Chapter 2: A history of the Dyer family
[When she was born, Dorothea was named Christina Dorothea Dyer. In this chapter, we learn of the history of the Dyer family, as told by Dorothea's elder sister, Ida Baker, of Riverside California. Sub-headings below added by me -hro]
Mother’s older sister, Ida Baker of Riverside, California, recently wrote the following history of the Dyer family:
Captain Francis (Frank) Dyer’s roots
“There were three brothers in Liverpool, England named Dyer -Samuel, Walter, and Griffeth. Samuel and Griffeth were ship builders, Walter was a British merchant. They belonged to the upper middle class of tradespeople and were seemingly quite well to do.
“Samuel married a Miss Holmes and to them were born three girls and one boy -Sophia, Harriet, our father Francis Edward in 1848, and Margaret. Their mother died and their father married her younger sister, whom Francis hated.
“The two ship builders (Samuel and Griffeth) came to America to Galveston, Texas, soon after the California Gold Rush when ships were in great demand. I don’t know how long the brothers stayed in the United States or how successful they were. On the return trip home to England Samuel was drowned in a tropical storm off the Florida coast.
“In the meantime the youngest sister Margaret had died and Francis was unhappy with his step-mother; so Walter, who owned an armored cruiser, took Francis and an excellent tutor and Francis grew up practically all over the world. They went to India for spices, China for tea and silks, the Arctic and Antarctic for whale oil and whale bone, to Africa for ivory and precious goods. I heard rumors that Walter was a so-called ‘Black-Birder,’ a dealer and smuggler of stolen slaves. I’ve heard my father tell of how the native Africans hated his uncle, how they had threatened to get him, how he had a huge bodyguard who slept across his door each night, tasted every bit of food he ate, etc., but in spite of this, he did die of a mysterious poisoning.
“I don’t know what Francis did as a young man, but by piecing together a bit here and there I think he fell in love with his cousin Frances. But first cousins were forbidden to marry in England. He had a terrible quarrel with his family, demanded what he called his birthright, and left his home in Bristol, England for America. He said, ‘I was 25, I shook the dust of England from my shoes. That would be about 1873.
“He landed in Chicago -a rip-roaring, wild city. I heard him say once, ‘No man in two shoes ever drank more than I did in Chicago.’ I think the ‘Prodigal Son’ would describe this period. He gambled and won and lost huge sums. He was a Champion Chess Player. But this period began to pall on him. Kansas was opening up – Free Land. So he, and I think three others like him, started for Kansas.
“He had skill and $5,000 in gold. They stayed there over a year, had a wonderful crop of wheat on all of their lands, and the Grasshoppers came! He said they even ate up an their clothes. (He said the only time he ever was seasick was on a stagecoach in Kansas.) I heard him say many times -’I went to Kansas with over $5,000. 00 in gold and left with $1.25 in my pocket, on foot.’ I’ve heard him say he worked on the railroad for some time. He said he saw the Golden Spike driven in the joining of the two lines at Promontory, Utah, but I never have thought to check the date.
Frank Dyer marries Ida Steding (Dorothea’s mother)
“Now I lose track of him for some time until about 1877. He is now Captain Frank Dyer of Galveston, Texas. He is carrying freight in sailing ships on the Gulf of Mexico. Here is where on the wharves at Matagorda, Texas, he met and fed in love with the girl who later was to be my mother. She was 18 – just out of a finishing school. He wanted to marry her at once, but her mother was horrified. They did not know him, did not know his people or background, maybe he had a family somewhere, he was 29, she 18, were a few of the reasons. So they waited to be married until she was 21. On July 5, 1880 Francis Edward Dyer, 32, married Ida Steding, age 21.
“During this period Capt. Dyer had become very successful. He owned several ships and owned a cotton brokerage firm. He built a brick home for his bride in Matagorda, Texas, and furnished it with the best of everything. He went to Cuba for sugar, took cotton everywhere, went into Louisiana for lumber, corn, and other products.
Successes and failures
“This period now begins a tale of success and failures which make it seem as if Capt. Dyer were under some sort of ‘voodoo.’ I am almost positive he was smuggling freight by the shipload to escape the duty which was quite heavy after the Civil War. But on one trip, I don’t know how, he learned that Government officers were awaiting his arrival in port. He sank several of his schooners and sailed in with only one, to learn that his partner, a man named Abbott, had been frightened, cashed in everything pertaining to the cotton brokerage firm, and had disappeared, leaving Capt. Dyer $8,000.00 in debt.
“In the meantime a great sailing ship named the ‘Brenham’ had been washed ashore in a severe tropical storm. It belonged to a Liverpool, England, firm. Captain Dyer obtained the contract to salvage her. This allowed him to pay off all of his indebtedness, leaving him one schooner free and clear named the ‘D. Hebert’ (pronounced ‘A bare’). He sailed her into the inland waters in search of oranges, corn, etc., but especially lumber for shipbuilding. He liked what he saw and resolved to move his wife, Ida, and small child to Louisiana.
“He never had forgiven Ida’s mother for opposing their marriage, so I think he resolved to get even by taking her beloved daughter away. Ida’s mother was positive they would be eaten by alligators, that snakes hung in the branches of trees or under- foot, so when she learned that they were really going to leave insisted that Catherine, Ida’s half-sister about 12 or 13, go with her. She became our beloved Aunt Katie.
“So the little family set sail in the ‘D. Hebert’ for Louisiana. The D. Hebert was 90 feet long, so they were quite comfortable. The trip took several weeks due to bad weather. They took Ida’s riding horse on board. I have often wondered what Ida thought of this move. She was young, 24, delicate and pretty, and had never done a day’s work in her life. The Captain moved them into a small rough house on the south side of Lake Arthur.
“They were the first English-speaking people in this entire community. There was no town near. A family named Laurents had a general store on their big plantation about a mile down the lake. I am certain there was no post office. You reached this plantation in a skiff or rowboat. In this small home Julia was born. Soon the Captain moved his family across the lake into a well built much larger home. Walter and Ida were born there.
“About this time a group of northern men purchased a large tract of land and established the town of Lake Arthur on the north side of the lake. The Captain purchased six town lots and built a small house on them. Here Christina was born, the first child born in Lake Arthur, but being a girl she didn’t count. Two years later, in 1891, Desire Hebert Dyer was born, and being a boy he was given a city lot, a suit of clothes, and various other things.
Ida’s memories begin
“Now begins my real memory of my father when I was about five years old. The Captain no longer had the schooner but owned a sturdy tugboat named ‘The Agnes T. Parks, ‘and he was carrying the mail from Mermentau to Lakeside -one complete trip each day. Soon he obtained the contract for the delivery of the mail overland to Jennings -also one round trip each day.
“Soon he built a livery stable, purchased six horses, mail hacks, buggies, etc., and did all kinds of transportation work. The founders of the town built a forty-room hotel and proclaimed Lake Arthur a resort town. Soon we were moved into the large, for then, hotel which was a beautiful place and where we lived for several years.
“Walter had been killed in a baseball game, and my mother wanted another home to help her forget. This was the reason why we moved into the hotel.
“The Captain went to Morgan City and purchased a smaller tug named the ‘Carencro’ (Carrion Crow – in other words, ‘Turkey Buzzard”), he built some barges, and established a ferry to cross the lake. The Klondike -a gigantic rice farming project south of Lake Arthur -had just been opened up and traffic was heavy.
“Then fate gave him a bad blow. The livery stable burned, and he who could have hysterics over a clothes pin in the yard put his arms around our mother, kissed her, and said, ‘Well, Ida, we will just start again.’ Myrta had been born in the meantime. Our mother had two more babies in the Hotel Grace and Sidney.
“I think the Captain must have rented out his boats. We moved into a beautiful large home, and he went to work for a salary, the first time in his life, on a large stern-wheeler named the ‘Lucy’ for the North American Land and Timber Company. Then Alice arrived. Again fate intervened and a huge barge and 585 bags of rice went up in flames.
Dorothea’s mother dies in childbirth
“He had hardly recovered from this when he received his greatest setback. In giving birth to a premature eleventh child, Edward, our mother died, December 22, 1899. He left his job on the Lucy and went to work for the great sawmill being built by Brewer-Reynolds and Streater where he remained until the mill burned Twelve million feet of lumber went up in one vast blaze. All he lost in this was his job.
“He then started to work for himself, built more barges, and bought a larger tug boat named Josephine. Once again fate struck. Our house and almost all of what it contained burned to the ground.
“We had acquired three pieces of property by this time. We built a new house where we lived until Julia was married on October 2, 1901 to Floyd Allen Smith who had come from Iowa with the Lumber Company. So I became the caretaker of the family.
All about Frank Dyer
“Captain Francis Edward Dyer was a small man about 5 ft. 6 in. in height and weighing about 140 pounds, but he was so erect, had a nice figure, and such an overpowering personality that he seemed a big man He had lots of dark hair a Roman nose, beautiful teeth, and almost hazel eyes that could become hard and steely gray in an instant. He always wore a short-cropped mustache he and a neatly trimmed Van Dyke beard. I never remember him clean-shaven but once when I was five or six years old.
“He must have been an outstanding athlete when young. He was 39 years old when I was born’ so my first memories must be when he was in his middle forties. Anything we children could do he could do better. He could chin himself more than the boys and climb a rope hand over hand much faster. He could out swim any of us. We would all start at once. He swam without a ripple but just slowly outdistanced everyone swimming with him.
“When he was 60 years old or older he could jump through a broomstick forward and backward, held in both hands. He had beautiful manners and was the best educated of any of our acquaintances. He could read Greek and speak several languages and a dozen or more dialects. He never made a grammatical error. He had a beautiful singing voice. He did not smoke, chew, or drink. I never heard a word against his morals.
“He worked 7 days a week, never seemed to tire, spent no money on himself, and brought all of his earnings home. But in spite of all these good attributes he was cursed with an ungovernable high temper. He just exploded over anything and everything. Nothing was too trivial to trigger an episode. I used to dread his coming home from a freighting trip.
“Only twice in an those years did I talk back, and I said plenty – that I was through – I had taken all I could, I was going to leave home, etc., etc. (A big store had offered me $50.00 a month – a lot of money then. I really scared him, and he quieted down a little. He had tried to get us a housekeeper so I could go to school, but they wanted more than he earned when they learned how many there were of us. He had one extravagance – he loved good food. We always ate the most and best of everything. He wanted the children well dressed at all times.
“He took great pride in his word. If he said something, it was so. If he promised you anything, he would do it.
“Through good management, I claim quite a bit of credit for it, we had built up a nice equity. The Captain had built a boat – the Christine – and a string of barges and houseboats and all were paid for. Then the ‘Ida’ burned. He had rebuilt and renamed the ‘Carencro,’ but he kept right on working hauling oil in the summer and logs and lumber and rice at all times. He also sold much firewood.
Ida Dyer marries Elmer Baker
“I had worked beyond my strength, made a nice home, the youngest child, Edward, was 12, and I was going to leave home. I was going to New Orleans or Nashville, Tennessee and become a nurse. But a young man named Elmer E. Baker persuaded me to stay home and marry him. We were engaged a year and a half. We waited for Christina, who was teaching school, to come home, take a commercial course at a local college, and get a job. I was married on December 14, 1911. Christina was 23, I almost 25.
“Now the voodoo begins its evil work again. During this period the ‘Ida’ (rebuilt Carencro) burned. There was something mysterious about those fires. We never knew their origin. We had theories but no proof. Capt. Dyer was a perfectionist. He had no patience with anyone who did less than his best. He inspected every bit of his cargo every night before going to bed but still bad luck came.
“Desire had left home to work in the oil fields, and Sidney, 19 or 20, was home. The Captain sold all his boats to a company named Zeigler and he purchased two gasoline boats to serve the Inland waters. One was the ‘Vermillion’ which he turned over to Sidney, and one, a beautiful one called the ‘White Lily’ he put in charge of Desire, about 22. In the meantime he had built a new home.
Dorothea’s father dies in his sleep
“Then one morning when Sidney went in to call him to breakfast he found the Captain dead on the extreme edge of the bed. The doctor said that he had just slipped away in his sleep. He was 72.
“I thought and still do that my father’s life bore some kind of a curse. Another idea I have I want to tell about. The Captain, while Lake Arthur’s most respected citizen, never belonged to anything, never had any of his property in his own name, never paid the taxes, and never took any part in municipal affairs. I couldn’t understand it and wondered why. I imagined him a fugitive from justice – maybe his high temper had caused him to do harm to some one – maybe he had left a family somewhere -but when I summed it all up it pointed to one answer: He never was an American citizen. To become one might have revealed his past which he didn’t want known.”
This was Mother’s background and heritage.