Through Any Given Door

1.07 Backstory: My Maternal Grandparents

Charles Henry Chatfield

Nellie Belle Chamberlin

Dec 26, 1894 • Fruita, Colorado ~ 
In a ceremony in her parents’ home, my grandmother, twenty-one year old Nellie Chamberlin, married Charles Henry Chatfield, a ranching man of twenty-four. Nellie was a no-nonsense Catholic girl and exceedingly religious, but she also had a mind of her own, and refused to consummate the marriage. In frustration, Charles took his new bride to the priest who married them, hoping for guidance. Father Carr sat Nellie down and gave her a talking to, instructing her to go home and perform her wifely duties. Nine months later my grandmother bore her first child—and over the next twenty years, delivered nine more.

Charles H. Chatfield

1907 • Sanders, Montana: Charles moved the family to Rosebud County, Montana, where he managed a ranch near the hamlet of Sanders. In 1913 news came from family in California about the golden opportunities there: land was cheap, the weather was mild and rice was the big new crop. Though Charles was a highly successful rancher, Nellie had tired of the cold in Montana and persuaded her husband to sell their holdings and join the relatives out west. Completing most of the preparations for the move, Charles rode into town to finalize their affairs. After being gone for four days, Nellie sent a ranch hand to find him. Not only was he found dead drunk, it turned out that he’d also gambled away all their money.

Nellie remained determined to move. She sold their wagon and team of horses for $300, using part of the proceeds for their train tickets. My grandmother silently readied her household for the long trip to California. She said nothing as she crated her New Haven kitchen-clock, a gift from her husband at the birth of their first child; said nothing as she boxed her button collection, her sewing needles, and her nearly completed crazy quilt—a crayon-colored piece she’d started during her first pregnancy; said nothing as she packed her trunks with her high-necked blouses, petticoats and linens, and said nothing as she packed away her family pictures, cast-iron pots, and her past.

In a fit of venom while ironing her traveling skirt, she dropped the hot sad iron on her foot. With “all aboard!” and nine children in tow, she boarded the train in a wheelchair, leaving her husband behind. Nellie, now forty-years-old, carried her wrath. Charlie, the oldest at seventeen, carried his silver timepiece and small leather-bound pocket diary. Leo, two years younger, carried his case knife. Howard, a scrappy fourteen-year-old, carried a chip on his shoulder. Roy, not quite eleven, stayed close to Nellie; he carted the food baskets and what was needed for the little ones. Her first girl, Nella May, a wisp of a child not yet ten, had her hands full hanging on to Verda who was four and tow-headed Arden who was two-and-a-half. Gordon, seven, toted his mother’s hatbox. On Nellie’s lap was tiny three-month-old Ina.

1913 • Diary of Charlie Chatfield (age 17), oldest child of Charles and Nellie
Feb 24  Warm and clear, chopped wood. Got a new baby sister. (Ina)
May 23  Warm and clear. Went to Forsyth in an automobile. Went down to Aunt Jacklins.
May 25  Warm and clear. Packed some stuff.
May 27  Hot. Went to Hysham. Aunt Cally was on the train. Got my money.
May 28  Warm and clear. Left Sanders for Los Molinos, California
May 29  Warm and clear. Still traveling. It took 20 hours to cross Montana and to cross Idaho 1½ hrs.
May 30  Warm and clear. Still on the train. We were traveling 23 hrs. in Washington.
May 31  Warm and clear, Went through Oregon and into California on train.
Jun 1  Hot and clear. Got to Los Molinos at 11 a.m. Stayed at Los Molinos Inn. Grandpa was here to meet us.
Jun 2  Pretty hot but clear. Put up a tent under a oak tree.
Jun 3  Warm in morning but cooler in evening. Went to the Los Molinos dam caught a big salmon.
Jun 4  Warm and clear. Got a job on a gasoline bailer. Papa came on train.

1913 – 1915 • Los Molinos, California: Charles followed, arriving in Los Molinos seven days behind his wife and children, hat in hand, hoping for forgiveness.

California was not the land of flowers as Nellie had anticipated, but the weather was better. The family settled in Los Molinos where life was spare and my grandmother made do. Charles rice-farmed. Nellie raised the children. He puttered and tinkered and gardened. She scrubbed floors and cooked stews and mended shirts. He fed his chickens. She kneaded her bread, adjusting her baking habits to the climate and the train schedule. Every afternoon she waited for the whistle and clanking train cars to pass. Lifting her long skirt to hike the slight incline up to the tracks, she bent down and carefully balanced her cloth-covered tins of dough on the hot iron rails; it was the only way she could get her breads and cinnamon buns to rise.

At the end of each week, Charles, a rancher and farmer who ran a crew of horses and men, brought home very little of what he’d made, his head hanging, his feet dragging—broke and drunk—so foolish you could smell his shame. On occasion he tried to buy his way back into Nellie’s good graces. One time he extended a peace offering to his wife, a gift wrapped in cloth. He wanted her to take it, to pardon him. She thought it was his earnings from his weeks worth of work. It wasn’t; it was an elegant tortoise shell comb for her long dark hair that she only let down at night.

Charles, Babe, and Nellie
1916, Chico, California

“You fool!” she snapped. “We need food, not frivolity,” and hurled his offering at his chest. “What you wasted on this could have gone to feed us for the week!” She was so angry he could taste her bile.

Nellie may have taken her wayward husband back but she refused to forgive him. She also refused to share her bed, although she must have at least once, as their tenth child—my mother—was born two years later. They named her Noreen Ellen, but everyone called her Babe.

© 2017. Catherine Sevenau.
All rights reserved.

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Comments

  1. James Chatfield says:

    Cathy, you are the ultimate storyteller. This is quite a story of a very determined young lady back in those days. She was courageous. Thelma’s mother came from Oklahoma up to Colorado in a covered wagon back in 1904 and then on to Idaho.

  2. Catherine, Once again, my gratitude to you for putting your family experience on paper. Their story is familiar to me … without the bread kneading and quilting. I think it takes courage to spell these events and, at the same time, it can be therapeutic. Thank you.

  3. Catherine loved reading about my ancestor. She was a very strong woman maybe I got some of her spunk lol

  4. Cheryl Wainwright says:

    Ahhh, Catherine, I could just keep reading. If this was a novel I wouldn’t want it to end. I love your stories.

  5. Deborah Bennett says:

    Catherine, this is riveting and devastating. What we think of as our present-day grievances are completely dwarfed by the stark realities of your ancestors 100 years ago, who suffered what would have been for us unbearable pain. These words and this story are monumental and epochal.

    • Deborah, I don’t imagine that I’d have made it through that time. I also look at my grandparents’ families during the Civil War, which was an even more difficult time. It was fascinating gathering their stories. And it certainly explained a lot about my parents. When I started, I’d no idea my grandmother even had sisters; I felt like I’d been smacked upside the head when that dawned on me. I wasn’t sure about including these backstories in the web serial, but with the feedback, I’m glad I have. Thank you for your note.

  6. This is such an amazing story of strength and tenacity. The old adage, bloom where you are planted doesn’t quite fit but Nellie did what was needed to survive in the the most grueling of circumstances. You can’t help but admire the woman who seems to have passed some of her grit on to her granddaughter.

  7. Juliette says:

    This will make a wonderful movie I believe. I am already picturing the the actors.

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