Dorothea Lange caption: Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner. Living in American River camp near Sacramento, California, November 1936.
In 2008, I saw this sad, beautiful, empathetic Dorothea Lange picture of a young woman with no name. Lange seldom identified her subjects, nor did most of the photographers that worked for the Resettlement Administration, created in 1935 by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, and reorganized in 1937 as the Farm Security Administration. I checked the Lange collection on the Library of Congress website and located two more pictures of the girl, and one of an unidentified family member.
Dorothea Lange caption: Daughter of migrant Tennessee coal miner. Living in the American River Camp near Sacramento, California, November 1936.
Dorothea Lange caption: Home of Tennessee family of seven, now migratory workers living in camp outside of Sacramento, California. Father was coal miner in Tennessee but when the mines were not working received two days a week relief work. “Thought we could make it better out here.” November 1936.
Dorothea Lange caption: American River camp, Sacramento. Home of Tennessee family, now migratory workers. Seven in family, came to California July 1935, following relatives who had come in 1933. Father was a coal miner in Tennessee. Reason for coming to California. “Our neighbors were coming. We only got one or two days work a week (relief.) Thought we could make it better here.” Since arrival family has worked in walnuts, tomatoes, peaches, and the mother has worked in a fruit cannery. November 1936.
I desperately wanted to know who the girl was and what happened to her. Having no other apparent option, I contacted the Sacramento Bee and persuaded a reporter, Dixie Reed, to publish the first photo, and an article about my search for the girl. In her article, she stated that she talked to Jan Goggins, author of an upcoming book about Lange. Goggins told her that Lange stated in her field notes that the girl’s first name was Ruby and that she was suffering from tuberculosis.
The article failed to turn up any useful information. There was little else I could do. Public availability of the 1940 census was four years away, but even if it were available, without a last name, it would be a near hopeless task. So I went to my website and posted two of the photos and their captions, and what I knew up to that point, hoping that someday, someone would see it and recognize her.
Nine years later, on February 8, 2017, I received this email:
“I’m Tori Masucci Cummins, a journalist in Sacramento. I stumbled across your page while researching some of Dorothea Lange’s photographs. The Oakland Museum of California is launching an extensive exhibit of Lange’s work in May and I’m writing about that for Sactown Magazine, where I work. I saw your story about the migrant girl and was instantly enthralled. Have you made any progress with finding Ruby? I work in downtown Sacramento, right near the state archives and library, and would love to help you find her.”
I replied right away and told her that I hadn’t found any new information, and to go ahead and give it a try. In less than 24 hours, I received her amazing reply.
“I think I may have found a lead on Ruby. I figured she must have been about 16-20 years old when the photo was taken, based on the fact that Lange still refers to her as a “girl,” and she looks about those ages—so beautiful despite probably enduring so many hardships already in her life.”
“I searched the US Census in 1940 for anyone named Ruby in California, born between 1916 and 1920, and from Tennessee (the 1940 census includes residence in 1935). For the birth date of 1917, a result came up for a Ruby Nell Shepherd, age 23, living in Sacramento and from Johnson City, Tennessee.”
“The census lists a John Garland (58) and Anna E. Garland (46) with their six children: Lawrence J Garland (26), Ruby Nell Shepherd (23), Fred Allen Garland (21), Harold R. Garland (18), Helen V. Garland (14), and Billy A. Garland (7), living together in North Sacramento in the area of Gardenland. The census also lists their occupations (all laborers). Ruby is listed as a sorter at a cannery. If that’s the Ruby we are looking for, she would have been about 19 years old when Lange snapped the photo. I know that Gardenland is in the American River basin. It’s just a few neighborhoods away from where I live.”
“But if the census was taken early in 1940, and Lange’s photo was taken at the end of 1936, would Ruby’s family have stayed there in the migrant camp for three years working? Perhaps they would move with the crops and then return there? And was she married at that time but separated and living with her family? Who is her husband with the last name Shepherd? The census also lists a family named Estes from Johnson City, Tenn., in the same lot as the Garlands. Perhaps they could have been the neighbors mentioned in Lange’s notes.”
“On Ancestry.com, there’s a photograph taken in 1969 for a Ruby Nell Garland (1916-1970), but I don’t have a membership, so I can’t access the file. I have access to the Sacramento Bee archives but nothing came up for a “Ruby Garland” or “Ruby Shepherd,” but I found the death announcements for her father John and mother Anna (referred to as Annie Elizabeth) in 1962 and 1956, respectively. They are attached. The obits list the children and include Ruby with the last name of Piersall, living in Sebastopol. I couldn’t find anything about a Ruby Piersall online, but perhaps she married and then divorced or became widowed and went back to her maiden name before she passed away.”
“I could be way off. Maybe Ruby is short for something and it’s a completely different girl and family. But I’m feeling quite invested now. Where do we go from here?”
“Your research is brilliant. I agree with all of your suppositions as to why Ruby Nell Garland Shepherd could be the right one. I found the photo of Ruby you referred to on Ancestry.com. Compare it to the Lange photo. In my opinion, the similarities are striking…the mouth, eyes, and eyebrows.”
“Fantastic! I agree that looks like her. Even the hairline and nose look similar to me.”
The next day, I found another photo of Ruby Nell Garland posted on Ancestry. This one appears to be taken when she was in her late teens or early twenties. She looked exactly like Ruby in the Lange photos.
At that point, I knew we had the correct Ruby. I also found the obituary and gravestone for Ruby Nell Piersall. And I learned that Ruby was married to James Howard Shepard (correct spelling of last name) when she was photographed by Lange, but she was apparently separated from him then.
Armed with these facts, information started pouring in from many online sources: census, vital records, and newspaper archives. And then I found one of Ruby’s nephews, Gary Garland, who was listed as the contact person for a family history posting on Ancestry.com. I emailed him through Ancestry, he replied, and then I called him. He referred me to Donna Paxton, one of Ruby’s nieces. A month later, I interviewed her, and she subsequently sent me some family photos of Ruby. Below is Ruby’s story, followed by the interview with Donna Paxton.
Ruby Nell Garland was born in Virginia on December 10, 1916, the daughter of John and Annie Elizabeth (Stanley) Garland, who married in Tennessee on September 9, 1912. She was the second of six children. In 1930, the family was living in Sullivan, Tennessee, where John worked in a silk mill. They rented their home.
In 1935, they lived in Johnson City, Tennessee. On November 2, 1935, Ruby married James Howard Shepard in Johnson City. Mr. Shepard, known as “Howard,” was born in Adrian, Michigan, on January 2, 1915, the son of Henry and Emmaline Shepard. (From this point on, I will refer to him as Howard.)
According to Dorothea Lange’s captions, the Garlands arrived in California in July of 1935, after a rugged drive of more than 2,500 miles, often on dusty unimproved roads. It appears that Ruby stayed behind, at least long enough to marry Howard in November. A year later, Ruby was with her family when Lange showed up with her camera. It is not known whether Howard was with her when she joined her family.
In 1938, Ruby and Howard were in Adrian, Michigan, when Ruby gave birth to their first child, Gerald Wayne Shepard, on March 7. Sadly, their son died a week later of pneumonia. Since Howard was born in Adrian, he might have had relatives there, but I was not able to establish whether they were living there or just visiting.
After that, Ruby probably returned immediately to California to be with her parents, but it is not known whether Howard went with her. But according to the 1940 census, Ruby was living with her parents in the American River camp, and Howard was living with his parents in Elizabeth, Tennessee. By 1942, the Garlands lived in Placerville, California, about 50 miles east of Sacramento. John was working for Rohrer Bros, Inc., a large fruit and vegetable wholesaler that still exists.
In 1944, Ruby divorced Howard on grounds of desertion. Howard remarried, to Lucille Prince in Faulkner County, Arkansas, on May 16, 1945. That was the location of her parents’ home. But at the time of the marriage, Howard and Lucille were residing together in Stockton, California. They already had one child, Deanna Lee, who was born to Lucille on August 25, 1944, in San Joaquin County, California. Their second child, Gary Gerald Wayne, was born on November 14, 1945, also in San Joaquin County. They had one more child, a daughter named Della Mae. On February 19, 1948, Howard Shepard died at his parents’ home in Johnson City. He was 33 years old. He had been living with his wife and children in Booneville, Arkansas.
Ruby remarried around 1950, to Richard Sherman Piersall (known as Sherman). They lived in Sebastopol, California, about 100 miles west of Sacramento. Sherman owned and operated an auto upholstery and auto glass business on their property. Ruby passed away on December 7, 1970, three days before her 54th birthday. Sherman died in Yuma, Arizona, in 2001. He was 94.
Edited interview with Donna Paxton (DP), niece of Ruby Nell Shepard. Interview conducted by Joe Manning (JM) on May 29, 2017.
JM: What year were you born?
JM: Where were you living then?
JM: In my research, I found out that when Ruby was photographed in 1936, she was married to James Shepard; but according to the 1940 census, she was no longer living with him, she was living with her parents. Are you aware that she had been married to Mr. Shepard?
DP: Not until long after she died. I now have her marriage certificate and also have the decree from when she divorced Mr. Shepard in 1944. The decree says he was charged with willful desertion. Later, she married Richard Sherman Piersall, who was always called Sherman.
JM: Did Ruby have any children?
DP: Yes. I didn’t know that until 2005, when I found a record of it in my parents’ family Bible. His name was Joe Wayne Shepard. He was born March 7, 1938, in Michigan.
JM: Why Michigan?
DP: I have no idea. He died in Michigan a week later, on March 14, 1938.
JM: I found James Shepard’s obituary. He died at the age of 33 in Booneville, Arkansas. In the obituary, he was survived by his parents, his second wife, and three children: Wayne, Deanna, and Della Mae. I tried to locate those children, but found nothing.
DP: It’s interesting that the boy is named Wayne, and that the middle name of the boy that died in Michigan was also Wayne. When we found out about the child that died, my sister and I asked some questions about it. My mother said that Ruby was very distraught about losing the child. She also said that she had heard that Ruby and James, who was called Howard, his middle name, lived with his parents. At some point, he left her when they were living in California. So she went to stay with her parents.
JM: So when the baby died, Ruby and James moved from Michigan to California?
DP: I believe so.
JM: When did Ruby marry Sherman?
DP: I have no record of that. But I think it may have been about 1950. My dad said that when Ruby’s parents were living in tents somewhere on the banks of the Sacramento River, Sherman was at the tent camp for some reason and met Ruby, and they dated a couple of times. And then there was a really bad winter, and a lot of people had pneumonia and were dying in the tent camp. Ruby was very sick at the time. She told Sherman that she couldn’t stand to live there anymore and asked if he would take her in, and in return, she would take care of the house. So he agreed, and he took her home, and also took her to a doctor. They were married shortly after that.
JM: What was Ruby like?
DP: Out of all us kids, I was probably the closest to her. They lived in Sebastopol, and every summer, I would stay one or two weeks with her. She was wonderful and fun-loving and sang a lot. She taught me to cook and sew. She was a sweet and caring person. All of my cousins adored her. I remember that she had one of those round boxes that you put face powder in. She would hide her mad money in it. Whenever we kids were around, she would flip us a dollar bill from there, and it always smelled so good.
JM: What kinds of things did you do with her?
DP: We always made several trips to Bodega Bay. We’d walk along the beach, build a big fire, and wade in the water. Sebastopol has lots of apple trees, and we would walk around where they were growing. Ruby and Sherman lived near a Buddhist temple. It’s quite famous. It’s on the Gravenstein Highway. They would have festivals there sometimes, and we would go. They loved to camp in their motor home. My parents also did that in the summer. Uncle Sherman had a boat. Aunt Ruby fished in some of the lakes around there. When I was in my twenties, my parents and Ruby and Sherman became obsessed with the desert. So they would take the campers and spend a week out in the desert. They would ride around on those little motor bikes.
JM: When you knew her, did she ever have a job?
DP: No. But before I knew her, she worked in a cannery, and I think that during WWII, she was a telephone operator.
JM: What did Sherman do?
DP: He owned an auto shop, and they lived upstairs in the building. He did upholstery for car seats. He did the upholstery for all the cars owned by Charles Schulz, who did the Peanuts comic strip.
JM: What was Uncle Sherman like?
DP: He was very strict, kind of gruff. But I loved him dearly. He was always nice to me. He loved Ruby unconditionally. She was the love of his life. He would do little magic tricks for us when we were little. When Ruby got sick with breast cancer, I think he wanted my mom to help out, but she couldn’t, and that caused some bad feelings in the family. At the funeral, the Garlands were on one side and the Piersalls were on the other side, and they did not speak. Sherman did not contact or talk to the family after Ruby died. My dad says he remembers seeing his obituary in the Sacramento Bee.
JM: Did Ruby tell you about having to live in the tent camps?
DP: The only thing she told me was that it was really hard in those days traveling from Tennessee to California. They had to live in tents when they got there, and they had to find some kind of work. They thought it was going to be wonderful in California, but of course, it wasn’t. Eventually, my grandfather found work and it was better then.
JM: I have a picture of her that I found on Ancestry.com. It was taken on August 23, 1969, just a year before she died.
DP: That was my wedding day. The picture was taken at my parents’ home.
JM: What else can you tell me about Ruby?
DP: She was a wonderful seamstress. Any time my sister and I saw a dress we wanted, she could make it for us. We were happy as could be. We would go with her and pick out the material. I remember one time when I was 18, I fell in love with a dress in the window, but it was way too expensive. She picked out the pattern and we picked out the material. I was wearing that dress the day I met my future husband’s parents. They were very impressed, but I never said anything about my aunt making it for me.
A special thanks to journalist Tori Masucci Cummins for her assistance in identifying Ruby.
*Story published in 2017.