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Four of a Kind: 1939

October 1939. "Boys from Dead Ox Flat waiting for the school bus in the morning. Malheur County, Oregon." So who is this lady with the camera? Medium format negative by Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration. View full size.

October 1939. "Boys from Dead Ox Flat waiting for the school bus in the morning. Malheur County, Oregon." So who is this lady with the camera? Medium format negative by Dorothea Lange for the Resettlement Administration. View full size.


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Bad Luck

I lived in Malheur County as a kid and went to school in Vale, OR. "featureless landscape" is about right. Malheur translates from French as misfortune or bad luck which I have always thought suited the place.

Recycled lunch bags?

Noting that the families of the boys were frugal...these lunch bags look new in that maybe it was the first day of school for the week..."now you boys remember, after lunch, to fold your lunch bag neatly and put it in your pocket"...

Dead Ox Flat

In prowling for the location and possible IDs for the boys, I discovered that the 'proper' names for the area are either Fair, or (more commonly) Ontario. Dead Ox Flat is most likely the name of the geography in the area, as the nearby Snake River kind of bows out, leaving a somewhat 'flat' area. Someone's ox probably died there, and you wind up with an odd name.

One reason I think the census was giving me no luck finding the boys 'nearby' is that as mentioned, there were a LOT of itinerants. If you start looking around, you'll find a lot of photos of people living in tents, out of their trucks, or even in holes dug into the ground in the region back then. Those four boys could well have only owned one or two pairs of clothing, so what we see is what they had, period.

I also wouldn't be surprised if this was the first day (or close to it) of school for them for the season - in the old days school tended to revolve around the planting season for rural areas, and October would have been just about when the harvest was done, so the educating could begin.

What's in a name?

Dead Ox Flat? Malheur County?

I have the distinct impression that their grand- and great-grandparents didn't have too much of an auspicious start when they first broke turf around there.

[These kids and their families were all Dust Bowl refugees who had only recently settled in Oregon. -Dave]


I guess when novelists describe a "featureless landscape", this is where they have in mind. Not without a stark sort of beauty, but pretty sparse, especially to an East Coast born and bred guy.

For all we know

There may have been another 'set' of four (or more or less) at home that were pre-schoolers since the youngest boy looks to be about 6 or 7. In any case, they look like good, reliable kids who towed the line and perhaps they are even still with us. Personally, I like the uniforms and hope they've all had a good life.

3.2 People per Sq Mile!

And that's today in Malheur County. What must it have been like in '39?

Some of the public schools in those remote parts operate on a weekly residence basis because it's too far to commute each day. Bus the kids in on Sunday evening and return them home on Thursday.

Ditch Riding

Meant riding along a ditch to ensure that the farmers were taking only the amount that they were entitled to. A crappy job inasmuch as the ditch rider normally had to get out of his vehicle at each field, open the gate, drive the vehicle through, get out again to close the gate, over and over. If the ditch he rode was many miles long he might have to do this 20-30 times a day.

Ditch Riders

These are people who operate irrigation systems. They are responsible for, among other things, inspecting the waterways (ditches) that convey the water throughout the system. Generally done by riding along them, hence the name.

Two of a kind or a full house?

Their identical jackets and similar features suggest familial relationships - two pairs of brothers or four brothers? Malheur County is in the southeastern part of Oregon. It's very desolate and has very few people even today.

Found the Mailbox

Thanks to the wonders of a wildcard search over at Ancestry, I was able to peg down whose mailbox they were in front of, at least.

That mailbox almost certainly belonged to a Herbert and Jessie Hudgins. Herbert and Jessie did have two children as per the 1940 Census - a daughter, Arlene, age 11, and a son named Jerry, age 6. They had moved within the past five years from Idaho (and would later move on to California).

Herbert had the unusual job title of "Ditch Rider," which is now going to bug me until I figure out just what the heck that job is or was.

Scanning up and down the census pages surrounding the Hudginses, I'm not seeing any families that would have had four boys that age (assuming they're all brothers by the matching clothing, haircuts, and cleft chins).

Manly faces

on these boys, probably brothers. I'd guess the oldest to be about fourteen. Well-dressed for school, and all with lunches. I imagine they had already performed chores at home before leaving for school, and had other responsibilities awaiting them on their return. No slackers in the crowd.

I suppose they're brothers

Same jackets, same pants, same shoes, same bag lunch, same haircut, same ears, same gaze.

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