Monday, June 4, 2012

Census Sunday: Violetta Davis Ryan

OK, so I’m already behind, but I just thought of this idea today inspired by Jessica Green over at Random Mews.  My goal is to find a family member in the 1940 census and discuss my findings.  Except for this first one, the series will appear on Sunday because I can’t resist the alliteration. 

Until an index for the 1940 census is published, you have to know a family’s enumeration district in order to find them more easily.  That works if a person didn’t move between 1930 and 1940.  My great-aunt Violetta Davis Ryan is my first challenge because she was not married in 1930 and was living with her parents in Shenandoah, Virginia.  Fortunately, I know what her address was in 1940 because it was the apartment building she built and lived in most of her adult life.  I rarely get lucky when it comes to genealogy research, but this time I did.

Violetta and Virgil "Dick" Ryan

Violetta and her husband Virgil “Dick” Ryan were among the first Harrisonburg, Virginia residents to be enumerated.  They are family #11 on page 1A of E.D. 109-2, enumerated by Ruth Harnsberger on April 2.

Click to enlarge

Dick (who used his legal name Virgil for the census) was 41 years old, a native of Virginia and had completed four years of high school.  As a merchant at a newsstand, he worked 60 hours during the last week of March 1940 and earned $1000 in wages in 1939 working all 52 weeks.

Did Violetta earn $1800?  Or only $180?  It appears that the
enumerator started to write something but quit.

Violetta was 35 years old, a native of Virginia who completed four years of college.  She was a public school teacher who earned either $1800 or $180 (confusing mark) in 1939 working 35 weeks. 

She worked 40 hours during the last week of March 1940.  She and Dick owned their home, which was an apartment building worth $40,000.

473 S. Mason St, Harrisonburg, Virginia
4 apartments in the main house
2 apartments in the basement

Mary Frances Jollett Davis
on the front steps of Violetta's house
Violetta and Dick are listed as living in the Same Place in 1935, which means they lived in Harrisonburg but not at 473 South Mason St.  I wonder where they lived previously.  Living with them was Violetta’s mother, my great-grandmother Mary Frances Jollett Davis, who was the informant for the household.  In 1935, she was still living in Shenandoah after being widowed in 1934.  Mary Frances, age 70, had completed one year of high school.  She earned no income in 1939. 

In the 1940 census, whoever landed on line #14 and #29 was given supplemental questions to answer.

Because Mary Frances was #29, she provided the following information: 
1. both of her parents were born in Virginia
2. English was the language spoken in her childhood home
3. she was neither a veteran nor widow of a veteran
4. she did not have a Social Security number and naturally as a result had no deductions taken
5. her usual occupation was housewife
6. she was first married at age 19 and had been married only once. 

She evidently misunderstood the last question which was the number of children ever born not including stillbirths to which she replied “1.”  There were actually 6 children, 2 of whom died very young.  Now I wonder if she actually had 1 stillbirth.

While it is interesting to learn these odd bits of facts about my family, I’m more excited to learn who else lived in the apartment building.  The most prominent renters were Clyde Shorts and his wife Viola. Mr. Shorts was a professor of education at Madison College (now James Madison University).  His contributions to academia were honored by naming the first men's dorm for him.  Shorts Hall was constructed in 1968.  Back in the 70s, we always used to laugh at the irony of that name.

Shorts Hall
from Google Images

©2014, Wendy Mathias.  All rights reserved.


  1. It's amazing the things you can find out! As soon as you mentioned the other residents of the apartment building, my mind started filling with story ideas. That's what I love about research: it makes me more creative!

    Great post!

    1. A lot of interesting people rented from Violetta over the years. I'm sure there's a book in there somewhere, but not from this ol' keyboard.

  2. Let me correct an error in the essay. "That works if a person didn’t move between 1930 and 1940." This refers to using locational methods for finding ED numbers. If you have a 1940 address in over 1200 urban areas in 1940, we can go from that address to an Enumeration District number and through our Universal Viewer to the first page of that district's population schedule. See our "Unified Tool" at: where you can use a 1940 address, or convert a 1930 ED # to a 1940 ED #, or search the definitions of the EDs to help finding people on the unindexed census or in cases where the name index fails but you have the location of the individuals.

    Joel Weintraub
    Dana Point, CA

    1. You're absolutely right, and I didn't mean to imply it was impossible to find the enumeration district. I have actually used the ED finder at Frankly, I didn't consider explaining HOW to find the ED since it wasn't pertinent to my story. But I hope anyone else who happens by will see your helpful comment. I'm so honored that you visited my blog and took the time to comment.

  3. Glad to see you are off & running with the 1940 census!

  4. Those apartments of Violetta's were the best! I loved living there. A fire place in every apt. except the Tree Top apt. that Bobbie and Jimmy rented. I miss that building!

    It was too sweet that Dick drew a heart and placed Dick + Teddy (Violetta's childhood nickname) on the basement wall.

  5. I love how you have photos to go with your posts...I don't think that those hoops were when the dorms were you?
    Happy Tuesday1

    1. No, I don't think so. I'm pretty sure there wasn't that much concrete either.