I recently completed my first generation of Layton family genealogy, documenting the lives of Charles and Hazel (McKinley) Layton and their children. Charles and Hazel were my great-grandparents, but they both passed away before my birth, so I never met them. Two of their children, Max and Don, died during my lifetime, but I do not remember them.
I am not including in this post the full page of single-spaced, ten-point footnotes that accompany the master copy! I am also not including any information about children of the Layton brothers, my mother and her cousins.
Charles Layton was born in Kansas on 29 July 1891. He married Hazel McKinley, daughter of Lee and Ida (Sullivan) McKinley, on 25 December 1911 in Lebanon, Boone County, Indiana. Charles worked for the International Harvester Company until 1942, when he took over operation of the Greensburg Implement Company with his sons. He died 7 July 1965. Hazel died 13 October 1980. They are buried together in South Park Cemetery, Greensburg, Indiana.
Charles & Hazel had five sons:
Max Edwin, Forest Dow, Wilmer Reid,
Donald Neill, and Joseph Dale.
Max was born 24 July 1912 in Southport, Indiana. On 15 June 1941, he married Mary Maxine Nelson. He joined the US Navy during World War II. Max passed away 12 February 1986 in Centerville, Wayne County, Indiana. Maxine passed away 4 January 2009. They are buried together at South Park Cemetery.
According to Max’s son, the Veteran’s Adm. plaque that marks Max’s grave was made with the wrong date. He actually died on 12 February 1986.
Dow was born 16 February 1915 in Brewersville, Indiana. He married Dorothy Schortemeyer on 29 September 1935. They divorced in 1937. On 18 September 1940, Dow married Lucille Martin. On 10 October 1941, he underwent an appendectomy, and on 15 October 1941, he died of generalized peritonitis. He is buried at South Park Cemetery.
Wilmer was born 1 September 1916 in Indiana, and died in Indianapolis on 1 May 1918. He was buried in Indianapolis, but was later removed to South Park Cemetery in Greensburg.
Don was born 20 June 1919 in Westport, Indiana. On 15 October 1949, he married Sara Jane Springmier. Sara passed away 6 January 1980. Don passed away 1 April 1 1989. They are buried together at South Park Cemetery.
My grandfather, Joe, was born in Burney, Indiana on 29 May 1923. He married Sara Kathryn Buell on 10 December 1947 in Greensburg, Indiana. He worked with his father at the Greensburg Implement Company until the early 1950’s. He operated Layton’s Store for Men from 1960-1966. He worked at Stover Winstead Implements on the south side of Indianapolis in the 1970’s. Sara passed away 23 June 2003. Joe passed away 21 August 2007. They are buried together at South Park Cemetery.
In May 1942, Joe abruptly resigned his position. In a letter to his mother, he wrote that he could have stayed at his job “indefinitely,” making good money.
“Possibly that is the only way you ever get anywhere in this world… Whether it is or not I am not ready yet, to settle down to the grind,” he wrote.
Joe decided to return home to Indiana. He was clearly disappointed in himself, at how little he had accomplished. He also seemed to think everyone would judge him for returning to Greensburg. He had gone away in December a confident young man, and he returned just six months later. Joe usually wrote eloquently, but in this letter, he rambled, trying to get a grasp on his feelings:
“If I come home this time it does not mean that I will be there forever, or does it, what I mean is if I felt I wanted to, couldn’t I at some later date try something again. Probably it is a disappointment to you to have me come back, to think I was off to something and then have me quit. I hate to come back myself in the respect that it seems like a failure or something.”
Joe thought Chicago would provide him with the opportunities he needed to become a successful man in a business suit, but he found himself lonely and dissatisfied with the day-to-day drudgery of city life. He could see himself growing wealthy, but it felt empty to him. Something was missing.
“… People here don’t seem to live, to me, they seem more like a part of one big machine,” he wrote.
Despite the excitement all around him, Joe grew sullen during his time in the city. He saw what his life would be there, and he didn’t like it. Returning home was an attempt to hold on a bit longer to his youth. He wrote that, if he stayed at his job in Chicago, he would always feel he “had missed part of the fun or pleasures” he should have had when he was young.
Underlying in his emotional letter is his complete denial of the war, of how serious his life had so suddenly become. At that time, many Chicagoans would have been producing materials for the effort overseas. How strange that Joe would return home, ostensibly to enjoy being young, when so many boys his age had already been deployed. He went to Chicago to chase success and have a good time – why then did he have to set aside money for defense bonds? Why couldn’t he just go to the theater and flirt with the cute girl he met at the dry cleaners?
Joe would have been required to register for the draft in May 1942, right around the time he resigned. Perhaps the act of registering was the final straw for him, the last thing he did before he decided to go home. His homesickness was no doubt exacerbated by the fear that he would be called up to serve in the military. He may have felt that it was best to spend what time he had left enjoying himself with this friends and family, instead of laboring away, alone, up in Chicago. What use is all this money, he must have wondered, if I’m going to go off to war any day?
Back in Indiana, Joe readjusted to the life he left behind. About a year later, after being classified 1-A – available for military service – he made the trip to Fort Benjamin in Indianapolis for his physical exam. Shortly thereafter, he received notice that he had been rejected for service. I have still been unable to definitively answer the question of why he was rejected, but national and state archivists have indicated that he was probably disqualified for a medical condition such as flat feet or a heart murmur.
After his military rejection, there is no indication in his records that Joe considered moving back to Chicago. Instead, he left his dreams of the big city behind him. His files contain letters from a few girls he dated as well as several letters from friends who were serving overseas. In October 1944, a V-Mail arrived from Leonard Welage, a 1942 Greensburg graduate who was in New Guinea “undergoing quite a few bombings.” In 1945, Joe received a V-Mail from a classmate, who wrote from Germany:
“…Am living in a German home right now. Had my second bath since I have been over here yesterday. In a bath tub too. Boy, it was like heaven. Layed in it and only my nose was out of water…. Have slept in everything from fox holes, to hay lofts to nice homes since I have been here. What a hell of a life!! We have running water in this home, but no electricity, using candles and home made lights…. The people who lived in this house were real Nazi’s. Pictures of Der Fuhrer and all. That kind of shit. Boy, Joe, I have no sympathy for these people at all. But they’ll learn I guess.”
With news of the Nazis coming in the mail, Joe’s easygoing adolescence was long gone. By 1946, a letter from his friend Josephine indicates that he had “settled down to one gal.” On December 10, 1947, he married Sara Kathryn Buell, and in November 1951, my mother was born.
Joe spent the rest of his life in Indiana. He passed away in 2007. He only spent six months in Chicago, but the fact that he held on to so many mementos from that time period leads me to believe that it was quite meaningful to him. I’m grateful that, by leaving behind these keepsakes, he allowed me a tiny glimpse into his life long before I knew him. They paint a vivid picture of growing abruptly into adulthood during a war that redefined our world.
I began my adventures in genealogy eager to trace my family tree all the way back to its European roots. So, in the early stages, I raced through generations, searching for evidence of where we began. But then something struck me: I suddenly knew more about distant long-lost relatives than I knew about my own grandparents.
Genealogy allows us to learn the stories of our ancestors, but it can also be a way to help us know those we have struggled to understand in our own lifetimes.
I knew my grandfather, Joe Layton, as a quiet, private man, always well dressed and immaculately groomed. He was emotionally distant, and usually wore a sad, serious expression. I grew up incredibly intimidated by him. On the few rare occasions when I saw him, we barely spoke, but sometimes we would write to each other, sharing bits and pieces of our lives. He also sent birthday and Christmas cards every year, and he always signed them, “Love, Grandma and Grandpa,” even though my grandmother had been in a coma since I was seven years old.
Sara (Buell) Layton was even more of a mystery than my grandfather. Unfortunately, she left almost nothing behind that might help her family understand her better. My grandfather, however, left a collection of letters, postcards, photographs, and memorabilia from the 1940’s that has helped me piece together a small part of his life that I knew nothing about before he passed away.
The story that unfolded led me to discover a common thread tying many generations and branches of my family tree together: failed attempts to leave home. There is certainly a history of this in many families, often fueled by the appeal of reinventing oneself somewhere new. Sometimes, though, the simplicity and familiarity of home can be difficult to leave behind – especially when the new life we build for ourselves doesn’t turn out to be as rosy as we’d hoped.
After graduating from high school, Joe worked with his father at a farm implement store in Greensburg, Indiana, but he quickly grew restless. On the morning of December 7, 1941 – just hours before news broke of the attack on Pearl Harbor – he set off for a new life in Chicago. Over the next few months, he wrote several letters home.
In the early letters, even though the United States was suddenly enmeshed in a world war, he remained optimistic and excited about his future. But, as the months wore on, the letters began to suggest a growing disillusionment with his new life. In one letter, he wrote, “What am I doing here?”; in another, “I miss you all a lot but think I would be better off here. not sure.”
Despite his uneasiness, he stuck it out, and in March, he received a promotion. He held onto a company newsletter announcing his new position to the rest of the staff, which read: “Boys be careful how you talk to Joe. He hails from Indiana where they call a spade a spade, where a man’s a man and the ladies like it.”
Clearly pleased with himself, he signed one of his letters, “J.D. Layton, Executive.”
By April, tales of his exciting job and trips to the theater were replaced with news of a citywide air raid test, and a story about a friend who received a phone call from her boyfriend stationed in San Diego. “I don’t think she has fully recovered as yet,” he wrote.
Signs of the war appear in his work files, as well. A letter from his employer, written “at the request of the United States Treasury Department,” advised him to set aside monthly contributions for the purchase of Defense Savings Bonds. In a company newsletter, the push continued, urging employees to do their “patriot’s duty.”
In May, he tried to ignore the war, enjoying his “luxurious” apartment and attending the horse races at Lincoln Fields. He tried to find happiness in his new life. But, he was surprised to find that it felt so lonely to him. After his quick rise to “Executive,” he signed an April letter, “J.D. Layton or to you – Joe.”
His homesickness is palpable.