Oklahoma Dust Bowl School Days

Kids here in Tucson have already been back in school for a couple of weeks now. I’ve also been working on the family history digital images and the two together put me in the mind of Ruby, my mother-in-law.

I wish my mother-in-law was still with us to ask questions. Like my grandmothers and my husband’s grandmother, his mom, Ruby Sturgell Stufflebean, was a saver of family photos, report cards, news clippings, and whatnot.

Most of the items they collected sat in drawers and boxes for many years, leaving them in excellent condition, but unseen by family members until the last few years. As Ruby and husband Ed downsized and moved house, photos and mementos started to come back to the light of day. However, not everything was uncovered, so to speak, until after Ruby passed away.

While sorting through still more boxes, I came across a lot of newspapers clippings and photos of Ruby’s family. I had already seen many from the Stufflebean side and Dave’s dad identified many of the people in his collection of pictures.

Ruby’s clippings had to do with her life growing up in Oklahoma. She was born on 10 July 1919 in Verden, Oklahoma to Oscar Eldon Sturgell and Ethel Anne Nation, but the family soon moved about ten miles west to the “big city” of Anadarko, Oklahoma. In 1930, the population of Verden was about 600, while Anadarko boasted 5000+ residents. These towns are southwest of Oklahoma City.

I imagine that the Sturgell family moved to Anadarko as much for work opportunities for her father, Oscar, as for elementary school access for Oscar’s and Ethel’s children. By 1930, they had seven – three daughters, Edna, Ruby and Nadjamae and four sons, Houston, Eldon, Richard and Dale. I found the family in the 1930 census, but it appears the census taker forgot to list one child – youngest son, Dale, who was born in 1927 and would have been about three years old then.

Why would I have liked to talk to Ruby about her life growing up in Oklahoma? Well, the Depression and the Oklahoma Dust Bowl were both long before I was around. I did study both in U.S. History in high school and I have heard many people speak of how difficult life was in the 1930’s and that the U.S. economy didn’t really get back on its feet until World War II.

Perhaps the worst day of the Dust Bowl era was “Black Sunday,” 14 April 1935:


Black Sunday

Millions were out of work and many not only lost jobs, but they lost their homes, too. I just never heard many stories of people living high on the hog during the 1930’s.

I am also aware that Oscar Sturgell, or Ott as he was called, didn’t have an opportunity for much education and only finished sixth grade. In 1930, after the Black Friday stock market crash, he was married with a wife and seven children to support. He was a house painter for many years and then worked as an attendant at a gas station.

These facts just didn’t fit with the life described in Ruby’s life mementos. Most covered the years she attended junior and senior high school. Here is Ruby as a teenager:

Ruby Sturgell

None of the news clippings are dated, with the exception of identifying the 1937 high school graduating seniors, but I am sure they came from the local Anadarko newspaper.

Ruby was a Camp Fire Girl and her chapter planned a candy sale during a meeting held at the Sturgell home:

Junior Camp Fire Meeting at Sturgell Home

I wonder what candy they sold – perhaps penny candy? How much were they able to make in profit?

Ruby was able to graduate from high school at a time when many children had to leave school to help earn money to keep their family members fed, clothed and housed. She was better at some subjects than others, but her favorite subject was English.

Senior Year English Literature

I remember her saying she like English in school, but I don’t think she ever mentioned that she liked acting in class plays, which seems to be the case.

Student Play

Ruby Sturgell, Actress

Ruby was a very pretty young woman – her lights lit up when she smiled and that was a trait she kept for her entire 93 year-long life. When she was just a sophomore, she was chosen as a candidate for Senior Football Queen.

Up for Football Queen

What really surprised me, though, being in the midst of the Depression was this news article:

Senior Class Trip

Instead of attending a senior banquet, Ruby’s graduating class was going on a trip to Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. That was a 500+ mile trip each way and quite a few students participated. How did these families all afford a trip like that with a hotel stay? I know it was just a bus and a hotel stay, but it was still during the Depression!

Ruby had one photo of the students about to enter the Caverns:

Carlsbad Caverns, Spring 1937

Students also apparently had an opportunity to meet other high school students and Ruby met one young man, King, who was quite taken with her, as she kept his invitation to his own high school graduation.

King & Ruby in New Mexico

Ruby never attended college, but she was wooed by the AAUW with an invitation to their tea.


AAUW Invitation

The seniors even had their own printed calling cards.

Ruby’s Calling Card

Ruby even saved several calling cards from girls who I assume were her closest friends.

Both a baccalaureate and a commencement program were held.

May 16, 1937

Baccalaureate Program

May 20, 1937

Commencement Program

I wish I had seen all of these clipping four or five years ago. Ruby passed away just over two years ago and, while her memory for things that happened that day wasn’t too sharp anymore, like many senior citizens, she could remember events long ago as if they did happen that day.

In spite of growing up in a large family during the Great Depression, Ruby’s teenage life seems to be typical of teenagers’ lives decades later when I was growing up.



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