Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Lester Dene Hart (1894-1981), no stranger to sorrow

Climbing My Family Tree: Birth Record of Lester Dene Hart (21 April 1894)
Birth Record of Lester Dene Hart (21 April 1894),
Portage Twp, Hancock County, Ohio.
Click to Make Bigger (closeup below).

In the beginning, he went by Dene, and that is the name by which my mother knew of him. He was her Uncle Dene, although I am not certain that she ever met him. Hi Mom, I'm back on your side of the family!

Lester Dene Hart was my grandmother’s oldest brother and my grand uncle. In actuality, he was my grandmother’s half-brother. He had a different father than my grandmother did. Lester Dene Hart was born, on April 21, 1894, to Orley Calvin Hart and Fannie Susan Hartman (my great-grandmother) in Portage Township, in Hancock County, Ohio, five months after his parents’ wedding. His mother was from Hancock County, Ohio.

Climbing My Family Tree: Closeup of Lester Dene Hart Birth Record
Closeup of Lester Dene Hart Birth Record.
This is what above red arrow points to.
Click to Make Bigger.

He was their oldest child. Fannie and Orley had four children after Lester Dene: Gladys (1896-1902), Reed Charles (1898-1954), Verne Allen (1900-1954), Julia Ann (1903-1978).

By 1900, the family had moved to Clay County, Illinois, where Orley’s family lived. Orley took up farming and shared farming duties with his family across several farms. On August 7, 1902, Dene’s younger sister, Gladys, died at age 5; Dene was only 8 years old. The family records state that she died of diabetes, but I have not been able to find anything confirm that. Just two years later, on January 28, 1905, at age 30, Dene’s father died, purportedly for the same reason (I don't have a death certificate) , leaving his mother to care for and raise the children alone, far from her family. I expect that Orley’s family continued to help farm the land. Dene was eleven years old when his father died.

In 1909, Dene’s mother married my great-grandfather, Vernon Erwin, in Louisville, Illinois, Dene and his siblings continued to live with their mother after she married Vernon. The 1910 census shows Vernon (spelled Verna), Fannie (listed as Frances), and Fannie’s four children in the household. Vernon was not working then, but the census indicates Dene was working as farm labor on the home farm. The 1940 census indicated that Dene’s highest level of schooling was the 8th grade, so he likely dropped out of school right about 1910, age 15, because his labor on the farm helped support the family. In the next two years, Vern and Fannie gave Dene two more little sisters: my grandmother, Mabel LeRe (1910-1990) and her sister, Dale Hart (1912-?).

In 1915, at age 21, Dene married Leta Frances Elkin (20), daughter of Larkin C Elkin and Clara Hayes Elkin. On June 5, 1917, at age 23, Dene registered for the draft for WWI. On his registration, he indicated that he was a farmer and self-employed in Louisville Township. His only dependent was his wife. He did not try to claim exemption from the draft. On the back of the card, he was described as being of medium height and medium build with blue eyes and dark hair. He was not disabled.

Climbing My Family Tree: WWI Draft Registration of Lester Dene Hart
WWI Draft Registration of Lester Dene Hart.
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In “Clay County and the Great War: a Narrative History of the Contributive and Sacrificial Involvement of Clay County, Illinois in World War I” the author, Ryan Herdes, stated that a total of 1350 men registered for the draft in Clay County on June 5, 1917. Of the 1350 men who registered on June 5, the names of 214 men were drawn to represent the county in the national draft. Ultimately, only 107 were actually drafted from Clay County. The article indicated that a complete listing of those individuals called in the county draft appeared in the final July edition of the Southern Illinois Record. I went looking for a copy of that paper (I googled it, after checking my normal sources for online historical newspapers to no avail) and found that it had been digitized in a collection maintained by the Eastern Illinois University. The listing was found on the first page of the July 26, 1917 Southern Illinois Record. Lester is not on that list. I’ve found no evidence that he served in World War I.

On May 18, 1920, Leta gave birth to their daughter, Josephine Vivian Hart. According to the 1920 federal census, Dene worked as a Teamster hauling coal at that time and earned a wage (he was not self-employed). Both he and Leta indicated that they were able to read and write. Unfortunately, on June 30, 1922, Leta died. I have, so far, been unable to find out why. She was buried in the Orchard Hill Cemetery in Louisville, Illinois. 

This left Dene a single father of a two-year-old girl. At some point after Leta’s death, Dene and his daughter moved to Findlay, Ohio, in Hancock County. He probably moved there because his mother, my great-grandmother, had moved back to Ohio with her two youngest daughters, after my great-grandfather left her; she and her youngest daughters were in Hancock County Ohio by the 1920 Census. (Family notes say Vernon left in 1915, the year Dene married Leta.)  I don’t know what Dene was doing to support himself and his daughter, who was caring for her, or where he was living when he first moved back to Ohio. 

On November 22, 1925, Dean (31) married Edith Matilda Becker (20), daughter of Casper and Anna Becker, who became stepmother to five-year-old Josephine. According to the 1927 Findlay City Directory, they lived at 1203 Lima St. and Dene was a “tire builder.” Findlay, Ohio has had a history of tire companies as significant employers in the town; the longest lasting one being Cooper Tire and Rubber Company. I’m not certain which one he worked for yet.

According to the 1930 census, Dene, now 35, and Edith, now 26, (and Josephine, age 10) rented their home and paid $15 a month rent. They lived on Santee Avenue. Dene worked as a truck driver for the state highways.

In or about July of 1930, Dene’s wife, Edith, contracted tuberculosis, a dangerous respiratory illness that frequently caused death. Approximately 110,000 Americans died each year from tuberculosis in the early 1900’s. Typically, patients were separated from their families so that their families would not catch it; in the 1930s the most popular treatment was rest and fresh air in sanatoriums. I don’t know whether Edith was sent to a sanatorium. She was sick for eight months and then died at the home of her parents on February 12, 1931. She was buried in Maple Grove Cemetery in Findlay, Ohio. 
Climbing My Family Tree: Edith Matilda Becker Hart, Obituary, Findlay (OH) Morning Republican, 13 Feb 1931 p.2.
Edith Matilda Becker Hart, Obituary,
Findlay (OH) Morning Republican, 13 Feb 1931 p.2.
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Edith's death was less than ten years after the death of Dene's first wife. 

Later that year, on August 18, 1931, the Findlay Morning Republican, reported that Dene and his daughter, Josephine, his mother, and my grandparents, were among 44 family members (all named in the article) who attended the fourth annual reunion of the S. M. Hartman family, held at the old homestead, 1 mile east of Van Buren. Perhaps being with family was a comfort.

Dene apparently liked being married, and he did still have a young daughter who needed to be cared for. On December 23, 1932, at age 38, he married Helen Marie Black, age 29, daughter of O. L. (Lawrence) Black and Carrie Plumber or Plumer. While the marriage license indicated that Helen had been married before, I know nothing about that marriage and I don’t know whether she had any children from that prior marriage but I don’t think so as she didn’t bring with her into this marriage. While the certificate indicates that her prior husband was not living, I cannot confirm that (there are some indications the contrary, but, if that bears out, we should remember that it was not unusual for divorced women to list themselves as widowed as that was less embarrassing).

Climbing My Family Tree:Marriage Record for Lester Dene Hart and Helen Black (1932)
Marriage Record for Lester Dene Hart and Helen Black (1932).
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In 1935 and 1937, city directories indicate that the couple were living outside of Findlay in the village of Jenera. Dene worked as a foreman for the state highway department. In May 1937, the couple experienced tragedy when their daughter, Alice Virginia, was born, but only lived one day.  

Approximately one year later, on June 11, 1938, Dene’s daughter, Josephine, age 18, married Merrill Bushong (son of Mr. and Mrs J. M. Bushong), in New Stark, Ohio.

At the start of May 1939, Dene and Helen left Ohio for Texas to work on a Rural Electrification project, with the Bigley construction company. He ended up working first on a REA project in Arkansas. The federal Rural Electrification Act was passed in 1936. It was one of Roosevelt’s New Deal programs to improve the economic condition of farmers hit hard by the depression and drought. It provided 25-year loans at 3% interest for constructing power lines in rural areas. Local cooperative companies were formed to provide electricity. The Bigley Construction Company, of Findlay, Ohio, won the contract to install the substations, poles and wires with the low bid on the project. The bid for the North Central Texas electrification project was $86,787.06. I don’t know what the bid was for Arkansas. The first Arkansas project provided electricity to 600 farmhouses over 307 miles of wire in Mississippi County, Arkansas and used 3500 poles, 600 miles of aluminum wire, and 36,000 man hours of employment. Farmers along the lines purchased electric pumps, ranges, and some had modern plumbing installed in their homes for the first time. After total installation in Arkansas, the minimum bill of $2.50 for 35 kW gave sufficient current to light a four-room house, and to run an electric iron, a radio, and a fan for a month. Later the North Central Texas project made service available to 1400 families.

While the men worked on the REA project in Arkansas, the wives and families lived in an encampment near Lockesburg, Arkansas. On August 15, 1939, the Findlay Republican Courier reported that “Mrs. Dene Hart, the former Helen Black of New Stark, and daughter of Mrs. Carrie Buchanan of Findlay, was honored guest at a recent shower given at Lockesburg, Arkansas, by the women of the Bigley Electric Construction camp. She received many gifts from guests. Dene and Helen’s second daughter, [Edit: name removed as I just found indications that she may be alive] was born 1939 in Arkansas. Helen’s mother went out to visit with the family and see her new granddaughter, for three months, returning in late November 1939.

Climbing My Family Tree: 1940 U.S. Federal Census - Hart, Lester Dene and family
1940 U.S. Federal Census - Hart, Lester Dene and family.
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By 1940, the family was back in Findlay, Ohio and Dene was once again working for the state highway department, although he was looking for work at the time the census was taken. He reported that, in 1939 he worked 48 weeks and earned $1400. He evidently found new work because the City Directory for 1941 indicated that Dene worked for G.E. Edgington & Sons as a distributor operator. They lived at 134 ½ North Main St., Apt. 10., Findlay.

Climbing My Family Tree: WWII Draft Registration Card for Lester Dene Hart, front page
WWII Draft Registration Card for Lester Dene Hart, front page.
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Climbing My Family Tree: Draft Registration Card for Lester Dene Hart, top portion of back page.
Draft Registration Card for Lester Dene Hart, top portion of back page.
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Dene registered for the draft for World War II on April 25, 1942. He was 48. The draft registration indicates that he is white, 5 foot 7 ½ inches tall, 155 pounds and had blue eyes, black hair, and a ruddy complexion. He also indicated that he had a bad thumb on his left hand and that he worked for an ordinance company in Marion Ohio. This is likely this Scioto Ordinance Company, an ammunition and bomb-making facility operating from 1942 to 1945. It produced fuses, 20 mm bullets, 50 caliber bullets, artillery shells (50, 65, and 75 mm), incendiary bombs, and napalm bombs. I don’t know if he stayed there after the war working for the postwar company on the same site, Atomic Energy Commission Laboratory, which was operated by Monsanto. Radioactive materials were used and stored on-site and a nuclear reactor was built but never operated. If he did, I would be concerned for his health in his later years as at the end of the 20th century it was noted that there was a higher than expected number of leukemia cases and respiratory illnesses in the area, and a government investigation was launched, as well as a few lawsuits.

I lost Dene for a few years, but by 1952 and 1953, pursuant to Dallas (TX) City Directories, Dene was now going by his first name “Lester;” he was a carpenter and a cabinetmaker; and he and Helen lived at 512 Liberty.  Dene’s mother died on July 13, 1954. I don’t know whether he made it to the funeral, as the July, 1954, Findlay papers are missing from online records. His wife, Helen’s father died on May 15, 1958 and they did return to Ohio for the funeral. This indication of family feeling might mean that they returned for Fannie's funeral as well.

I then lost them again until I found his death certificate, which indicated that Lester died on April 21, 1981 at 10:15 AM, at the age of 87.  He and Helen were living in the Dallas Texas neighborhood of Cockrell Hill. Lester died of emphysema and renal failure. The death certificate indicated that he was a self-employed carpenter. He was buried at Calvary Hill Cemetery in Dallas. His wife outlived him by nearly 5 years, dying on January 14, 1986, in Fort Worth, Texas.

Texas Death Certificate for Lester Dene Hart (1981).
Texas Death Certificate for Lester Dene Hart (1981).
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I would like to know more of what happened in Dene’s childhood, how he met Leta and courted her, how he met and wooed Edith, and how he met Helen. I’d like to fill in the blanks about when he and his daughter Josephine moved back to Ohio, and to fill in the huge gaps in his life from 1942 to his death in 1981. I’d also like to find out what happened to his children.

(More complete citations available on request)

Marriage record for Orley Hart and Frances Hartman, Hancock County, 1893; Ohio Birth Record, Hancock County, 1894; U,S, Federal Census for 1900, 1910, 1920, 1930, and 1940; Draft registration for WW1; Birthdate of daughter Josephine Vivian Hart from email from MSD & confirmed in part by 1930 & 1940  U.S. Federal Census; death of Leta Elkins Hart, Illinois Death and Stillbirth Index, 1916-1947 &; Findlay, OH City Directories for 1927, 1931, 1935, 1937 and 1941; Dallas TX City Directory for 1952 and 1953; Marriage record for Helen Marie Black and Lester Dene Hart, Marion County OH, 1932), Birth record for Alice Virginia Hart, Ohio Birth record; Alice Virginia Hart U.S.; Draft Registration for WW2; Ohio Obituary Index;; Texas Death Certificate for Lester Dene Hartman; Texas Death Index for Helen Marie Black Hart.

“Clay County Soldiery” Flora (IL) Southern Illinois Record, July 26, 1918, p. 1 (found at;  “Mrs. L. D. Hart is Dead”, Findlay (OH) Morning Republican, 2 February 1931, p. 2; “Hold Reunion”  Findlay Morning Republican, August 18, 1931, p. 8; “New Stark” (Hart-Bushong wedding) Findlay Republican Courier , June 11, 1938, p.15; “New Stark”, Findlay Republican Courier, May 13, 1939, p. 2;”Hardin Men Leave For Jobs in West”, Findlay Republican Courier, May 13, 1939, p. 14;  “Findlay Bid Low on Light Project” New Philadelphia (OH) Daily Times, June 15, 1939, p.2; “Shower Given For Mrs. Dene Hart, Findlay Republican Courier, August 15, 1939, p. 6; “Return From A Visit” Findlay Republican Courier, December 1, 1939, p. 8; “Current To Be On By Sept. 15 First Line of REA Lines to be Energized Soon”, Blytheville (AR) Courier News, August 3, 1939, p.1; “To Energize County’s First REA Line of 145 Miles Tuesday” Blytheville Courier News, 4 December 1939, p. 1; “Lawrence Black Called By Death” Findlay Republican Courier, May 15, 1958, p. 16; “Officials Want Probe of Marion Laboratory”, by Randall Edwards, Environmental Reporter,  The Columbus (OH) Dispatch, October 9, 1999 (found at; “Leukemia Fears, Man’s Scary Take Trigger Marion Radiation Probe”, by T.C. Brown, Cleveland (OH) Plain Dealer, October 9, 1999 (found at; Scioto Ordnance Plant, Wikipedia; “Rural Electrification”, The Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture (found at;  “Clay County and the Great War: A Narrative History of the Contributive and Sacrificial Involvement of Clay County, Illinois in World War I” by Ryan Herdes, Historia (A publication of the Epsilon Mu Chapter of Phi Alpha Theta and the Eastern Illinois University History Department), Special Edition, Volume 1 (2013), p. 111 (


  1. Sometimes I just sit and ponder the lives of our ancestors. We all have ups and downs in our lives, but some families and people seem to have more sadness than others. Thanks for sharing Dene's story. FYI. I have Hart's in my direct line Jo.

    1. Thank you for stopping by and reading it. I hope the last 30 or so years of his life -- the part I haven't found yet -- were happier than the first 40-ish. He deserved it.

      That's interesting about you having Hart's in your line. Were they ever in Illinois? it would be cool if we were connected somehow.


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