The Elbert Files: The what-ifs of family history
Friday, February 07, 2014 7:00 AM
If you could go back in time, my friend Roger Grefe said, what one question would you ask your grandparents?
That’s tough, I replied, because I never knew either of my grandfathers. Both died while my parents were children.
For many years, the only thing I knew about John J. Elbert was that he died at home in Whittemore, Iowa, of a mysterious illness at the age of 43 in 1927. Similarly, for many years, the only thing I knew about my mother’s father, Aubrey Leslie Every, was that he was 37 when he was killed by a drunken driver who ran a stop sign at a gravel road in northeast Polk County on Valentine’s Day in 1931.
As I have grown older, I’ve wished I knew more about both men.
The question I would ask Grandpa Everly is easy. I want to know what prompted him in 1930 to shut down his small farm outside Bondurant and take his family on a three-month trip to the West Coast and back. They made their grand tour in a new Chevrolet truck that Aubrey had bought that spring and converted into a mobile home.
My mother was 11 years old when they left, and that trip, along with Aubrey’s sudden death three months after they returned, shaped her life.
For years, I’ve wondered what prompted him to take off like that.
Was it the Great Depression, which was in its infancy in 1930? Was it a bad year on the farm? Probably not, because considerable foresight appears to have gone into the planning. They visited relatives in California. Was the trip a trial run to see if he wanted to move there?
That’s what I’d ask Grandpa Everly. Figuring out what to ask Grandpa Elbert is more complicated.
John J. Elbert was what we now call a serial entrepreneur, with simultaneous careers as a lumberman, building contractor, farmer and land speculator. He also managed the town baseball team, served on the city council and was a church leader.
Every business in Whittemore closed on the day of my grandfather’s funeral.
At the time of his death, John J. owned the Wheeler lumberyard in Whittemore. The lumberyard was the foundation of his success, but I don’t know how he got into the business.
His obituary says he began working at the Wheeler lumberyard in Whittemore in 1905, when he would have been 21 years old, and that he later bought the business.
I know John J. had a close association with William W. Wheeler, who owned Wheeler Lumber, Bridge & Supply Co. in Des Moines.
In fact, my grandmother said that Wheeler paid for their honeymoon in 1909. They traveled by train across Canada to the West Coast, where John J. inspected logging operations and where my grandmother saw a man die when a tree fell on him.
Wheeler was 70 years old when my grandfather died. But he and one of his top assistants traveled by train from Des Moines to Whittemore for the funeral.
There’s a lot I’d like to know about Grandpa Elbert, but my one question would be how the connection with Wheeler began.
John J. attended Capital City Commercial College in Des Moines at about the same time that he started working at the lumberyard in Whittemore.
But I don’t know which came first. Did the lumberyard (maybe even Wheeler himself) prompt John J. to enroll in CCCC, or did Wheeler recruit John J. while he was attending the Des Moines business school? Or did they meet later?
When Wheeler died in 1935, his general manager, Percy Hoak, acquired the business, which is run today by Percy’s grandson, David Hoak.
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