Puzzling out Ray Shearer

It seems odd to me that while I’m able to trace my family back on dozens of lines more than 400 years, my own patrilineal great-grandfather—my father’s father’s father—is nearly a complete mystery to me. I would normally begin an exploration of his life by saying that his name was Ray Shearer, but even that is a bit of a mystery. While many people called him Ray, more often than not, he referred to himself as Zyionyi Ray Shearer. As with many of my difficult-to-research ancestors, I keep setting aside his information, waiting for some hint or help to emerge, as they so often do.

And so it was with Ray. Just this past week I got an unexpected letter from my cousin Peggy, who’s a cousin on my Shearer side. Her great-grandmother was Ray Shearer’s mother—Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer Stokes. Peggy’s grandmother was Ray’s younger half-sister, Zealia Faye Stokes, and Zealia apparently was very interested in preserving family stories and history, and she passed much of this on to Peggy.

Today’s post could not have been written without Peggy’s help. Thank you, Peggy!

To date, I’ve written only two posts on Ray/Zyionyi: A letter from a lost father and More clues about Ray Shearer. There’s no need to re-read those, as in today’s post I’ll be pulling together everything that I know about Ray Shearer in this one post.

What I know about Ray Shearer so far:

Ray Shearer was the first child born to Gilbert Matthew Shearer and Mary Belle Coddington. No first name was recorded at the time, but baby boy Shearer was born on January 6, 1895, in Howard Township, Wayne County, Iowa. His father Gilbert, a farmer, was only a few days from his 30th birthday at the time, and his mother Mary Belle had turned 19 only five days earlier.

Among the many other wonderful tidbits that my cousin Peggy shared with me over the past several days is this photo of Ray. This is the first confirmed photo of my great-grandfather that I’ve ever seen. I had one other photo that I had deduced was probably Ray, but after seeing the photos that Peggy sent today, I think I was wrong. This one, however, is the real deal. Thank you, Peggy!

Nearly three years later, on November 26, 1897, Ray’s younger sister (Anneta Fern “Anita” Shearer) was born, also in Howard Township, Wayne County, Iowa.

On May 23, 1897, less than six months after little sister Anita was born, Ray and Anita’s father Gilbert died. He was only 32 years old. Gilbert had been working on the roof of a house (presumably his), when he fell off. He landed on a stump and burst his abdomen open. He was taken to a sanatorium, but died four days later.

At age 22, Mary Belle Coddington Shearer was left a widow with two children—Ray, aged 2½, and Anita, aged 6 months. While this would have been a horrible situation, this wasn’t the first time sudden death forced a rethinking of her family situation. Her own mother died just 10 days after giving birth to Mary Belle, leaving her father and her three older siblings on their own. The answer then was to rely on family. Mary Belle was sent to live with her two aunts (Mary Ann Catherine (Morris) Drake and Margaret Jane (Morris) Drake). She was raised by her aunts and given the nickname “Tudee Drake” according to Peggy.

My guess would be that when her own husband died and she was left with two young children, she also leant on her family. What happened over the next three years isn’t clear, but I presume she went to live with either her family (her father or her three surviving older siblings, or perhaps one of her adoptive families) or her deceased husband’s family. One piece of evidence for the latter is that the man she married on April 19, 1900—Milton Burton “Bert” Stokes—was the first cousin of her deceased husband. Bert’s mother Isabelle Caroline Jones (1849–1904) was the sister of Gilbert’s mother Emeline Clarina Jones (1841–1925).

On the 1900 federal census, we find Mary Belle married to Bert Stokes and living in Jackson Township, Wayne County, Iowa. Bert was working as a railroad laborer and Ray and Anita once again had a father figure in their lives. The 1900 census (shown below) is the first time I’ve been able to find Ray’s name written down, and it was recorded as “Zygonia R. Shearer.” Zygonia was five years old and Anita was 2 years old.

By the time of the 1910 census, Ray and Anita (ages 15 and 12) were still living with their mother Mary Belle in Jackson Township, Wayne County, Iowa, and they’ve got three new younger half-siblings living with them: Verna T. Stokes (age 8), Zealia F. Stokes (age 7), and Glena I. Stokes (age 3). Ray’s name is spelled “Zyonyi R. Shearer.” Bert Stokes isn’t enumerated with his family, and Mary Belle is recorded as being the head of the household, but I’m guessing this is because Bert was away from home on a work assignment.

My cousin Peggy also found this fantastic photo of Ray (he’s on the left ) and a man named Floyd Sandlin, which I’d tentatively date to around 1910–1915 based on Ray’s apparent age of 15–20 years.

The NOKO markings indicate that the photo postcard was made between 1907 and the 1920s, which doesn’t really narrow the date down for us at all.

The postcard reads:

(Addressed to) Halga Jellison of Sewal, Iowa

We are done Harvest—
We had 15 days
this is me and Floyd Sandlin
He work for me
We are plowen corn
Mowe we had 20 stacks of wheat be sides the oats
—Have not stacked the oats yet
From Ray

By March 1, 1915, Ray and his family had moved to Morland, Graham County, Kansas. Ray was 20 years old and still living at home with sister Anita (age 17), half-siblings Verna T. Stokes (age 13), Zealia F. Stokes (age 12), Glena I. Stokes (age 8), and Thelma Stokes (age 4). Notably, this is the first time I’ve seen Ray use his middle name as his first name on an official document (“Ray Shearer” instead of “Zygonia R. Shearer” [1900] or “Zyonyi R. Shearer” [1910]), although the postcard above shows he was already using it in informal situations.

Less than a month later, on March 27, 1915, Ray married Catalina Johanna “Lena Josie” Edel, a middle child of a Dutch immigrant and minister in the Dutch Reformed Church, Cornelius Edel, and his second wife, Anna Kant van den Heuvel. Cornelius and Anna immigrated to the US in 1894, and in 1895, Lena became their first child to be born in the United States.

From stories my grandfather Vernon (her eldest son) told, Lena’s parents did not like Ray. They forbade Lena to marry Ray, so Ray and Lena ran away and eloped. They got married on Saturday, March 27, 1915, in Hill City, Graham County, Kansas.

My grandfather said the young couple had to move away to get away from Lena’s parents, and thought that they moved to Nebraska. I recently inherited a homestead ribbon from Nebraska that I think may have been from Ray and Lena, but unfortunately everyone who might know has long since died.

On June 5, 1917, Ray registered for the World War I draft. He noted that he was married and that he had one child (Vernon, born six months earlier). He spells his name “Zyionyi Ray Shearer” and lists his occupation as carpenter, working for W. O. Richardson in Wayne County, Iowa. He’s noted as having brown eyes and black hair.

On Wednesday, September 26, 1917, The Humeston New Era had the following mention of Ray on page 7:

This was just one of a full page of items under the heading “Board Proceedings: List of Claims Allowed by Board of Supervisors at Their Last Meeting.”

On March 7, 1919, Ray and Lena’s second child was born: a son named Roy DeWight “Dwight” Shearer. Roy was born in Palco, Rooks County, Kansas, demonstrating that the family had moved from Iowa to Kansas at some point between June 5, 1917, and March 7, 1919.

By the time of the 1920 census, enumerated on January 13, 1920, Ray and Lena’s enlarged family was still living in Palco, Kansas:

Palco is about 450 modern-road miles from Harvard, Iowa (see map below), so this would have definitely put a lot of space between the young family and Lena’s parents, who didn’t like Ray and didn’t approve of the marriage.

Was running away from Lena’s parents the only possible reason for moving to Palco? As you’ll see further below, he moved to Palco at least twice. I started to wonder why Ray kept relocating to Palco, Kansas, and in my search for an answer, I found the 1904–1905 plat map for Northhampton Township, Rooks County, Kansas (where Palco is located). What I found is that an L. C. Coddington owned 80 acres on the eastern edge of town. He also owned another 160 acres about four miles southeast of town (not on this map, but on the next map).

Looking in my records, I found one match—Lewis C. Coddington (1846–1930). Ray Shearer was the grandnephew of Lewis Coddington (Lewis’ parents—Daniel Schram Coddington and Sarah Hatfield—were Ray’s great-grandparents). So Palco was perhaps a place where he could go and help out an elderly relative on his farm when times were tough.

I also found that C. C. Morris owned 160 acres about three miles north of town. Ray Shearer was the grandnephew of Christopher C. Morris (Christopher’s parents—Calvin Levi Morris and Jemima “Giminee” Long—were also Ray’s great-grandparents). Large plots of land were also owned around Palco by I. Morris, J. L. Morris, and George Hatfield, all possible relatives of Ray’s.

On October 16, 1920, Ray and Lena had their third child together, a daughter named Anna Cornelia “Anelia” Shearer. Anelia was born in Long Island, Phillips County, Kansas, indicating that Ray and Lena had once again moved. Long Island is just 3½ miles south of the Nebraska state line. The fact that Anna was given a more traditional Dutch name than her two older siblings might be interpreted as a sign that relations between Lena and her Dutch family were growing warmer around this time.

Around this same time, according to stories my grandfather Vernon told me, Ray had taken to “partying” quite a bit. From what I could pry out of my grandfather, he meant this in the sense of “liking to go out and drink heavily and flirt with women”. I think I asked if this meant he was having affairs, to which my grandfather said no. But remember, this was a teen boy in the late 1970s asking his grandfather, a man who was only 4–5 years old when the supposed “partying” was happening, what was meant by “partying.” My guess is that yes, he was having affairs, and “partying” was the euphemism used to describe it by Vernon’s mother Lena.

Whatever the case, Lena was very upset about the “partying” and laid down an ultimatum to Ray: “Stop partying and take care of your family. If you go out partying again, don’t bother to come home.” As my grandfather put it, Ray never came home again.

On April 22, 1921, Lena’s petition for divorce from Ray in Phillips County, Kansas, was finalized and the couple was officially divorced. I have a copy of their divorce settlement and will scan it and upload load it here as soon as I find it. The divorce was granted “on the ground of gross neglect of duty.”  From what my grandfather told me, Ray did not even show up for the divorce hearing.

The following is another fantastic find by my cousin Peggy of Ray from around the time he found himself single again. Thank you, Peggy! This photo is dated 1921, Arapahoe, Colorado, so Ray (center) would have been about 26 years old here.

Anna Stokes was actually Martha Anna Stokes (Peggy remembers her as “Aunt Annie”), Ray’s first cousin once removed. She was the youngest sister of Ray’s step-dad, Bert Stokes. Despite the generational difference, she was only two years older than Ray. I have no idea yet why the three were in Arapahoe, Colorado, or even where Araphoe/Arapahoe was located. Arapahoe County is a county in northeastern central Colorado, just east of Denver, but there appears to be no town by that name. According to GeoNames, there are two other places by this name in Colorado, one is Arapahoe Park, a fairly recent suburban park in the Denver suburb of Southglenn, and the other is Arapahoe Park, a horse-racing track at the Arapahoe County fairgrounds. Perhaps Ray was getting away to the Arapahoe County Fair?

According to my grandfather’s younger sister Anelia, after Catalena left Ray, he went to St. Louis, then to Chicago, then back to Seymour, Iowa, where Ray worked for Claude Shriver in a garage. 

On May 31, 1922, Ray’s mother, Mary Belle (Coddington) Shearer Stokes, died in Salina, Saline County, Kansas, of gall bladder disease. She was only 46 years old.

On July 11, 1922, Ray was living in Plano, Iowa, just 13 miles east of Harvard, Iowa, where he lived when he and Lena were first married. Ray applied for a marriage license in Appanoose County, Iowa, where Plano is located. He stated that he was 28 years old and that this would be his first marriage.

The marriage was to Mamie Hensley (née Mamie McMurray), a recent divorcee with a daughter (Lucille Hensley) who was about 5 years old at the time of Ray and Mamie’s marriage. According to my grandfather’s younger sister Anelia, Mamie Hensley was from Mystic, Iowa.

By the time of the 1925 Iowa state census, we find a 28-year-old Ray, a 25-year-old Mamie, and her 8-year-old daughter Lucille Hensley living together in a rented house. Ray is listed as having only a 6th-grade education, while Mamie is listed as having a 10th-grade education.

According to my grandfather’s younger sister Anelia, Ray and Mamie moved to Excelsior Springs, Missouri, where Mamie died. From what I’ve been able to gather, she died on March 28, 1928, at the age of 32.

By the time of the 1930 census, enumerated on April 9, 1930, we find Ray back in Palco, Kansas. He is listed as divorced (rather than widowed) and is a lodger in Albert Jennings house at 25 Main Street. While Palco is still a very small town, II wasn’t able to quickly determine where that house would have been located, as the town has since changed their street numbering system.

I find the 1930 census record for Ray puzzling, as he married his third wife, Mary Jane Plume, on November 15, 1929, according to my grandfather’s sister Anelia.  For what it’s worth, Mary Jane Plume is also listed as a single woman living with her family on the 1930 census. I suspect I’ve got their marriage year wrong. It may well have been November 15, 1930.

On July 30, 1931, Ray and Mary Jane had a son together, Donald John Shearer. I don’t know if my grandfather ever met or got to know his half-brother. When he’d mention him to me, he’d refer to him as “Don Juan Shearer,” which I don’t think he intended as a flattering nickname.

On July 2, 1932, Ray responded to a letter from his son Vernon, who was asking about buying a cheap motorcycle. I wrote a whole post about this letter, but in summary, it appears that Ray was trying to communicate secretly with Vernon by mailing the letter to a boy in Vernon’s class (Chester Burgess) and having Chester then hand-deliver the letter to Vernon so that Vernon’s mother Lena wouldn’t find out about it.

Ray apparently was also a truck driver, as he was in a serious truck accident two years before his death. According to what I’ve heard, he never fully recovered from the accident.

My cousin Peggy found and transcribed a news account of the accident from the The Oakley Graphic, Friday, January 3, 1936:


Ray Shearer, Gove, is at St. Anthony’s hospital for treatment of severe injuries sustained when the truck he was driving overturned Saturday on highway No. 83, between Scott City and Oakley. Shearer sustained fractures of both legs, cuts about the head and face, and bruises. He said the truck ran over an embankment as he drove in snow and fog which obscured the road. A boy riding with him was uninjured, Shearer lay in the road three hours until his companion was able to return with assistance. His condition today appeared to be satisfactory. –Hays Daily News

Peggy also supplied these notes:

My mother, Bonny, niece of Ray Shearer told me that this wreck occurred on Highway 83 near ‘Elkader’. This is the name that local people call the area where the highway crosses the Smoky Hill River. I am a native of this area and I can tell you all about ‘Elkader’ if you want to know more. You probably won’t find it on a map.

Also note in the news article it mentions they took Ray to St. Anthony’s hospital.  That would have been in Hays, KS.

Ray’s half-sister, Zealia, and her family was living in Gove, KS in 1936.

Ray died at his home in Plainville, Kansas, of carbon monoxide poisoning on November 20, 1937. I haven’t yet learned whether this was suicide or an accident. He was only 45 years old.

According to another obituary that I haven’t yet located and scanned, Ray was a mechanic and a machine welder and was employed by Leo Bissett.

From what I’ve learned so far, Ray was a man of many talents. According to my grandfather, Ray was a dirt track race car driver, a mechanic, a machine welder, a truck driver, and possibly a motorcycle dealer. According to his WWI draft form, he was a carpenter. According to the 1920 census, he was an automobile salesman, working on his own account. According to his 1922 marriage record, he was a mechanic. According to the 1930 census, he was a mechanic working in a garage. Helga Jellison, Ray’s second cousin and close friend, said, “Ray was a good mechanic, and if Ray couldn’t fix it, it could not be fixed.”

4 thoughts on “Puzzling out Ray Shearer

    • Hello, Shana!

      I’m so glad you found this. I believe your mother and I are second cousins (which makes you and me second cousins once removed), but I had no idea that either of you even existed until you wrote just now—thank goodness you did! I’ve got so many questions for both you and your mom. It’s late now, but I’ll follow up with a direct email over the weekend. I’m sure both sides of our family—unfortunately separated by a 98-year-old divorce—have so much to share with each other. I know I’ve got lots to share and so many questions to ask. More soon,


      • If you would like to talk by phone we can do you have Facebook? I to have so many questions
        Can’t wait to get to know you and our family.

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