Today is the 92nd birthday of Bonnie Jean Warden. Bonnie is the mother of my son-in-law Curt, and the second oldest person in our extended family. The eldest is my Aunt Mary who is 96 years old.
Bonnie Brown was born in 1918 in Prue, Oklahoma. That tiny town – less than one square mile in area – is underwater now. It now lies under Lake Keystone which was created when the Keystone Dam was completed in 1964.
While she was little, Bonnie’s father, Marion Lee Brown and his wife Ollie Dell. a former school teacher, moved the family to another small town, Vera, Oklahoma. The population in Vera today is less than 200 people, but in its heydey, the town had two banks, a grain elevator, cotton gin, three grocery stores, a theater, the Farbear hotel, a lumber yard, three churches, two barber shops, the Yeager drug store, a telephone office, four restaurants, and seven large hay barns. One of the two barber shops, with a pool hall adjoining, was owned and operated by Bonnie’s dad who was always called “Lee”.
Bonnie’s six siblings were her sister Frances and five brothers, Morris, Ed, Charles, Clark and Ray. Bonnie and Frances were both basketball stars at Vera High School and they won the state basketball championship finals two years in a row.
Bonnie’s family was probably better off than many of the other people of Vera, but Oklahoma was hit badly by the Great Depression and the Dust Bowl Era. Massive dust storms blew away the soil from large tracts of arable land and deposited it on nearby farms and ranches and beyond. Many families – Bonnie’s included – migrated west to find work. She was about 18 years old at the time and had just graduated from high school.
This video clip describes the devastating situation during Oklahoma’s Dust Bowl era. If you’ve ever read John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath, you will understand what the environment was like in Oklahoma during Bonnie’s growing up years.
In The Grapes of Wrath, an Oklahoma family named Joad loses their farm during the Depression and journeys to California to become migrant workers. In Bonnie’s case, the family crowded into their 1932 Chevrolet and travelled to Washington. Morris, Ed, and her father all worked in the apple orchards. For a time, Bonnie worked in a fruit warehouse sorting apples. They lived in Wapato, Washington.
Later, she got a job as a telephone operator. In those days, the phone calls were actually connected by a live operator. Bonnie’s Dad called her the “Hello Girl”. One day, a friend of hers at the telephone company set her up with a blind date, His name was Bob Warden, and he was a sheep rancher from the Kartar Valley near Yakima, Washington.
Bonnie and Bob were married in Ellensburg, Washington in 1940. Their first daughter Roberta was born a year later, and little Gail soon followed. Around 1951, after his family’s ranch lost its sheep grazing rights, Bob moved Bonnie and their daughters to a ranch in Belvedere, Washington.
Bonnie and Bob had their 50th wedding anniversary in 1990, with many family members in attendance. Bob, a kind, cheerful person, worked hard all his life and was everybody’s vision of what a “good husband and father” should be. He died too soon in 1992.
And as you can tell, the photographer – my granddaughter Josie – doesn’t have to coax to get a smile out of her.
Happy birthday, Bonnie. You still look like the perfect “Hello Girl”.