WT Block Jr -- Biography of Sarah Jane Sweeney Staffen Block (1884-1983)
By W. T. Block, Jr.
Just as I have written much about my father, Will Block, Sr., I have perhaps neglected writing about my mother, Jane Block, the way I should have, and at the request of my sister, Alta Grey Block Fletcher, I am writing this story both about her genealogy, her childhood, and at last her adult life as a person.
Born Sarah Jane Sweeney at Grand Chenier, Cameron Parish, LA, on August 4, 1884. She was the next to youngest child of nine children born to James Hill Sweeney (b. Grand Chenier September 22, 1849-d. there October 7, 1891) and Lou Ellen Smith (b. Brandon, MS January 10, 1847-d. Nederland, TX June 12, 1922). It was ironic that Jane Block died on June 12, 1983, the same month and day that her mother died.
Jane Sweeney Block’s childhood years are very sketchy, but I’d like to recall what I can of it. She often told us stories about herself. Mama’s sister Ella (Mary Viella) was born in 1880 and weighed only one pound. Since she was thought to be stillborn, she was placed in a cigar box behind the wood stove. About 30 minutes later, they heard her crying faintly, which was the first knowledge anyone had that she was alive. How the ill-equipped and under-educated "quacks" of that day managed to save her, born at only 6 or 7 months, I’ll never know, but she lived to age 85, although she never weighed more than 65 pounds in her life! I remember too that Mama considered one of her grandmothers as having been very mean to her, but I do not remember which grandmother it was, although I believe it was Grandma Sweeney.
Perhaps the first event that affected Jane Sweeney’s childhood most was the fact that she was blinded in one eye by cut glass when she was only three years old. I only know that Mama retained a small amount of peripheral vision in her blind eye, that is, barely enough to distinguish light. When her other eye was blinded by cataracts at age 94, Mama was afraid to undergo an operation for cataracts for fear of losing what little vision she had retained in her blind eye. Nevertheless, hardly anyone, not even her children, ever thought of her being blind in one eye because she performed everything she did so perfectly. After being blind in both eyes from ages 95 to 98, Jane Block had four great grandchildren born in the same month, September 1982, and she was determined to see them before she died. She underwent a cataract operation at age 98 and recovered perfect eyesight in that eye about October 1982. However, it was to last only about 8 months since she died on June 12, 1983. Up until one week before Mama died, she continued to bath herself without aid, wash, comb and plat her waist length hair, and perform all other personal functions without assistance. Mama also underwent a radical mastectomy at age 95. Jane Block almost made old age look good.
Mama's siblings included Virginia (Aunt Jennie, born September 2, 1871, died of pneumonia, June 18, 1891, and buried in Grand Chenier); Mildred (b. June 3, 1873-d. 1969), Austin (b. October 29, 1875-d. 1962); Andrew (b. January 20, 1878-d. 1960); Ella (b. March 13, 1880-d. 1965); Lawrence (b. August 6, 1882-d. December 28, 1935); Hugh William (b. October 29, 1886-d. 1973). Another sister, Margaret, died at age four. Grandma Lou Ellen Sweeney and six of her children (five of them in one row) are all buried in Oak Bluff Cemetery in Port Neches, and all of their graves have tombstones.
Austin Sweeney was the first of the Sweeney children to marry about 1900, his bride being Victoria Miller of Grand Chenier. About 1898 Uncle Austin was captain of a small, two masted schooner about 50 feet long. He once told me that about September 7, 1900 he sailed out of the Mermentau River with about 15 tons of Satsuma oranges and some lumber. Upon reaching the Sabine estuary, the seas had become so rough that he knew a hurricane was near at hand, so he pulled into Sabine Pass until the storm quieted. About September 9th, he proceeded once again to reach Galveston, except that Galveston had disappeared during the hurricane of September 8th. The National Guard took over Uncle Austin’s boat, threw his oranges and cargo overboard, put about 100 bodies on the schooner, and told him to take them 20 miles offshore and throw them overboard. Instead the bodies washed back up on the beach about as quick as he returned. After that, the bodies were taken to Bolivar, were saturated with oil, and burned.
Jane Sweeney was orphaned at age 7 when James Hill Sweeney died on October 7, 1891. Her oldest sister also died the same year, making it a double tragedy. My sister, Nell Singleton, wrote in her memoirs that our father, Will Block, Sr., never intended to marry until his five youngest sisters were married and he approved of their husbands, but that is quite incorrect. Aunt Tilda Keith was the only one that married before Dad. Aunt Kate Block married Henry Heisler in October 1899, several months after Dad was wed, and Aunts Clara Wagner, Mary Spurlock, and Iva Dearing all married soon after 1900. Mama told me many times that when she was 7 years old in 1891, she sat on Dad’s lap, never dreaming that one day she would be married to him. For a brief time in 1891, Will Block, Sr. was engaged to Virginia Sweeney before she died of pneumonia. Dad and Uncle Martin used to sail their sloop from Johnson Bayou around to the Mermentau River, while Uncle Martin courted Aunt Sally Crain, Mama’s first cousin of Grand Chenier (whom Martin soon married), Dad courted Virginia, and Uncle Abbie courted Aunt Flavia Peveto of Johnson’s Bayou. However, only a few weeks after Dad’s engagement to Aunt Jennie, she contracted double pneumonia and died a few days later. Mama never saw Dad again until long after she moved to Nederland in 1906. In 1987, Mrs. Billy Floyd (still living in 1997) of Port Neches told me that her grandmother, Mary Schram, later Mrs. Will Merriman, came "very close to becoming Mrs. Will Block" in 1894, except that Dad was too slow in naming a wedding date. So she soon married Dad’s friend, Will Merriman of Port Neches.
As stated, I know only that Mama’s childhood was marred by the death of her older sister Margaret at age four, and the deaths of Aunt Jenny and Grandpa Sweeney in 1891. James Hill Sweeney owned his own cotton farm, on which the family produced around 20 bales of cotton annually. All the Sweeney children worked in the cotton fields, planting in the spring, hoeing grass between the rows in the summer, and picking cotton in the fall. Mama told me that she often picked 300 pounds in one day, working from dawn to dusk, her cotton sack stretching out ten feet in back of her. A full day’s work for a young man usually amounted to about 400 pounds of cotton in one day.
Other than the farm, all the Sweeney children trapped minks in the marsh in wintertime. Apparently minks were as common in 1890 as muskrats were in 1930. I never heard Mama mention muskrats, so I presume their hides were worthless in 1900, although by 1938, muskrat hides were worth $2.25 each. Mama told me she had only about 25 to 30 traps of her own. She sold her mink hides for 60 cents each, and one winter she sold over $300 worth, which was about 500 hides. One cold morning, she was coming out of the marsh with about 8 or 10 minks over her shoulder, and just as she reached the high ridge at the edge of the marsh, she saw a big wildcat, chasing a rabbit. The cat scared her so that she dropped her minks and ran home. Later, after recuperating from fears, she went back and got her minks. The Sweeneys sold both their cotton and their minks to a Mr. Miller, who in 1890 ran the only store in Grand Chenier. He was an uncle of Mama’s sister-in-law, Victoria Miller Sweeney, and he shipped their cotton and mink hides on to Galveston.
During the Civil War, there were lots of wild boars and black panthers in the marshes and jungles around Grand Chenier, also deer and bears, but I think the panthers were extinct there by 1900, probably killed out after the menfolk returned from the Confederate Army. Grandma Sweeney used to tell how, during the Civil War, they had to keep the wooden window shutters barred (there were no glass windows there then) at night to keep the panthers out of their houses.
I don’t know much about Mama’s schooling, except that it must have been similar to Dad’s. Semesters were short and in the wintertime before spring plowing began. Some of the winters while Mama was trapping were very cold. I’ve heard Uncle ‘Bump’ and Uncle Andrew say that they sometimes killed enough ducks for dinner with sticks, in the trails under the high sea cane, because the ducks could not get above the sea cane to fly away. On February 14, 1895, it snowed between 26 and 31 inches at Beaumont and Orange, and I recall Dad saying that that snow drifted so deep that it covered up the fence posts on the old place at Port Neches. And on February 14, 1899, the temperature dropped to 4 degrees F. in Beaumont and 8 degrees in Sabine Pass, as most of Sabine Lake froze over. (These stories still survive in Galveston Daily News.) The newly arrived Nederland Dutchmen got to ice-skate on Sabine Lake that year. Mama went to school through about the "fourth reader," and her books were the McGuffey Reader and the Blue Back Speller. Mama’s teacher was her first cousin, Willie Crain, who was about 15 years older than Mama. Willie had studied both organ and French in New Orleans, and Mama took private lessons from her as well. By 1900 Mama played the organ quite well and spoke some French. When she was 20 in 1904, she played the organ in both the Methodist and Catholic churches in Grand Chenier. In that year, a young priest fell in love with her, and promised he would quit the priesthood if she would marry him. Because of that, Grandma Sweeney made Mama quit playing in the Catholic Church. In 1907 Mama continued her organ studies at Meridian Female College, Meridian, MS, for one year.
By 1905, Grandma Ellen Sweeney was strongly considering moving to Texas. Grand Chenier was cut off from everywhere except by water. (Actually ‘Grand Chenier’ means a large island or ridge of oak trees in the marsh.) Her brothers Austin and John Smith had already moved to Port Arthur (also her sister-in-law, Aunt Jennie Logan), and her sister Margaret had moved to Sour Lake. The primary cause, however, was the close kinship between her children and all the other young people in Grand Chenier - at least first cousin, and in some instances, double first cousin, brought about by brothers marrying sisters, or a brother and sister marrying a brother and sister. Like Aunt Jennie Sweeney, Aunt Mildred was once engaged to a sailor named Nelson, a schooner captain who was lost at sea. The Creole French sometimes married relatives as close as first cousin, but that was taboo among the Scots-Irish or Anglo-Saxon Methodists, who regarded kinship as ending with fourth cousin. Grandma’s move to Nederland in 1906 resulted in two sons and one daughter marrying, but two daughters, Mildred and Ella, and two sons, Andrew and Hugh W. or "Bump," remained single.
In 1906, Grandma Sweeney sold her farm at Grand Chenier to the Sterlese family, and she removed her furniture, her wagon and team of horses aboard a schooner and sailed for Port Arthur. She bought ten acres of land in the 100 block of Nederland Avenue, where South 1st and 1 ½ Streets are today. Then she paid $500 for enough lumber for a 5-room house, and she paid Preston Smith of Port Arthur $40, who spent one month building her new home. Uncle Andrew and Uncle "Bump" Sweeney worked a couple years on the Dr. Haizlip rice farm, before they found work in the Texaco roofing plant, where they remained until about 1920, when they went into the dairy business. They then ran a dairy until about 1945 when they retired. Grandma Sweeney died in Nederland in 1922 at age 75.
In 1906, Jane Sweeney met Robert Staffen of Smith’s Bluff on the Neches River, who was a steam engineer for Port Arthur Rice and Irrigation Company, which operated a large pumping plant near his home. Robert was born at Smith’s Bluff in 1882, the son of Albert and Flora Block Staffen, and grandson of Frederick William and Mary Painter Block. Both of Robert’s grandfathers had been Confederate soldiers, his grandfather Johan Michel Staffen when he was 54 years old. I don’t know where Jane Sweeney and Robert Staffen met, probably at a church function or social. Their courtship was certainly casual at first, for Mama soon left for a year of college in Meridian, MS. However, they probably corresponded, because Robert proposed marriage soon after Mama returned. They were married in November 1908, and my brother, Everett Albert Staffen, was born on December 20, 1909.
I know that Mama’s life at Smith’s Bluff was very unhappy at times, for whoever married Robert also married his mother, Flora Block Staffen, who was a domineering, overbearing woman, who could "henpeck" a bear, and probably did. Mama moved into a house on the Neches River, only 100 feet or so from the riverbank that belonged to Mrs. Staffen and had formerly been Flora’s parents’ home. It was a large, 2-story house. In 1911 Mama had undergone a traumatic experience at Smith’s Bluff when a neighbor, Wm. Cook, brutally murdered his partner, Wm. A. Van Horn, and had chained Van Horn’s body to an underwater log in the Neches River. Mama and all the Staffens appeared as prosecution witnesses against Cook, who was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment only because a host of witnesses swore that Cook was mentally deranged. Upon being led out of the courtroom, Cook swore that he would return and "kill all the Staffens." Twenty years later, Cook’s statement would return to haunt Mama once more. See Ch. 9 of Sapphire City of the Neches.
Mama had another neighbor, a Mulatto man named Rufus Gallier, who lived in a houseboat nearby. Gallier did odd jobs around the pumping plant, and he also trapped muskrats, hunted, and fished in the river. One day Gallier brought Mama a 25-pound cat fish that he had caught on a trot line, and when Mama cut the fish open, it had in it stomach two baby puppies that had been thrown into the river.
Also late in 1910, Mama was sitting near the river and had placed my brother Everett, age 12 months or so, on a blanket about 25 feet from the river. From where Everett lay, there was a gentle, sloping clamshell trail that led down to the river’s edge at about a 45-degree angle. Mama then sat down beside her infant and began some needlework. Suddenly she heard a noise and she saw a huge, 15-foot alligator, crawling up the incline toward Everett. She screamed and grabbed Everett, and the alligator turned and slid back into the river, but did not submerge. Having heard Mama’s scream, Rufus Gallier grabbed his rifle, rowed out into the river, and he killed the big 15-foot crocodile (See Sapphire City of the Neches, pp. 134-135)
Except for Flora Staffen’s tongue and effort to rule every roost in her domain, life was not too hard for Mama until 1915. Robert Staffen may have had primary tuberculosis before 1915, but by that year he became very ill, was often bedfast and unable to work. Also Port Arthur Irrigation Company had major problems because its pumping plant and 25 miles of canal system badly needed repairs. The owners brought over six canal experts from Holland and four engineers from New Orleans, and the ten canal men roomed and boarded with Mama from 1915 until 1917 when Robert Staffen died. During those two years, Mama worked like a slave as she always had, caring for a very ill husband and cooking and cleaning up after ten boarders, half of whom could not speak English. Mama saved up every spare penny that was surplus, and at the end of two years, she had accumulated $800 in gold in a cigar box that she had ‘squirreled’ away in a drawer. (She also raised chickens and hogs and raised a large garden to occupy her "spare time.")
On the day when Robert died, Flora and John Staffen came to her house, went straight to the drawer and took out her cigar box of gold coins. "This is rightfully Robert’s money," they claimed, "and we need it to buy a new car with!" It didn’t matter who had earned the money or that they had done nothing to earn it. Her home did belong to Flora Staffen, and apparently Mama felt it useless to protest farther. Anyway, Mama could not wait to get away from that snake pit of her Staffen in-laws.
At the same moment in 1917, the Texaco roofing plant in Port Neches was losing many of its employees because the Texas National Guard company of engineers had been called to active duty in World War I. She and 60 other women soon obtained employment there, Mama’s job being to put roofing nails into each of the little round boxes inside of each roll of roofing. She soon bought a house from Will Block, located at the intersection of Dieu Street and Port Neches Avenue, trading Will two lots in Nederland as a $250 down payment, and paying the remainder twice monthly from her wages. She worked a ten-hour day for $2.20. Every two weeks, she drove her horse and buggy down to the Will Block farm to make her payment, and on her last visit late in May 1919, Will Block wrote her a receipt and then asked her to marry him. It came as a shock to her, since Will had never previously expressed any interest in her. Since Mama was soon to be laid off because the Texaco men were returning from World War I, she soon agreed to marry him, and a week later they were married by a justice of the peace. Mama often related to me that Fred Nelson, the roofing plant superintendent, tried to make the women employees wear overalls, but considering such dress "unladylike," they held firm to wear dresses and won out.
If one thinks about it, a woman would have to be "hard-up" for marriage to marry a widower with 8 children. However, three of them, Anna, Albert, and Clara, either married the same month (June, 1919) as Jane Staffen did to Will Block, or a week or two afterward. Albert and Anna were only 19, and Clara married Charlie Phillips when she was only 17. So only five children were left at home, from Rosa, who was age 2, to Katie, who was age 13. But Mama had worked like a slave at Texaco, where for 10 hours daily she had to smell the foulest air imaginable, the fine dust used to coat freshly-tarred felt paper, which caused many roofing plant retirees either to die of emphysema or Bright’s disease. And before that, she had worked like a slave at the Staffen boarding house between 1915 and 1917, only to have the Staffens steal all her hard-earned money. However, I very quickly got used to the sight of Mama, slaving all day long, then shelling peas, beans, or sewing by lamp light after dark. However, every time I now think of her dropping potatoes in the field for 12 hours on August 16, 1930, with Dad and me, when she was nine months pregnant at age 46, it still makes me angry. I would think that Dad could have found someone else to replace her if he had half tried.
I would have thought that others in their memoirs would have given Mama credit for the sheer drudgery of her life on the Will Block farm, caring for, cooking for, scrubbing by hand and boiling clothes, and cleaning up after several step children besides her own, but no one ever did.
When Mama had a moment to spare, she always worked in her own large garden. On the southeast corner of the wire fence that surrounded the old place, there was a gate that went into Mama’s garden, which was about 100 by 100 feet in size, and being at the point where the bluff angled down to Block’s Bayou, the garden slanted downward at about a 30-degree angle. Although Mama always got Vertis Smith or Roy Sterling to plow it initially, she did all the planting in it, the weed-chopping, and harvesting.
Dad’s farming always included the staple sale items - corn, sweet and Irish potatoes, Crowder peas, butter beans, water melons, and cantaloupes. Mama never planted anything that Dad grew in the field, but she planted a lot of mustard greens, turnips, cabbage, lettuce, carrots, green and large onions, beets, okra, or other items that Dad thought were too labor-intensive to harvest in his fields. Also most of what Mama planted had to be cooked the same day before the greenery could wilt.
I remember several families that lived in the old house by the cemetery, but probably not all of them. The first was the Aldridge family about 1923-24, and I remember Mr. Aldridge getting injured or burned in an accident. Then an elderly widower named Mr. Keeney lived there. He was the father-in-law of one of Charlie’s friends. Then a Frith family from Mississippi, that had two teenage boys and a girl, lived there and farmed about ten acres of Dad’s land. Mr. Frith was a brother-in-law of A. L. Gore, who ran Port Neches Motor Co. Then there was a Mr. and Mrs. Divies and their daughter Josie who lived there. The last family I recall were Vertis (Dad’s first cousin) and Mamie Smith, who were still living there when Dad died in 1933.
I have already written so much about Dad’s enforcement of the Prohibition laws, my own encounters with skunks (animals, that is) and the Ku Klux Klan, and other incidents that I see no need to ‘rehash’ them here. About 1916, Dad built 12 or 14 rent houses on or south of Port Neches Avenue, and he envisioned that some day he would quit farming and live as a landlord. During World War I and the 1920’s, which were not famine years, I’m sure Dad profited somewhat from his rent houses. What he did not envision was the Great Depression of 1929, a time when all except one of his renters were unemployed, and because eventually there was no sale at any price for some of his farm produce, Dad ended up feeding some of his renters as well.
At one time, Dad was receiving only $10 monthly from his only renter that was employed. The remainder paid no rent, but were expected to keep the grass mowed, and if possible to provide other maintenance. What most of my siblings do not know was - that by 1931, the Will Block family was living almost entirely off Jane Block’s income. Mama kept her home on Port Neches Avenue rented, and in 1926 she leased her home to McDonald, with permission for him to move the house to the back of the lot and to build on the Port Neches Ave. side, McDonald’s Service Station, which was in business from 1926 until after World War II. Mama had McDonald under a 10-year lease contract at $50 a month. In 1929 Mama leased a vacant lot she owned on Twin City Highway in Nederland to J. C. Kelly (who built his Kelly Bulk Distributing Co. on it for his Pure Oil products), also at $50 a month. (Kelly was the person who employed Charlie Phillips while he was living in Van, Texas.) In 1935, Mama sold her Port Neches lot on terms to the lessee, McDonald. Between 1931 and when Dad died in 1933, Mama’s income was all that kept the Will Block family from falling apart, but again no one seemed ever to remember that, especially Clara and Charlie, who were so "gung-ho" on Dad divorcing Mama in 1932.
Between 1919 and 1925, Katie and Willie Mae were Dad’s principal "field hands," other than some hired hands such as Roy Sterling or the Esclavon brothers. By 1925, Katie and Billie had both left for college or nurse’s training in Galveston, and Mary Lou was the oldest at home. In her memoirs, Mary Lou mentioned only cleaning and cooking at home, but nothing about fieldwork, nor do I remember her in the field. After Mary Lou left, Nellie was the oldest left at home. It seemed that Rosa was the only one I ever worked across the row from me, as we picked Crowder peas or butter beans, dug potatoes, and turned or stuck sweet potato vines, etc. together almost every Saturday. I remember Nell around 1930 as being somewhat frail and fragile. I know she wore glasses at an early age, and some of my photos of her show her wearing dark rimmed glasses by 1928. I remember too that she had a lot of foot or shoe problems, I think it was her instep, that sometimes required special shoes and shoe inserts or inner soles. I think she generally worked around the house also.
It seemed too that Mama’s cooking chores were always the worst on Sundays. My earliest memories of her on Sunday were killing two chickens at daylight, gutting and singeing the feathers, then dipping them into boiling water before removing the feathers and pin feathers. It seemed that Mama’s meals were always chicken and dumplings if they were hens, or fried chicken, if they were fryers. For some one who always spoke of how religious her parents were when she was young, I always thought it odd that Mama never went to church with us during the 1920’s, but I know now why. Later she and Dad and all of us kids sometimes attended the Raymond T. Richey revivals that were being held at night in Beaumont around 1927 to 1930. I realize now that at some time, probably 1915, Mama just stopped going to church on Sunday morning, and I’m now sure it was before I was born. She may have stopped when she first married Robert Staffen (she sometimes referred to some of the Staffens as "infidels"), but certainly by 1915, when she had to care for Robert around the clock and cook and clean up after ten boarders. One must remember that Mama never had anything except block ice refrigeration to preserve food, and for the large crowds she had to cook for on Sundays, both at the Staffens and on the Block place, there was no such thing as cooking on Saturdays for the Sunday dinner. Sunday dinner crowds on the Block place more often resembled a cafeteria, and I don’t think myself that Mama ever knew for sure how many mouths to prepare food for. Often the older children came to eat after church, and I recall that sometimes all of us children ate dinner at a table under the pecan trees. Rev. and Mrs. Warner Hassler and other Methodist ministers ate Sunday dinner with us quite often, and sometimes there would be one or more Koelemay families eating with us. That was a holdover from days when "Sunday was for visiting," regardless of how much stress it created for the cook. I recall too that Mama always cooked in large metal containers, usually enameled ones 12" or more across, even if it were only beans or Crowder peas. Also there was always much food left over for the chickens, because the refrigerator ("ice box") space was usually sufficient only for milk, meat, or butter.
I recall too that Dad liked boiled rice for breakfast, as a cereal grain, often with hot butter, cinnamon, even syrup. That was also the way that some of the Dutch people preferred rice. I think Mama was the one that introduced rice and gravy to us, probably brought over from Louisiana. I do know too that Dad loved wild duck cooked with a thin gravy, which he poured over boiled rice. I have often seen Dad bring back 25 or more ducks killed by him over at the "dynamite holes" across the river. In the 1920’s, the top brass at Texaco asphalt plant were C. C. Hawkins, superintendent, and his brothers-in-law, Otho Merriman, general maintenance foreman, and Will Merriman, construction foreman. The men represented some of Dad’s closest friends, and because of that, Dad kept his ducks frozen in a locker in the Texaco ice plant, making a good meat reserve for any time needed.
There was something that happened on Sunday that only Mama and a couple of her children ever knew anything about. During the very late 1920’s, Alton Block deserted his wife (to take up with another woman) and a house full of children, who nearly starved. Mama always cooked twice as many biscuits for Sunday breakfast as were ever needed. (Dad also loved large biscuits with homemade butter and sugar cane syrup.) Always after Dad, I, and the others left for Sunday School, Mama took a pillow case of leftover biscuits, etc. out to our plow shed in the pear orchard (more of a jungle than an orchard), where Everett took them to Emma Block and her children.
It is hard for later generations nowadays to realize how severe the Great Depression was for those men who were out of work. Honest people stole to keep their children from starving. I know that sounds like an oxymoron, but I do mean people that would never have stolen anything in normal times. I remember too a time when George Block (Emma Block’s brother, children of George Block, son of Frederick William Block) brought his house boat into Block’s Bayou, and inside were his wife and 5 ‘stairstep’ children, also on starvation. His wife came up to our house and asked Mama for enough salt to flavor a turtle she had caught and was cooking into turtle soup.
Mama guessed correctly that they were nearing starvation, and found out just what she had expected. There was not a grain in the house of flour, corn meal, lard, salt, sugar, or any other foodstuff or condiment needed to cook with. (There was no welfare or anything else in those days.) She made me help her carry them a wheelbarrow full of food. We took them at least 50 pounds of Irish potatoes, flour, corn meal, salt, sugar, syrup, and I can’t remember what else. I can remember George's wife crying her eyes out as we carried the stuff in, and I never did understand what made her so sad when we were only trying to help her.
I suppose I was about 7 years old when I began working regularly in the field. The first chore I can remember after returning from school daily in 1926 was to shuck and shell a 10-quart water bucket of dried corn in the corn crib. We had a hand sheller then. Then I would use the same bucket to gather eggs with, and I usually filled the bucket every day. On Saturdays we packaged the eggs in paper cartons and delivered nearly all of them to Broussard’s store at Sabine Pass and Railroad (now MLK) Avenues in Beaumont. I might say that Mama had a way of meeting the hens at the hen house door at daylight. She had a way of placing four fingers between the hen’s tailbones to determine whether the hens were laying eggs or not. And if she was not laying, the hen went into the wire pen either for next Sunday’s dinner or to be sold at Garrett’s or Broussard’s store. Mama expected 100 hens to lay 100 eggs daily - probably an impractical over-expectation!
I remember too that I never did find any school class pictures around our house, and that Dad or Mama always told me to take mine back to the teacher - that they were not ‘good enough,’ although they had looked good to me. I asked Katie about that in 1986, and she replied, "W. T., we were farmers and we had a payday maybe twice a year, whereas the other kids’ fathers, who worked at Texaco, got paid twice a month!" There was something else that embarrassed me a lot after 1930. Before that, Dad always gave me a nickel to give at Sunday School, but after that year, he gave me only a penny to give. Other kids always had a nickel or dime to give. It was so embarrassing that sometimes I would tell them I had lost the rest of my money, but I think they knew why anyway.
During the late 1920’s, Will Block became a very science-oriented farmer, thanks to the intervention of Joe Combs, the Jefferson County agricultural agent. On one occasion Combs grafted over 100 young pecan trees growing on the Will Block farm with paper shell or other pecan grafts. Combs taught Dad to plan his annual crops and acreage’s in advance, so that he could take soil samples in various parts of the field, send them to Texas A and M’s soil-testing service, who in turn would advise the amounts and percentages of commercial fertilizer (i.e.: nitrogen, phosphate, potash) to be spread for each particular crop or vegetable.
That also led to Dad’s attending the weeklong agricultural seminars at Texas A and M. In the summer of 1928, Dad, Mama, Otis and I went in the 1926 Model-T Ford sedan, and we roomed at a boarding house in Bryan for a week. I recall that outside Otis’ and my window, there was a long verandah or gallery porch on which there was a cage with several squirrels in it. We loved to watch them and feed them acorns provided by the owner. On the last day we were there, the seminar served a "dinner on the ground" for all attending farmers and their families.
It seemed I got to travel an awful lot with Dad during the 1920’s, considering how primitive the autos and the roads were during that decade. In 1921, Highway 90 was paved with concrete from Houston to Orange and probably west to San Antonio. That was in the age when almost everyone still traveled by train, autos being utilized principally for local transportation because of the bad roads. If you had a blowout, you had to patch the inner tube on the spot with a rubber patch and glue. What is now Spur 347 (Beaumont to Port Arthur) was also paved then, later along with a side road, Nederland Avenue to Port Neches. However I can barely remember when Port Neches Ave. was still shell through the business district. (See photo in Sapphire City of the Neches.) As late as 1935, Nederland Ave. was shelled only from the 1100 block to the 1600 block, the remaining blocks toward the air port being two ribbons of shell with yellow bitter weeds in between, and that only to Saul Trahan’s dairy at 27th Street. Highway 69, Beaumont to Port Arthur, was concreted two-lane in 1938, and Nederland Avenue was concreted two-lane in that year. North of Beaumont, Highway 69 was shelled only to Kountze, and beyond Kountze was only a dirt road in the middle 1920’s. Over the sloughs between the hills, there were only logs laid in the lowest or drainage areas to provide traction. The logs generally floated away during a gully-washing rain.
I remember several trips to Tyler County over those dirt roads in the middle to late 1920’s. Dad’s brother, Uncle Abbie, moved to a farm on Turkey Creek, east of Warren, and we visited him a few times before a mule on Christmas Eve of 1931 killed him. Also Mama’s cousin, Luther Vaughn (son of Aunt Lizzie Sweeney), moved from Port Neches to Harmony Settlement, southwest of Woodville, where they lived in a typical East Texas farm house, with a "dog trot" down the middle. Once when we spent the night at the Vaughn farmhouse, I remember being awakened by barking dogs chasing a bear through the "dog trot."
Once about 1925, Dad took me to Tyler and Jasper counties with him. He was driving the old 1920 model Ford touring car, it being before he traded it in for the 1926 Ford sedan. Dad did most of such traveling in December or January - after harvest season, but before spring plowing began. Once he made a trip to the country Baptist churches there, having with him a film - a ‘tearjerker’ named "Ten Nights in a Bar Room" and a battery-operated projector loaned to him by the Texas Anti-Saloon League. On that trip, I remember staying a couple nights in a farmhouse, where he and I were buried at night under a thick featherbed. On the way back, the old touring car got stuck in one of those sloughs between the hills, somewhere near Warren.
Dad got out, removed his white shirt, and he found some saplings which he used to no avail to try to get the car "unstuck." In the meantime, an old farmer from up on the hill led his yoke of oxen to within 50 feet of where Dad was working. The farmer sat down on a stump, where he started whittling and squirting a gallon of tobacco juice on a nearby turtle, and his oxen grazed. Dad asked him how much he would charge to pull us out. "Fifteen bucks!" he snorted as he squirted another quid of tobacco juice. $15 in 1925 was equal to a week’s pay for many people. Dad kept working and sweating a while longer, before reaching for his pocket book, the farmer whittling away as if he knew Dad’s situation was hopeless. As he paid the farmer, Dad observed, "Three stuck cars a month must provide a good living." He also asked if the logs had washed away. "Yep, three cars shore do, and nope, I sold the logs to the sawmill up thar on the hill. Shore beats farming." Oh, such was life during my childhood!
I remember several trips to the piney woods, at least two to Bryan, a train trip to CIA (now T. W. U. in Denton), where Katie and Billie kept me overnight in their dorm room ("Heavens to Betsie! What if the dean of women had found me?"), and two or three train trips with Dad, Mama, and Otis to Galveston, where the Galveston and Interstate train was put on a long barge and towed across the bay to Galveston. Once when the bay waters were too choppy, we had to get off at Port Bolivar and ride a tugboat across the bay to Galveston Island, where another train met us and took us on to the station. That was the first time I ever saw a porpoise.
Once Dad and I went to Galveston in the old touring car when Billie was in nursing school at John Sealy Hospital. We came back over the old causeway to Virginia Point, which had both a train track and a road on the same causeway. We were on the shell road to Houston, and there were miles and miles of open prairie land with no houses in sight. We stopped at an old hand-pump service station to fill up, where there was a sign: "Thirty miles to the next station!" So much for traveling 1925-style, but I suppose it was better than a covered wagon.
However, I have strayed afar from a biography of Jane Block as I intended. Mama lived through a lot of tragedy on the Will Block farm - Roy Sterling almost killed in Dad’s barnyard during the tornado of May, 1923, which destroyed both of Dad’s barns. Then Mr. Aldridge, the renter, was badly burned or injured, and a mother and her two daughters burned up in a tent fire near the cemetery. A couple small children that had been living in houseboats in Block’s Bayou accidentally drowned. Then Mr. Lehmann, the butcher at Burke’s Grocery, almost cut his arm off when he fell through the window of his cabin cruiser, and Mama barely save his life by coagulating his blood with chipped ice. And finally Mrs. DeBlance on Block’s Street threw her children into the bayou before she jumped in and drowned herself.
All the accidents and suicides caused Mama to set some stringent rules for Otis and I—you don’t climb trees because Katie had once broke her arm; you don’t play with matches; you don’t go near the mule or horse’s hooves; and you don’t go near the bayou, etc.! And Otis and I got our behinds blistered a few times for violating her rules. After the DeBlance tragedy, Mama was more than happy to move away from the Block farm and back to Nederland.
As mentioned earlier, the affair with ex-convict William Cook raised its ugly head once more in 1931, after Cook had served his entire 20-year sentence in prison. One day Lola Staffen, Mama’s former sister-in-law, called her from Houston to warn Mama that Cook had been released from Huntsville. When Mama worked at the Texaco roofing plant between 1917-1919, Lola had worked there with her and Mama thought highly of her. A newspaper had interviewed ex-convict Cook in Huntsville, and the article noted that Cook had used the money he had saved in prison to buy a mule and a light covered wagon. And Cook added that while he was en route to Louisiana, he planned to pass through and visit his former residence of Port Neches. To Lola Staffen and Mama, that meant that Cook planned to carry out his threat of 20 years earlier - to return and kill all the Staffens. Mama immediately called John Staffen, who was so upset he immediately caught a train for Kansas City and stayed gone for two weeks.
What Cook did not know was that all but two of the Staffens had either died or moved away. Only Mama, by 1931 remarried to Will Block and John Staffen of Port Neches were all that survived. In 1922, Flora Block Staffen had sold all 300 acres of the old Staffen farm at Smith’s Bluff to Pure Oil Company for a refinery. Between 1917 and 1925, Robert Staffen had died; so had his brother Henry (Lola’s former husband), who had also tended the steam engines and boilers at the pumping plant; also their sister Bertha Staffen (Mrs. Barton) Smith; and finally the parents, Albert and Flora Block Staffen, within about 7 years.
Soon after Lola’s telephone call from Houston, a covered, light spring wagon, drawn by a mule, pulled up at our cattle guard at the end of Block Street, and Dad went out to meet it. There was a grizzled, old man with a strong resemblance to Santa Claus, sitting on the seat. Dad returned to the house and told Mama that the old man was en route to Louisiana and he wanted only to camp out all night and graze his mule - also said his name was Cook.
When Mama found out that the man out at the cattle guard was named Cook, she almost went "bananas," suddenly convinced that the old man had actually come back to kill her. She insisted that Dad make him leave, after repeating what Cook had threatened to do when he was led out of the courtroom. Will Block returned and told Cook that he not only could not camp out on the Block place, he could not even remain in Port Neches because of his threat 20 years earlier to return and kill all the Staffens - otherwise he would call the deputy sheriff and have him locked up. So Cook turned around and started out Block Street. In 1931, there was no Rainbow Bridge near the mouth of Neches River, there being only a shell road to Dryden’s Ferry at that site, then a heavy wooden plank bridge from the ferry through the marsh to high land near present-day Bridge City, and another shell road on to Orange. Will Block followed Cook’s wagon in his Model-T Ford sedan down the shell road about six miles to the ferry, watched as Cook’s wagon went aboard the ferry, and then got off the ferry in Orange County, before Dad returned home about dark. Mama was considerably relieved to get Cook out of Port Neches.
Of course, Will Block’s death on February 26, 1933 proved to be quite a turning point in Jane Block’s life. At the time of his death, she was 48 ½ years of age, having already outlived two husbands, but still having at home three children, ages 2 ½ to 12 ½. About April 1933, Jane Block underwent a complete religious and charismatic transformation, totally surrendering her life to God, and she went from a person who never attended church on Sunday morning to a person who went every time the doors opened. However, Mama severed whatever connections she had ever had with the Methodist Church, and she virtually "organized her own church." Mama had a close friend in Port Neches, Mrs. C. P. Bass, and together they rented the vacant Lyric Theater for a revival to be conducted by an elderly man from Sabine Tabernacle, a former Methodist named Rev. "Dad" Gardner. Since Alta is writing about this phase of Mama’s life in depth, I will tend to "skim" over it and end this biography about the year 1942 when I entered the U. S. Army. Mama never married again, but she continued to exhibit during World War II much of farm skills and ingenuity that she had previously demonstrated on the Will Block farm. On October 17, 1935, she removed her family to Nederland, where she also died on June 12, 1983, and only 7 weeks short of her 99th birthday.
By 1933, there was a "trader boat" (also known as a "bum boat"), that docked daily at our boat landing. The boat was about 45 or 50 feet long and twelve feet wide (much too large to be navigating Block’s Bayou), with about a 100 HP engine in it, that moved the boat about 14 or 15 miles an hour. Our landing was about 100 yards from the mouth of Block’s Bayou, and because the boat could not turn around, it had to be backed out of the bayou and into the Neches River. Two middle-aged Swedes owned the boat, and they lived for the next two years in one of Dad’s two rent houses on Port Neches Ave. I remember that one of the Swedes was named Otto Benglsen, and he brought his blonde, attractive wife, who could speak no English, over here from Sweden.
As a point of explanation, most ships in the Neches River in 1933 were quite small by modern standards, mostly tankers of about 5,000 tons weight and 50,000-barrel capacity. The average crew of each was about 30 men. Before WWII, loading ships was quite slow, for tankers because of the slow pumping capacity in the refineries, and for freighters, because most dry cargo was in sacks that had to be lowered in rope harnesses into the ship’s hold. The average stay in port was two days for tankers and 4 or 5 days for freighters. Often ships had to drop anchor in the Neches River to await berthing space. In those days, the Magpetco docks were about 200 yards north of the mouth of Block’s Bayou. I often saw two ships docked there at one time. Two of them, Standard oil tankers named Tiger and Eagle, had been converted from old World War I freighters, and their crew quarters, steering, radio room, etc. were still amidships. Another tanker that docked there twice monthly was the Sylvan Arrow, and all of them were torpedoed in World War II. Other docks along the Neches were the Main Street, Magnolia (now Mobil), and Stanolind in Beaumont; Sun Oil and Pure Oil at Smith’s Bluff; Texaco at Port Neches; Atlantic at Atreco (Groves); and Gulf, Texaco, and KCSRR at Port Arthur. And since half of the crew of a docked ship had to remain aboard, they were ready-made customers for the "trader boat," which docked alongside a ship.
The trader boat operated much like a grocery store, carrying all types of tobacco products, men’s magazines, work and dress clothes, other dry goods, and even ice cream, all at exorbitant prices. We sold the trader boat 50 pints at 5 cents each of whole milk daily, but we also took back their unsold milk, which was about once a week. Isaac Theriot, who delivered ice to us, also sold the trader boat about 300 lbs. daily. I suppose they sold the milk for 25 cents a pint, for all their prices were at about 400% profit. We also sold milk, butter, eggs, and chickens to Isaac Brookner, an Orthodox Jew, who owned the Grand Leader Dry Goods Co. on Port Neches Ave. The chickens could have no defects because Brookner always took them to the rabbi in Beaumont to be inspected and slaughtered. Mama made a lot of butter that we sold in those days, and we always had a lot of buttermilk, clabber, and sour milk, which was usually fed to the chickens with table scraps.
As of March 1, 1933, my brother Everett Staffen, who in 1931-1932 had attended Bowling Green College in Kentucky, was living in Nederland and running Smith Bluff Lumber Company, which belonged to his Uncle John Staffen. At that time Everett returned to the old place to live with us, and he began to drive Dad’s old 1926 Model-T sedan to and from work. That was the same old car I first learned to drive in 1934, but it did not have a stick shift like conventional models. Everett used to take us to church at Lyric Theater, and often we walked home because he was on a date in Nederland.
Between 1933 and 1935, Otis and I continued to go to school in Port Neches, but that was soon to change. In Will Block’s home, if you made only an ‘A’ on a report card, Will wanted to know what happened to the ‘+.’ After the DeBlance drowning in August 1935, Mama seemed to develop an absolute hate for the old place, and she could not wait to move to Nederland. Perhaps some of that developed around the fact that in May, 1934, Mama donated a lot in Nederland, upon which a church was built, and we were attending there a couple nights a week. Mama also learned that in the 800 block of Detroit in Nederland, George Rienstra owned 6 fenced-in lots, upon which a 4-room rent house was standing, and she approached Rienstra to buy the lots. She soon arranged to sell her lot (McDonald Service Station) on Port Neches Ave. to Mr. McDonald for $2,000, and she bought the lots from Rienstra. When we moved to Nederland, one might think that we were going to another farm, because we took everything with us except the horses and farm machinery. We moved 150 chickens in cages, and also 4 or 5 cows, I’m not certain. At that time, we had a yellow cow named Daisy and another named Spot, each of which could milk 5 gallons daily. We also had an old cow named Christine that Mama bought from the Sweeney dairy for $15. We also had two more cows, a young red one with her first calf and another, a black and white Holstein, the names of which I’ve forgotten.
Because of the cows and chickens, life in Nederland was sometimes more of the same, but it was also different because for the first time we had electricity and nearby neighbors. We continued to sell lots of milk, and after milking, we had to stake the cows with cow chains on the nearby vacant lots. Otis and I delivered milk on bicycles at first, both to stores and to a lot of houses on the East Side of the KCSRR tracks. We built a milk barn with a concrete floor in it, where we bottled milk in quart bottles with paper caps. Alta Grey started to school in Nederland in 1936, and I graduated in 1937.
I think I will close this biography very quickly now, and let Alta Grey continue with it as far as she wishes. Life remained much the same until the fall of 1941. Both Everett and I missed the earliest military draft in the fall of 1941, but the Japs bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, throwing us into war with Japan, Germany and Italy. That happened on Sunday and on Monday morning, Mama told Everett to go to T. W. Edwards’s store and order a 135 lb. sack of green peaberry coffee beans and two 100-lb. sacks of sugar. On Tuesday morning as Everett and I loaded the sacks into a pickup truck, old Eli Luckett was in the store, nosy as usual, "Watcha got in them sacks, Everett?" "Just cow feed, Eli," Everett said. "But, Everett, Edwards don’t sell no cow feed." Everett replied, "He does now." All through the war, Mama loved to parch her coffee and let the smell waft all out over the neighborhood.
In April 1942, Everett was drafted into the Air Corps, even though he had just had a sinus operation and was still bleeding from his nose. He was trained to be a flight engineer aboard a Martin Marauder B-26 bomber. In August 1942, I enlisted in the Army, serving for two years in anti-aircraft artillery, before being transferred in December 1943, to the 78th Infantry Division. My division was shipped to Europe in September, 1944, and saw six months of action on the German front, where it endured 14,000 casualties (2,900 dead, 12,000 wounded and missing). In 1943 Otis was drafted into the Navy, after having been married about two years. Everett was shot down over Italy in February 1944 and remained a German prisoner for 16 months until the war ended. Mama did a lot of praying for us during those years, and we all came back alive.
As mentioned much earlier, Mama became very angry at John Staffen in 1917 when he and his mother walked off with Mama’s cigar box with $800 in gold coins in it. But she was a very forgiving person, and she did not retain that anger. About 1946, John Staffen was in a motor scooter accident and he broke his leg. For about four weeks, Mama kept him in her home, and even helped him to the bathroom with his broken leg. He told her at that time that he had treated her quite badly in the past, but she had forgiven him for it.
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