Wednesday, July 9, 2014

The Spargurs - National City, California

"The picture alone," wrote James Lafferty, "without the written word, leaves half the story untold." Pictures capture brief, ephemeral, moments in time. For the most part a photograph evokes a particular memory or story, for those who were there. And, if that story was shared, the photograph can bring back those second-hand recollections. But what about those photos that have been left behind with no context or story – those pictures disconnected from the people who actually experienced them? Is it possible to recreate the story? At the very least is it conceivable to capture a hint of what that brief moment might have been when the shutter flicked opened and the silver halide crystals reached into the moment and captured the light? I say yes; it is possible to recapture the life of a moment, even if it is only a faint heartbeat; one can recreate a morsel of the story that is forever bound within the borders of a photograph, and to do as the song suggests: see it in color.[1]

On 30 October 1919 the tall and stately 26-year-old Robert Clair Spargur, a clerk for the Crow Agency general store – three miles north of Little Bighorn, Montana – married Vera Cotton, a 24-year-old hotel cook, in Sheridan, Wyoming.[2] Following their marriage the family moved to a ranch situated between Bushnell and Kimball, Nebraska, where, much like his father before him Robert took up farming, but farming was not really in his blood.

However sustaining mill work, grocery, and farming had been for his ancestors in Ohio, Iowa, and Nebraska for Robert, farming was a necessity to support life. However, Robert had other talents and ambitions –he was adept with numbers, and expert in organization; prior to his stint as a clerk for the Crow Agency, Robert had clerked for the Farrell Syrup Company in Omaha, Nebraska.

In Nebraska, Robert and Vera struggled to live in the open range West with a young family. They had a daughter, Myrtle Marie, born 29 August 1920 in Bushnell, and then tragedy struck with the birth and premature death of their first son, Robert L, in Bushnell in 1921.
Robert and Vera Spargur, with Myrtle, circa 1921, Bushnell, Nebraska.
The 1920’s were traditionally viewed as a “Roaring” era of great economic prosperity driven by the introduction of new consumer goods resulting in a post-war economic boom. Families were relocating from the rural areas to the big cities. In rural areas, often on small family farms, it was difficult to improve one's standard of living beyond basic sustenance. Farm living was dependent on unpredictable environmental conditions, and in times of drought, flood or pestilence, survival became extremely problematic. This shift in the American populace, coined as “Urbanization,” led to centralized economic prosperity. In spite of the social, economic and technological advances brought on by World War I a large part of the working class population were not affected by the boom. In fact, millions of Americans lived below the poverty line of $2,000 per year per family.[3] When the Great Depression struck at the end of the decade, these families were relatively unaffected, having lived under grim financial and environmental circumstances for several years prior to Black Thursday and the Dust Bowl.[4][5]

By 1922, Robert, Vera, and little Myrtle, packed up and joined in the urbanization movement, moving to southern California. Having arrived in California with his family, Robert received a letter from his father, Clay, dated 22 April 1923, which gave a glancing view of the conditions, which encouraged their removal to the coast.[6]
Dear Son and Family,
Have been thinking would write you for some time I sold your beef shortly after you left. I got an offer of $10 cash before that I could see them sell by the dozens but since I received your letter can’t sell one. I thought would get one yesterday. But the weather was so no sale. We have had our winter the last month and a regular blizzard to day worst of winter.
We have had a deuce of time with the well at farm for the last 10 days. Both of us have been down there all the time. Only 1 tree on farm and the root of that run down the well for 50 feet and Vernon and I dug down that far and fixed the casing and the wind blowing a gale most of the time had to take the stock to Young's for water. Clair I settled with Swank I gave him $17.50 and got your note will send it to you. I also borrowed $150 and paid to A. Forsling People seem harder up here than ever and I tell you the wheat crop looks pretty slim. But not much different than when you left no one moving in and several leaving.

I see Phelix every few days he always asks about you he has no one with him yet Mrs. Wilkin’s son is at Millar Hospital has an operation for chronic pendicitis last week guess he is getting along fine. I guess Father is getting along all right haven’t heard for 10 days. Leonard and Eva were down yesterday they are well. Vernon sold his hogs last week got 7 1/4 and they weighed 225. The corn and what he paid did not more than pay for them after he fed his horses and cattle all winter and charged it to hogs. Write me let me know how you and Bob make it and how you like it by now. What is Bob doing and how is his health.[7]
With Love to all, I am yours, C. W. SPARGUR
P. S. My hands are too sore to write.
Most likely, traveling from Nebraska, Robert and his family drove west on the Lincoln Highway, the first automobile road across America - to Cheyenne, Wyoming.[8] Turning south to Denver, they drove the Colorado to Gulf Highway, then on to Colorado Springs, Pueblo, and Trinidad. Staying on the east side of the Rockies, the family made their way on the improved dirt roads that were the highway system of the 1920’s. Leaving Colorado, the highway took them through Raton, New Mexico, where they turned onto the New Santa Fe Trail Highway. At Las Vegas, the highway turned west towards Santa Fe, then south again to Albuquerque. Just passed Albuquerque Robert turned right onto the National Old Trails Road[9] – prior to it becoming the Mother Road, Route 66 – and drove across the Continental Divide and into Gallup. Leaving New Mexico, the family entered Arizona and the wide open landscape of the Painted Desert. After crossing the Little Colorado River near Joseph City, the family could see the San Francisco Peaks rising in the distance. Through Flagstaff, the family continued their westward journey through Williams, Kingman, and into Needles, California – the barrenness of eastern Arizona was nothing compared to the Mohave Desert between Needles and Barstow.[10]

The National Old Trails Highway in central New Mexico , circa 1920. [11]
Westbound approaching Gallup
Just outside of Holbrook, Arizona
Highway crossing the Navajo reservation in Arizona
Crossing from Needles towards Barstow
The Mohave Desert
The National Old Trails Road, having passed from Needles, through the thriving metropolises of Bannock, Goffs, Fenner, Danby, Amboy, Bagdad, Ludlow, and Daggett, turned south at Barstow. At Victorville it donned a layer of pavement – "oiled" – a beautiful upgrade from the tire rutted sections along the Navajo Indian reservation that were frequently visited with sand drifts, and entered the San Bernardino Valley of Central California.[12] Leaving the main highway, the Spargurs continued south on paved roads through Riverside, Elsinore, Murrieta, Fallbrook, Bonsall, and San Marcos, finally arriving in the hidden valley of citrus orchards and rich agriculture of Escondido.[13] 

The Spargurs moved into 233 E Washington Ave, in Escondido. Robert made ends meet working in the citrus orchards owned by his uncle Robert L Spargur, who had lived in Escondido since at least 1919.[14] It was here that Robert and Vera welcomed their third child, a son, Arnold into the family. 

In 1922 the US Navy established a Destroyer base in San Diego Bay and in February of 1923 the US Navy opened a Naval Supply Depot at 937 Harbor Drive, in San Diego. Robert, seeing more in his future than farming, applied and obtained a job as a stockman at the depot. By 1925 the family was moving again, this time to Lincoln Acres, just outside of National City, a suburb of San Diego. National City had been established as a community around 1895, from a land grant from Rancho De La Nación.[15] National City, marking the southern border of San Diego, sits on a plateau overlooking San Diego Bay to the west and the Sweetwater River on the south. At its furthest corner was Lincoln Acres, an unincorporated stretch of rolling hills at the southeastern edge of the city which ended at Canyon Ridge and the banks of the Sweetwater.
Lincoln Acres, looking northeast from Ridgeway Drive. Granger Ave is visible in the top right. Circa 1923.
Here, in the unincorporated, and sparsely populated, hills of Lincoln Acres, the Spargurs moved into a unpretentious home. So early in the establishment of the city were the Spargurs that their address was listed in the city directory as simply “Ridgeway dr n s Granger” In the secluded hills of citrus and olive orchards, the Spargurs welcomed their final three children: Donald, Juanita, and Bettie-Jo.

By now Robert's career was advancing and he was a clerk at the supply depot. In time his salary would bring him $1,900 a year – about $31,000 in today’s economy. As the Spargur family grew, and Robert advanced in positions at the depot, the family purchased a new car and moved into a new home at 1114 E 6th Street, National City. 

Here, circa 1934, the Spargurs are seen standing next to their 1927 Buick.
From left to right, Robert, Juanita, Vera, Bettie-Jo, Myrtle, Donald, and Arnold.
Built in 1929, the 1,075 square foot home had three bedrooms, one indoor bathroom, running water, gas stove, and a fireplace. Built in a graceful modified craftsman style the National City home was a tremendous step-up for the family. In Omaha, Robert had lived with his family in a 588 square foot home at 3002 Vinton Street. After their wedding, Robert and Vera’s home in Bushnell, Nebraska, was nothing more than a share cropper’s shack (as seen above), though it was on their own farm.

1114 E 6th Street, National City, California.
The Great Depression eventually reached the coast and out of necessity kept the family close, as they struggled to maintain a decent house, and put food on the table. The San Diego area of California, in the early 30’s suffered like the rest – though not to the depths as other parts of the country. This was in part to the presence of a well-established agricultural economy which wasn't being ravaged by the Black Blizzards[16] and droughts of the Dust Bowl, the presence of the US Navy and Marine Corps bases, and their need for employees, both military and civilian. Still, everybody pitched in and you made do with what you had in order to make ends meet and to stretch your standard of living.

Robert and Vera Spargur, circa 1930.
The Spargurs lived in their National City home for over ten years. It was during this time, 1936, that the Spargur’s oldest daughter, Myrtle Spargur, met Stanley Wheeler, a slender young man from Modesto, Illinois. They were married in January 1937, and in September welcomed the Spargur’s first grandchild, Robert Glen – my father.
1938, Myrtle holding Robert Glen Wheeler.
In 1943, Robert was transferred to Ogden, Utah where he was promoted to Storage Supervisor at the newly built Naval Supply Depot in Clearfield, so the family sold their home and moved. The house on 6th Street, with its original wooden floor, still stands today, though fresh paint and contemporary appliances are obvious, it has remained remarkably genuine to its original grace. 

The Spargurs never returned to National City – Robert completed his civilian employment with the Navy while in Ogden, Utah, but that is a story, and a picture, for another day…


[1] Brady Vercher. “Jamey Johnson - In Color.” (2008). Online - (accessed 8 July 2014).

[2] “The first wedding to be solemnized in the new Methodist Episcopal parsonage at 522 West Loucks street was performed yesterday afternoon at 3 o’clock by Reverend Ira W. Kingsley, when he united in marriage Miss Vera Cotton of Sheridan and Mr. Robert Spargur of Kimball, Nebraska. Miss Cotton is the daughter of Mrs. Phillip Cotton of Sheridan, and has made friends in the city and Tongue River vicinity, where she has made her home for nearly all of her life. Mr. Spargur has an extensive ranch near Kimball, and it is there that the young people will make their future home.” Sheridan Post. Sheridan, Wyoming: 31 Oct 1919.

[3] M. E. Esposito. “The Roaring 20’s – Economy of Roaring 20’s.” Preston High School. Online -,d.cGU (accessed 7 July 2014).

[4] “Black Thursday.” Online - (accessed 7 July 2014).

[5] “Dust Bowl.” Online - (accessed 7 July 2014).

[6] Personal Letter of Clay Spargur to Robert Spargur. Published by Holly Vonderohe. Rootsweb. ( Provo, UT: 2014) Online - (accessed 7 July 2014).

[7] The Bob written about is obviously Robert L Spargur, Clay’s brother. By 1920 Robert and his wife Alberta and their children had relocated from Colorado to Escondido where Bob owned and operated a citrus orchard.

[8] “Lincoln Highway.” Online - (accessed 8 July 2014). Highways were indicated with markings painted on telephone poles, or affixed to small rock monoliths alongside the road. These markings, or logos, were color coordinated and often had symbols or initials designating the highway. The Lincoln Highway logo is represented below (right) with the National Old Trails Highway sign (left) and Colorado to Gulf HIghway sign (center). 

[9] “National Old Trails Road.” Online - (accessed 7 July 2014). 

[10] On most highways of the 1920’s, towns were spaced at close intervals, most along the National Old Trails Highway and the Colorado to Gulf Highway averaging only 6 miles between towns in Colorado and New Mexico. Between Holbrook and Flagstaff towns were spaced at 20 mile intervals, this however is misleading in that between Holbrook and Winslow the distance was 36.5 miles and from Moqui, which was 7 miles outside Winslow, the next town of Winona – which was 10 miles form Flagstaff – was 44.5 miles away. Between Needles and San Bernardino the distance between towns was only slightly less pronounced, averaging 18 miles between towns. 

[11] “The National Old Trails Road, photo gallery.” US Department of Transportation – Federal Highway Administration. (Washington, DC: 2014). Online - (accessed 8 July 2014). 

[12] Oiling was an early process of asphalting a road. The “oil” contained asphaltum and petrolene. The asphaltum being hard yet brittle formed part of the road and the petrolene absorbed the dust. Online - (accessed 7 July 2014).

[13] Escondido is the Spanish word meaning Hidden. Some say it referred to a hidden spring in the area, others saying the word referenced the fact the city was a “hidden treasure.”

[14] Street names since 1930 have changed in Escondido, when home delivery of mail was instituted by the US Postal Service. Washington Street, though it currently exists today was what is now known as El Norte Parkway, which is a few blocks further north of the current Washington Street. What was known as Nebraska Ave is currently 6th Avenue, for that portion which is located west of Juniper Street. Though it is impossible to know if the block numbers have changed over the years best estimates for the locations of the Spargur homes, using current street addresses would be 136 E 6th Avenue (Robert and Alberta’s home - 136 E Nebraska Ave) and 233 E El Norte Parkway (233 E Washington Ave). These locations place the Spargur homes directly north of the historic district of Escondido, which was the main residential section of town between 1895 and 1920.

[15] “Rancho de la Nación.” Online - (accessed 7 July 2014).

[16] “Black Blizzards.” Rootsweb. ( Provo, UT: 2014). Online - (accessed 7 July 2014).

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