The wind serves only those who have set their sails…
Were these the inspirational words an elderly aunt repeated to a favorite niece or nephew? Or did one of them — there were at least 18 — recognize Auntie Nellie’s ability to bear life’s buffeting winds? Either way, it’s a fitting epitaph for a childless, twice-widowed woman who knew always to set her sails for home.
For most of her life, home for Nellie Mae Thompson was wherever her large family settled. There was something of the pioneer spirit in her parents: Her Kentucky-born father, William Martin Thompson, was working a farm in Clay County, Missouri when, in 1882, he married Kansas-born Mary C. Large, who gave birth to six children, including Nellie Mae, before the family relocated to Elk Township in Oklahoma Territory at the turn of the century.
Another son was born in Elk, and the 1900 census shows four of the Thompson children, including Nellie Mae, attended school there. By 1910, when Nellie Mae was 19, her father had abandoned farming and moved his clan to Oklahoma City, where he worked as an agent in the meat industry. Nellie remained at home on Choctaw Street, likely helping her mother cook and clean for seven adults and her sister Grace’s toddler.
Still in Oklahoma in January 1912, Nellie, 21, married 24-year-old Henry Caperton of Fort Worth. By 1919, the Thompson family had returned to Texas, renting a home at 2822 Swiss Avenue in Dallas, where Nellie’s mother, then 54, died of rectal cancer. She was the first of the family to be buried at Oakland Cemetery.
When the census taker knocked in 1920, he found two widowed Thompsons at the Swiss Avenue address: Nellie’s father and Nellie herself. It’s unclear where or how Henry Caperton died.
Despite those losses, the Thompson home was teeming with working family: Nellie, 28, found work selling cigars, tobacco and “smokers’ articles” at Metzler Bros. in a Main Street bank lobby. Her father sold vegetables; brother Bert, 34, delivered ice; brother Glenn, 15, worked in a garage. Also in the household were Nellie’s sister, Grace, 32; her husband Ernest, 31, a truck driver for an oil company, and their two children.
Nellie Mae remained at her family’s Swiss Avenue home until at least 1923. In the fall of 1924, Nellie’s father, 68, died of multiple conditions, including malarial fever; he was buried next to his wife at Oakland Cemetery.
By 1928, Nellie had married her second husband, John Franklin “Frank” Hutson, an oilman and Yankee two decades older than she. It’s possible they met when he conducted business at the American Exchange National Bank in downtown Dallas, the one with the cigar saleslady named Nellie in the lobby.
Frank was the son of an Englishman who had been a long-time Baptist minister in New Jersey and Pennsylvania; one of Frank’s brothers was a professor of Greek at Princeton University. When Nellie married Frank, he had two wives and a dead child in his past.
Frank Hutson had married Mabel Grace Thompson (no relation to Nellie), the daughter of an Ohio dry goods merchant, in 1894. The couple settled down in Allegheny County, Pennsylvania; a son, Franklin, was born January 5, 1908. In 1910, Frank and Mabel lived in the town of Moon with their two-year-old and a 19-year-old live-in servant from Austria-Poland.
On July 12, 1913, the Hutsons arranged for their son, then 5 1/2 years old, to enter Polk (Pennsylvania) State School and Hospital, established in 1893 as a residential home for the developmentally disabled. He lived there 47 years, 4 months and 14 days. On November 26, 1950, at age 52, Franklin died from gastric aspiration, complicated by conditions listed on his death certificate: “imbecile…septicemia, spastic paraplegic.”
Sometime before their son entered Polk State School, Frank and Mabel divorced, and the oil and gas business lured Frank to Texas and Oklahoma. In May 1913 — two months before his only child entered Polk — the 45-year-old oilman married his second wife, a native Texan from a ranching family named Leda Garrett, 30, in her family’s home near Wichita Falls.
Frank paid a price for his indiscretion, if only in the court of public opinion. In 1914, he was found guilty in a Pennsylvania criminal court of abandoning his 7-year-old son in the “Institution for the Feeble-Minded” in Polk, according to The Pittsburgh Post. If Frank faced any penalty for his actions, the newspaper made no mention of it.
Between 1915 and 1922 — during some of the same years Nellie Mae was living in Oklahoma — Frank and Leda were at least part-time residents of Muskogee. In 1915, they welcomed Frank’s parents and his brother, the Princeton professor, to their home for Christmas. The couple later lived in the 10-story Severs Hotel, billed the finest hotel in the southwestern United States. Their social lives made the news — a “box party” for a Ruth St. Denis modern-dance performance, luncheons, weekend guests, trips away. While Frank went to Laredo and “Old Mexico” in the spring of 1922, Leda spent six weeks in Mineral Wells.
The good times ended in the summer of 1927. Leda Garrett Hutson contracted bronchial pneumonia and, just a few days short of her 45th birthday, died in a Wichita Falls hospital. She was buried in Henrietta, Texas, where her parents lay. In her will, Leda left Frank $1; the remainder of her estate, including her Clay County ranch, went to her siblings.
Eight months after Leda’s death, Nellie Mae Thompson Caperton became the third Mrs. Hutson. Frank, 59, and Nellie, 37, were married March 24, 1928, by a justice of the peace at the Denton County Courthouse. Three months later, Frank made out his last will and testament; he not only appointed Nellie his executrix, but also his only beneficiary. His estate was worth an estimated $5,000 (roughly $81,000 today).
The newlyweds moved to the community of Eula in Callahan County, about 15 miles from Abilene, a place so small that the post office closed in 1903 because the population was only 17. The discovery of oil in the 1920’s helped the county’s landowners survive an historic economic downturn, and tiny Eula enjoyed a lift in the 1930’s, when the population boomed to 75.
If the 1930 census were the only source, one would think the Hutsons gave up city life and oil fields to become fruit farmers; the county was known for its peaches and watermelons. In fact, Frank was a guest at the newly constructed art deco Blackstone Hotel in Fort Worth several times in 1930, presumably tending to his oil and gas concerns.
In 1933, Frank learned he had Hodgkin’s Disease, a cancer of the lymphatic system. He lived until April 27, 1937, and in an odd clerical mistake, the death certificate shows that the last day he worked as an oilman was April 28, 1937. He was buried in Abilene Municipal Cemetery, far from his family in the northeast.
A widow at 45, Nellie remained in her Eula home, but she wasn’t alone there for long. Sometime before the census taker came around in April 1940, Nellie’s younger brother Ray left Oklahoma City and moved in with his sister. The siblings apparently reconnected at a time when both needed it. Ray and wife Agnes, the parents of two boys, lost their 11-year-old in 1925, and the couple divorced sometime in the 1930's.
Although he had made his living as a sand-and-gravel worker and as a mechanic, Ray took to farming in west Texas. He and Nellie worked 52 weeks a year — and 60 hours the week before the census taker visited — to add value to Nellie’s property. It was assessed at $3,000 in the 1940 census. Additional evidence of the siblings’ bond is apparent in the World War II draft registration Ray signed in 1942. He named his sister as “the person who will always know your address.”
Ray wasn’t the only brother Nellie kept close after losing her husband. The youngest Thompson sibling, William Glenn, managed the farm at the Boles Home, an orphanage near Quinlan. Small details suggest Glenn embraced family: He hired his big brother, Ollie, as a laborer on the farm. And, he named one son after his father, William Martin, and a daughter after his sister, Nellie Mae.
In the fall of 1939, according to a “social note” in the Dallas Morning News, Nellie and Glenn made a trip to Dallas to visit their brother Bert’s widow. Bert was the first-born of the Thompson siblings, and he was the first of them to die. In 1935, he was repairing a roof in a Muskogee power plant when he touched a 63,000-volt line. The father of nine children was 54 years old.
In 1924, Bert had purchased the plot of land at Oakland Cemetery where both his parents and all but two of his siblings were laid to rest. Ironically, he was buried closer to where he made his home in 1935, in Oklahoma City.
Nothing speaks to the bond the Thompson siblings shared more than the way they were drawn to Kleberg Road at the end of their lives. Kleberg was an unincorporated community in southeast Dallas County that eventually became part of Seagoville. To examine the siblings’ death certificates is to imagine a kind of family-run nursing home at 1426 Kleberg Road.
Ray was the first to move there in 1956. Ollie joined him in May 1960, two months before he died at age 77 of infectious hepatitis. Ray succumbed to lung cancer in 1966. Glenn was divorced and living at 1426 Kleberg Road when, in 1971, he entered the hospital and five weeks later, died of acute peripheral vascular collapse. All three are buried at Oakland Cemetery.
Two of the three Thompson sisters, Grace and Nellie Mae, lived out their last days there, possibly tending to one another. On February 22, 1977, Nellie Mae’s bad heart sent her to a Mesquite hospital where she died at age 86. Grace spent her final year in a hospital and died at 90 from congestive heart failure.
Grace and Inez, the lone sibling with no apparent connection to Kleberg Road, were buried at Grove Hill Cemetery. Nellie Mae, of course, lies at Oakland Cemetery in the plot purchased by her brother, Bert. By the time Nellie came to rest there, Bert had been gone 42 years.
As for who decided Nellie Mae’s tombstone would address her as Beloved Auntie — and include an inspirational engraving about the wind serving only those who set their sails — it seems likely it was William Martin Thompson, the son of Nellie’s youngest brother, the one who carried his grandfather’s name.
Growing up in plain sight of an orphanage may have nurtured Martin’s strong sense of family. It was he who acted as “informant” on Nellie’s death certificate. And, having served with the U.S. Air Force in Korea, Airman First Class William Martin Thompson knew something about winds. In 1977, he was buried in the Dallas-Fort Worth National Cemetery.