Catherine Kennedy. John had been born around 1830 in Scott County, Kentucky. Volunteering on the side of the Union in the Civil War, John moved to Missouri and in 1863 married Catherine and established their residence in Hannibal. John died in 1888 when Oscar was still quite young, but Margaret continued to live in Hannibal until her death in 1918. An interesting sidenote to this marriage, which will be explored in a later story, was that Margaret’s family was primarily Confederates.

Like Ella, Oscar was also the youngest in a family of four boys and a girl, some of whom we will meet as the journey unfolds. Originally a day laborer, by the 1910 census Oscar was listed as a cabinet maker.

Ella and Oscar had four children — my grandfather Wilbur in 1908, Ralph in 1911, Dallas in 1914, and Lois in 1917.

And so it was, that on April 29, 1919, Oscar, Ella, Wilbur, Ralph, Dallas, and Lois, boarded a train in Hannibal and headed west in what had become a great American dream, to visit family, to see the Pacific Ocean, and, for perhaps a chance to, well, you’d have to read about it to know for sure.

And, fortunately, we can, for Ella compiled a 92-page hand-written diary/travelogue of the journey, much of which she undertook with her four pre-teen children in tow without Oscar, who had needed to return to Hannibal for work early, on what ultimately became a 79-day adventure.

Ralph, Dallas, and Wilbur, taken in approximately 1916. Mother Ella said this was Wilbur’s first suit.
Lois Hile right before leaving on journey
The Hiles in 1956

“In making this feeble attempt to write an interesting account of our wonderful trip to the west,” she wrote in the Preface, “I am fulfilling a promise exacted from me by my friends prior to our departure. I feel sure that in years to come this narrative may prove to be interesting to my own family, including the authoress.”

Ella Hile Diary, preface

Westward Bound