In the Mood for 1940

On April 2, 1940, the New York Times reported that the 1940 census would start that day, reassuring those nervous about personal privacy that they would be ground up into a kind of statistical sausage.
NY Times; 2 Apr 1940

Elsewhere that same day:

  • The US Government awarded Aircraft Pilot’s Certificate Number One to 68-year-old Orville Wright.
  • Two-time Nobel prize winner Linus Pauling wrote a letter about U.S. reluctance to join the war in Europe.
  • First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote her daily column while traveling through Beverly Hills, California.
  • Glenn Miller was ripping up the charts with his #1 hit:

Of 1940 and Roller Skates

Uncle Elmer could fly, though you wouldn’t know it by looking at him. He was a big man, not much for small talk, with feet planted solidly on the ground. Like his sister – my grandmother – he was made of equal parts honey and vinegar, and fools quaked in his presence. Including me. As a 13-year-old girl I was by definition foolish, and so he rarely paid attention to me. Except at the roller rink. The women his age weren’t too keen about strapping wheels onto their feet and spinning under a disco ball. I was only too eager, though.

Uncle Elmer was a strong and confident dancer on skates, while I was scrawny and awkward (read “easy to push around”). My only job was to hang on for the entire glorious flight. It was impossible to fall – sheer momentum kept me moving forward. But if I let go I would surely go sailing into a wall.

Much later I learned that Elmer Mason had been a professional roller skater in the late 1930’s and early 1940’s. By day he worked in a shoe mill. At night he performed with “The Whirlwind Trio” at fairs and festivals throughout Maine, with unlimited practice time at the nearby rink managed by his brother, my Uncle Roy. But there are gaps in my knowledge. How close did he live to his brother? To the rink? Did he make much money at it? Was he consistently employed at the mills, or was his wife – a nurse – the more stable breadwinner?

This is why I am volunteering to help index the 1940 US Census:  I want to know more about the man who could fly.

The Whirlwind Trio of Lewiston, Maine (newspaper unknown).

The Whirlwind Trio, circa 1940. (Photo courtesy of private family collection.)

I have spent the better part of the afternoon paging through the 1906 Atlas for Carroll County, Iowa. Pictures! Pictures galore! But alas – not many from the families I’m looking for: Buchheit, Beiter, and Hannasch. Still, let’s admire all these sturdy German immigrants who were their friends and neighbors. Here’s dear old J.P. Lasher of Sheridan Township. Was he upset when he saw his picture and realized his eyes were closed? Or did he close them on purpose? And here is the Reverend B.A. Schultz, superimposed on a photo of Sacred Heart Church. Frown lines crease his brow, but the tiniest slip of a smile plays at the corner of his mouth. Ah – and here is the thin, bird-like Verena (Huber) Bowman, with her ill-fitting dress and sad eyes. She had died 26 years earlier, but evidently was still a valued member of society.

I was thrilled and relieved to discover this atlas in the Iowa Digital Library. Thrilled because – hello – it’s awesome. And relieved because earlier I had found the same atlas in and … it sucked. Rather than being scanned, it had been photocopied, and the pictures (while better than nothing) were awful. This is not to knock NewspaperArchive (too much). They’re one of my primary sources for newspaper research, and they do tons of great work. And who knows what the backstory is – whether they even had access to scanned versions. And neither version was well indexed – which is why I had to look at each photo individually. Still, the difference is huge. So thank you Hawkeyes!

The photocopied photo from

The scanned photo from Iowa Digital Library