No getting away from death and taxes in Ray County, now or in 1920

By Linda Emley

It’s 10 p.m. and I’m looking for a story. It needs to be historical and mildly entertaining, but most of all it must be about Ray County. I was reading the Richmond Missourian from Feb. 26, 1920 and that’s when this story found me because there were two topics that kept coming up: “death and taxes.”
We’ve all heard Ben Franklin’s famous quote, “In this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” It was taken from a letter he wrote Nov. 13, 1789 to Jean-Baptiste Leroy, who was a French scientist. Ben Franklin was the U.S. ambassador to France from 1776 to 1785 and was greatly loved by the French people, which helped our new nation find favor with France.
The 1920 Richmond Missourian had many stories about influenza and pneumonia and how both were leaving their mark on Ray County. Melvin “Jack” Swafford died at his home in the Rayville section after several days’ illness with influenza and pneumonia. On Feb. 25, 16-year-old Delbert Estes died of bronchial phenomena and was buried at the Hamilton Cemetery near Elkhorn.
Mrs. Mamie Nickelson, formerly of Lawson, died in Colorado Springs after a short illness with pneumonia. Mary Gant Whitmer died March 7 from bronchial phenomena. She was the 84-year-old widow of John C. Whitmer.  On March 14, James Dunn died. He was 71 years old and will forever be remembered as the minister who preached the funeral of Capt. William Anderson, 40 years after Anderson died. Mrs. Jennie Kennedy of the Rockingham community was another Ray resident who died from pneumonia that same week.
I’m writing this story at the Ray County Museum and I took the following death personally because it happened here, at was then the county home. “Death at County Home. William McClay, aged 68, died Friday afternoon at the county home. He was buried in the county cemetery Saturday afternoon.” William’s cause of death wasn’t listed, so I looked up his death certificate and he died from gall stones. I was sad to see no one knew much about William because his death certificate revealed that no one knew his birthday, if he was ever married, his occupation or who his parents were.
My son’s great-grandmother, Bessie Roberts Branstetter, died March 4, 1920. She was 31 and died from heart disease, so not everyone was hit with the flu bug. She left a husband and several young children.
Ray County lost 270 residents to death in 1920, so many of our families were part of the hard winter that year. We will never fully understand why some people died in 1920 and others lived to see another day, but we are very lucky that we now have the wonders of modern medicine.
Some of the lucky ones that year were names that many of us remember. “Teachers Ill. During the past week several of the teachers in the Richmond Public School have been forced to be away from their duties because of influenza. Among the teachers who have been Miss Lillian Simms, Miss Lucy Calnen, Miss Hester Mullin and Miss Ethel Kirkpatrick. All are reported to be improving and will soon return to their duties.”
The same newspaper told of others who were ill but survived. “Captain J.L. Milligan has been confined to his home in this city for the past few days with a light attack of influenza. He is reported to be greatly improved today. Mr. Charles Chenault, who has been confined to his home on East Main Street for the past few weeks with an attack of influenza, is reported to be improving slowly. Miss Gladys Edwards, of the Missourian office force, has been ill with influenza at the home of Miss Lou Page in this city during the first part of the week.”
I don’t worry about death because it’s just another chapter in our book of life. We move on and see what’s behind the next door. My grandmother Schooler and I were very close and we talked about heaven many times. I told her when I got to heaven she could introduce me to her mother, who can introduce me to her mother. After the introductions, I can check my genealogy and see if I got it right with all my years of researching while in this world.
Now on to the rest of this story, taxes, which were handled a little differently in 1920. The Richmond Missourian had this Feb. 26, 1920: “Owing to the fact that some of the blanks required for filing the State Income Tax have not been received from Jefferson City, County Assessor Frank Q. Proffitt announced Wednesday that the time for filing the returns in Ray County may be extended from March 1st to March 15th. The penalty for not making a return within the proper time, or for making a fraudulent return, runs as high as a $500 fine or imprisonment, or both, for individuals, and for corporation as high as a $5,000 fine. The state income tax is confused by many people with the federal income tax. The time for making returns under the federal income tax expires March 15th.”
At least one person had a sense of humor during the 1920 tax season. “Still on the Job. I have been bawled out, bawled up, held up and held down, bull dozed, black jacked, walked on, cheated, squeezed and mooched, stuck for war-tax, excess-profits tax, per capita tax, state tax, dog tax and syntax; Liberty Bonds, Baby Bonds and Bonds of Matrimony, Red Cross, green cross and the double cross; asked to help the Society of John the Baptist, G.A.R., Women’s Relief Corps, men’s relief and stomach relief. I have worked and been worked; have lost all I had and part of my furniture; and because I won’t spend or lend all of the little I earn, and go beg, borrow or steal, I have been cussed and discussed, boycotted, talked to and talked about; lied to and lied about; held up, hung up; robbed and and almost ruined; and the only reason I am alive is because I am selling haircuts for 25 cents and shaves for 15 cents and bucking the trust and fighting the battle for the people, says Tyd Nickeklson.”
He paid his taxes and was still keeping the citizens of Richmond looking good with a shave and a hair cut at a reasonable price.
Our final tax story: “To the Tax Payers of the Richmond Special Road District: Within the past three years there has been some criticism of the Commissioners of the Richmond Special Road District because of the fact that certain bridges and culverts have been neglected and are now in need of repairs. Within the past three years, and including the amount to be paid in for the 1919 assessment, the property owners in the Richmond Special Road District have paid into the county road and bridge fund as follows, $11,457.07. At the present time the following bridges are unsafe for heavy traffic, namely Seek bridge, Bohannon bridge, Falk bridge and Dale bridge. In fact, the floors on the Falk and Dale bridges are in such condition that it is unsafe for any kind of traffic. We hope that all the tax payers in the Richmond Special Road District will use every effort possible to assist the Commissioners of the District securing the proper repairs and bridges in the District. H.C. Nutter, George N. McGee, John E. Roark, Commissioners of Richmond Special Road District.”
There were some fun things listed in the Richmond Missourian Feb. 26,1920: “A Record for Mules. A pair of nine-month-old mules brought a record price at the sale of L.A. Hoffman in Orrick, last Thursday, when they were sold to Sterling Pigg for $750.”
And in other news, “Free Tobacco Seed. If you want to plant, a patch of tobacco this spring, it is time to get busy. The Missourian office will furnish you with some seed of one of the best varieties for home use, free of charge.” Things have changed a lot since 1920, because I don’t know of anyone who grows tobacco in their backyard. I do have a Platte City friend who worked on a family tobacco farm near Weston, so there is still some tobacco growing in the area.
And finally the first electric churn was purchased in Ray County by Mrs. James Perry. “Missouri Gas and Electric Service Company Manager Jess Boggs reported that at the time Mrs. Perry had the churn put in, he also installed an electric range and a vacuum cleaner for her. So the Electric Generation was starting in Ray County.
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