Big On Talent

Week 32: #52 Ancestors – Small

By Eilene Lyon

The first thing the prompt brought to mind is this photograph I received at a family reunion last year. It isn’t the only image of Elmer Jens Davis, but it is particularly striking. He’s the short man standing in front on the right. Behind him is his older brother, Franklin C. Davis. The man on the far left is unknown and the other two are Frank’s sons, Perry and Elmer.

The men are clearly posed for a hunt. I would guess the location is somewhere near Deary, Idaho. The Davis family homesteaded south of Deary on Texas Ridge, but by the early 20th century, they had all moved off the ridge to nearby towns, including Moscow.

This family portrait has been dated to 1893 when Elmer, the second youngest, was 12 years old. It was already clear that he was not destined to be a tall man like his father, or Frank, who towers over the family standing in back.

Davis1893 001
(Click to enlarge)

In 1910, Elmer and his widowed mother, Sarah, lived in east Moscow and he worked as a paper hanger, a job he continued through life, eventually adding painting as part of his services.1 Sarah lived with a daughter in California when the 1920 census came around, but Elmer did not get enumerated.

The Sarah Davis home in Moscow, where she and Elmer lived in 1910. (E. Lyon 2013)

However, Sarah and Elmer were living in Walla Walla County, Washington, in March 1922. Elmer had located a homestead just east of what is now the McNary National Wildlife Refuge, near Pasco, at the junction of the Columbia and Snake Rivers. He received his patent for 160 acres in October of that year.2

Writing from the homestead, Sarah Davis conveys a good idea of the lifestyle: “We sold our cow, haveing no water only what we haul from the ditch. It was too much work to have the care of so much milk and so far to go with the cream and no good place to keep the milk to keep the dust out of it.

“We haven’t much livestock around us, two horses, 3 sheep, two cats. The cats think they are a part of the place. They go around with Elmer while he is doing the chores. They take a nap in the house after supper and when they think it is towards bedtime they want to get out and take a play and get in their box for the night.

“We have about 35 hens, 2 big roosters, one of them lasts us till we are tired of it. Have 4 hens setting. We want to have a big bunch of broilers for July or August. That is as far as we have planned.”3 Sarah passed away in Moscow about a year after writing this.

McNary land
Google Earth image of the McNary NWR. Elmer’s homestead lay near the right edge of the photograph among the irrigated crop circles.

Elmer married at age 50 to a widow, Etta (Sittkus) Tate, who had three grown children. The ceremony took place in Colfax, Washington, on December 16, 1931 and they spent Christmas in Princeton, Idaho. After Christmas they visited Etta’s younger son in Lewiston, before settling in Moscow, where both had been living before the marriage.4

My grandmother shared her recollections of her Uncle Elmer in an interview in 2002:

“Uncle Elmer was small, a short man, but perfectly formed and agile. Some of the older ones [Davis children] were tall, big kids, but Uncle Elmer could hold his own, especially in matters concerning music. He was a born musician. He could play a violin, a xylophone, bells, trumpet, all sorts of things.

“If you wanted to learn to play an instrument, Uncle Elmer was your man. He always had a little band/orchestra organized so we could practice. We never became proficient, but we all appreciated Uncle Elmer, especially his violin playing. He was good at every instrument he played. He may have been short, but he certainly wasn’t short on musical ability.”5

Just how short was Elmer? According to his WWII registration, he came up to five-foot-one-inch. 6

DavisMCHome restoration - Val Erde 2019_EL
Another image contrasting the height of Frank Davis (left) and Elmer (with bicycle). Taken at the Texas Ridge homestead in 1902. Restoration by Val Erde. (Click to enlarge)

  1. Elmer J. Davis. Year: 1910; Census Place: Moscow, Latah, Idaho; Roll: T624_225; Page: 3A; Enumeration District: 0187; FHL microfilm: 1374238 – via Other census records and Elmer’s obituary confirm his career as a paper hanger and painter. 
  3. Letter from Sarah R. Davis to Mr. S. P. Davis, March 21, 1922 mailed from Wallula, Washington. Collection of the author. 
  4. Spokane Chronicle, December 31, 1931, p. 19 – via 
  5. Abstract of recorded oral interview with Clare (Davis) Smith, May 26, 2002. 
  6. Elmer J. Davis. U.S., World War II Draft Registration Cards, 1942 [database on-line]. Lehi, UT, USA: Operations, Inc., 2010. 

30 thoughts on “Big On Talent

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  1. Interesting story. He seems not to have let his lack of height get in his way, or maybe it prompted him to find ways to be noticed in compensation. That large family group is slightly scary. I know they weren’t supposed to smile in photographs, but I wouldn’t like to meet any of them on a dark night…

    Liked by 2 people

  2. Those people who can pick up any instrument and play it always amaze me 🙂 As I still struggle to learn violin, I could benefit from a few lessons from Uncle Elmer! 🙂 Wonderful pictures and family history as usual

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  3. Yours is the second blog on this prompt I’ve read—and both were about men who were five foot one! That seems quite short for a man, even for those times. Elmer sounds like quite an talented and interesting man. How was he related to you? I think I missed that!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Clearly the house has been lovingly cared for/restored. I expect it was probably not quite so elaborately painted a century ago. But I could be wrong about that.

      I’m sure I would have enjoyed meeting Elmer. I asked my aunt about him the other day, but she never met him. She said her cousins enjoyed calling him “Great Uncle” because it was ironic in light of his height.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I’m always interested in the one who stands out in a crowd, and he definitely stands out. First by his height (rather, lack of), then by his manner of dress. I love that he was a fine musician! He’d be a great character for a novel. 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

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