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Westward Bound

I never really got to know my great grandmother, but I do remember the day she died. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry.

I never really got to know my great grandmother. She passed away in 1969 at the age of 89 when I was twelve and a good portion of her last years was spent in an old-folks home. My grandfather would take me with him to see her on occasion and her dementia had reached the point where she did not recognize her son as her son; she thought he was her husband, who had died almost a decade earlier. I don’t recall who she thought I was, but what I found remarkable was that she could recount the details of the assassination of President McKinley from 1901 as if it were yesterday. At least we assumed she could. Fact-checking your elders was not a thing yet. I do remember the day she died. It was the first time I ever saw my dad cry.

Ella Hazel Smith was born on November 9, 1879 in De Witt, Illinois to Jesse Doran Smith and Josephine Lucretia McBride. 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, Missouri, where Oscar had been born and where the Hiles had lived for more than half a century. Ella and Oscar had four children — my grandfather Wilbur in 1908, Ralph in 1911, Dallas in 1914, and Lois in 1917. Oscar was originally a day laborer and by the 1910 census was listed as a cabinet maker.

Like many if not most Americans, the 1910s could not have easy for the Hiles. There had been a world war, after all, followed by the great influenza pandemic. To make matters worse on a more personal level, Oscar’s mother, Margaret Catherine Kennedy Hile, had passed away in 1918.

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, 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. “In making this feeble attempt to write an interesting 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.”

Stay tuned as together we embark on the family’s journey, now over a century removed. Over the next few months we will join the Hiles, with photographs, maps, stories, and, of course, Ella’s written word. The hope is that you’ll meet my general expectations for presentations: laugh a lot, cry a little, and stay until the end.

But first, let us wish Ella a happy heavenly birthday on this the 142nd anniversary of her birth.

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