The Death of Sam McGhee

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My great-grandfather, Samuel Newton McGhee, was born on the 29th of November in 1875 in Perry, Arkansas. He married Viola Matilda Tower in 1895 and they started a family. In 1907, they came to Montgomery County, Kansas to help with Tildy’s mother who had had a stroke.

Over the years, Sam worked for a sawmill marking trees for the logging crew to cut (in Arkansas), then in Kansas he found work with his team of horses, ” helping farmers, grading roads and in the new industry in Kansas–the oil fields. Along with the oil, a new fuel had been discovered, natural gas. Gas lights and gas burners for heating and cooking were a great improvement over wood or kerosene we had been using.” (from daughter, Bertha McGhee’s memories)

They moved to Tyro where Sam took a job as night watchman at a glass factory which made chimneys for lamps and lanterns. He prepared the sand and chemicals for the following day’s run. When the factory moved to Oklahoma, Sam took an extra job hauling ice from an ice plant in Caney to the ice house of a local grocery store and also made home deliveries on a country route offered by the store.

He found work with the Montgomery County road maintenance crew. He also rented some farmland and grew sorghum cane and made molasses in the fall. In 1914, Sam became foreman of Montgomery County road maintenance and did extra hauling with his team for both the grocery store and in the oil fields.

By age 46, he was working in the oil industry in Montgomery County, Kansas. The photo below shows him with two of his sons, Roy and Clarence. the dog’s name is unknown.

Sam McGhee and Sons at Oil Well

Samuel McGhee

Sam McGhee died in an accident at work in October 1922. It was only recently that I uncovered some details of that accident after searching in Newspapers.com.

Sam McGhee crushed oil well accident

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The Coffeyville paper, The Morning News, gave some more information, “Sam McGhee was injured Saturday morning when he was cleaning out a mill on the Harding place, about two miles east of Tyro.”

The Wichita Daily Eagle described the accident this way, “an engine being used in connection with an oil rig near Coffeyville exploded.”

The Independence Daily Reporter clarified the incident, “Mr. McGhee was injured when a machine used for cleaning out oil wells broke on the Harding lease, east of Tyro, last Saturday. He was so seriously injured that no hopes were entertained for his recovery at any time.”

More details emerged in The Morning News which noted, he “died at the Southeast Kansas hospital here Sunday night from injuries received Saturday when a well-drilling rig on which he was working broke, crushing his head and puncturing a lung.”

About two months later, a settlement was suggested (The Coffeyville Daily Journal, 12 Dec 1922, Tue, Page 5).

“Chas. D. Ise of this city, acting as referee in the matter of the compensation of Viola Matilda Mc-Ghee, administratrix of the estate of S. N. McGhee, against the Kansas-Oklahoma Consolidated Oil company, has recommended a payment of $3,200.40. McGhee died recently of injuries sustained in an accident on a lease near Tyro.”

I was curious about whether that was a good offer or not. Here’s a chart showing wages at that time. I also found that average earnings in 1924 were $1,303. So the offer was only equal to a few year’s wages.

“Wages And Hours Of Labor In The Petroleum Industry, 1922. “. Hathitrust.

Sam was survived by his wife Viola Matilda Tower, five sons, and two daughters. The sons, Clarence, Roy, Lealon, Austin, and Loren, lived at home, while son Jesse resided at Morgan, Texas. The daughters, Bertha and Ethel, lived at home. Ethel was only 7 years old and Austin just 10. The other children were in their teens or grown. The McGhees had lost a young son, Elmer, just the year before.

Years later, Sam’s daughter Bertha shared her memories with her niece, Gail Lee Martin.

“Papa worked for hire with his team of horses helping farmers, grading roads for Montgomery County and hauling pipe in the new industry in Kansas — the oil fields. My earliest memories are of running to meet him as he came home from work. He would swing me up on the wagon seat to ride the few feet home with him making me feel so special.

At home, Papa loved to play the pump organ and when I would learn a new song at school or Sunday School or Campfire Girls, I would be eager to sing it to papa. Papa had a good tenor voice and sang in the choir at our local Methodist Church. He had learned music in Arkansas when a tuning fork was used to get the pitch and the melody was learned by singing do, re, me’s. So papa could take a piece of music and sing the notes until he had the melody in his head, then he’d set down and play it on the organ by ear – just adding chords for the left hand. 

Often on Sunday afternoon neighbors and friends would come visiting and stand around the organ to sing while papa played. On the back porch, Mama and the boys would make a freezer of ice-cream to be shared after the singing was finished.” 

For more of Bertha McGhee’s memories, visit the Our Echo site to read Sam McGhee, Memories of Hayrick Mound, and From Melbourn, Arkansas to Tyro, Kansas.

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