Claude F. Congleton – AKA “Buster Brown”

In October 1903, Eugenia Selestine Hoar, daughter of Benjamin Franklin and Eugenia Chichester Hoar of Healdsburg married A. Claude Congleton, son of Agnes Call Congleton Wilson of Bailhache Avenue. The young couple set up housekeeping in Healdsburg and on February 13, 1905 their son Claude Franklin Congleton was born. Eugenia, better known as Jennie or Birdie, and baby Claude kept the home fires burning while Daddy Claude was away working as a brakeman for the Railroad.

Tragedy struck the young family early on when, in December 1906, just one day before his twenty-fifth birthday, A. Claude was killed while working on the train to Eureka, California. Little Claude F. was not even two years old at the time, so he never got the chance to know his father.

AN EXTENDED FAMILY

In June 1909, when Claude was six, his mother married George Taeuffer, who was the

PHOTO 1
Claude F. Congleton in striped shirt seated on George Taeuffer’s knee with Birdie Taeuffer standing next to them. Mae and John Taeuffer are to the right. Ernest and Sophie Taeuffer are at the far right. Seated from the left are: unknown, Dorothy and Ernest Taeuffer, and Helen Wilson.

brother-in-law of her late husband’s sister, Mae Congleton Taeuffer. George soon took Claude under his wing and made him a part of the Taeuffer family. In May 1910, the Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar reported that “George Taeuffer and son, Claude, returned to their home over on the West Side Monday after a stay of two weeks with Mr. and Mrs. E. Taeuffer.”

 

PHOTO 2
From the left: Dorothy and Ernest Taeuffer, Claude F. Congleton, and Helen Wilson playing with a litter of kittens.

Luckily for Claude, he had two cousins and an aunt who were close to him in age. Cousins Ernest and Dorothy Taeuffer were three years and one year older, respectively. His aunt Helen Wilson was just two years older. The four children were inseparable. Fancy parties were held frequently, particularly for the little girls. In 1910, for example, Dorothy Taeuffer hosted a party for her little friends where “chocolate, bread and butter and cake were served in her own wee dishes.” Birthday parties typically included favors or souvenirs for all in attendance in addition to the traditional cake and ice cream.

In 1912 when Claude was seven, his half-brother, George Edwin Taeuffer was born. Possibly in an effort to give the new mother a little break, Claude began being included in excursions with his grandparents, Agnes and Albert Wilson. In 1913 he enjoyed a two-week trip to the Wilson’s cottage in Jenner along with his aunt Helen. The John Taeuffer family including young Ernest and Dorothy joined the group for a portion of that seaside vacation.

A PROPHETIC NICKNAME

The popular comic strip “Buster Brown”, depicting a conservatively dressed boy who behaved mischievously, created in 1902 by Richard F. Outcault for the New York Herald was in its heyday when Claude was a child. The recurring theme of the comic was that each time the naughty Buster’s misdeeds were discovered he would always promise to behave better, but of course he never did. Claude’s mother chose to dress her son in the style of Buster Brown and he would soon become known by that nickname. The name was so pervasive that his cousin, Mildred Harris Farrell, who was only three when Claude died, would recall it seventy years later.

Claude’s experience in grammar school was a mixture of academic struggle and extracurricular fun. He was held back in the second grade and his promotion from fifth to sixth grade was only “conditional.” Yet he participated in the Healdsburg Grammar School Bazaar Mother Goose Pageant held in June 1916 performing “Sing a Song of Sixpence” as part of a chorus of 4th graders and then again as part of the 5th grade “Tinker’s Chorus” the following May. He also recited “Spare That Tree” at the Burbank and Arbor Day Program celebrating both Luther Burbank’s birthday and Arbor Day in March 1918.

His mischievous behavior started catching up to him when in April 1917 it was reported in the newspaper that Deputy Game Warden Henry Lencioni had caught twelve-year old Claude and his friend Fred Mason on Mill Creek fishing before the season had opened. The boys were in possession of a total of 163 trout which were confiscated and taken to the Detention Home were the children there reportedly enjoyed a fine fish dinner. The incident even made it into the California Fish and Game Commission Report for the year where parents were warned that such behavior by youngsters would no longer be tolerated on account of their “tender years” and offenders would be prosecuted without exception.

In June 1920, Claude completed grammar school and was promoted to high school. But academics were not in his future. The following month, at the age of fifteen, he traveled to San Francisco with his mother and step-father to enlist in the U.S. Navy.

THE NAVY WILL MAKE A MAN OUT OF HIM

On July 20, 1920, Claude F. Congleton enlisted in the U.S. Navy for a period of three years. Because he was not yet eighteen, his mother had to sign a consent form. Claude was actually only fifteen at the time, which was apparently too young for enlistment. So Birdie Taeuffer signed an oath swearing that his birth year was 1903 rather than 1905, which would have made him seventeen. At the time he was described as being 5 feet 6 inches tall, 139 lb., with light brown eyes, brown hair and a ruddy complexion. On his insurance paperwork he listed his mother Birdie Taeuffer and his brother George Edwin Taeuffer as his beneficiaries.

After enlistment at the Naval Recruitment Station in San Francisco, California, Claude traveled to the Navel Training Station at Great Lakes, Illinois, arriving on July 31st. There he began his training as an Apprentice Seaman.

PHOTO 4 - USS Prairie 1919On October 11, 1920 Claude began his first assignment on the USS Prairie in San Diego. The ship was originally built in 1890 to be an ocean liner. It was acquired by the U.S. Navy in 1898 and re-fitted. It then would be decommissioned and recommissioned three times before the U.S. entered the Great War in 1917 at which point it was converted into a destroyer tender. Claude served aboard her until her final decommissioning in November 1922. At that time, he was transferred onto PHOTO 5 - USS Nechesthe USS Neches where he served the remainder of his 3-year hitch. The USS Neches was a much more modern ship having been commissioned in late 1920.

Claude’s Navy service record does not indicate that he received any academic training nor did he receive any training in small arms or rifles. He did, however, get into a number of scrapes with various offences listed including; being out of uniform, AWOL for a few hours, gambling, using obscene language, wearing a dirty uniform at inspection, repeatedly absent from muster and for sporting a “non-regulation haircut.” His punishments for these offences included being fined, being put on restriction, and even a day of solitary confinement. Considering the fact that he was a 15 to 18 year old boy away from home for the first time in his life, these behaviors could pretty much all fall into the category of youthful transgressions.

But in spite of the list of errors he made, at the end of his 3-year stint, on July 19, 1923 Claude F. Congleton received an honorable discharge with the rank of Seaman 2nd Class and a recommendation for reenlistment. He was discharged at Port Angeles, Washington and given funds to pay for his transportation back to his point of enlistment, San Francisco.

FALLING IN WITH THE WRONG CROWD

After leaving the Navy, Claude made his way from Washington State back to Healdsburg where he just didn’t seem to be able to stay out of trouble. His name was back in the newspaper when in 1925 he was called before the Justice of the Peace on a charge of driving with no tail light.

It was soon thereafter when he found work at the Healdsburg Concrete Pipe Company. Nevertheless, he apparently could not resist the lure of easy money. The state fishing commission suspected that a gang of salmon poachers was operating on the Russian River at that time. It would turn out that Claude was among their number. This choice would prove to be the worst one of Claude’s life.

On the evening of Saturday, December 18, 1926 Claude drove a borrowed Nash roadster to the Tucker Street home of his boss at the concrete plant, Alfred Sousa. He and his friend known only as Shipp had been drinking. They convinced Sousa to drive them to the Grant gravel plant shed about 100 yards upstream from the railroad bridge on the Russian River. There they were met by several other young men, including Delano Grant, in a Ford coupe. Around 11:00 pm Claude proceeded to the shore of the river and got into a small rowboat without oars, determined to collect the illegal net they had set in the river several hours earlier to catch salmon. Sousa tried to dissuade him, urging him to wait for the morning. But it was to no avail, and the young man pushed off into the river. In a few minutes those on the shore heard a splash. A hurried search yielded the empty boat, but no Claude, and it was suggested that perhaps he had crawled to shore and gone home.

Around 12:30 am, Alfred Sousa went to the North Street home of Claude’s parents, George and Birdie Taeuffer, to inform them of the evening’s events. It was 2:00 am when the police were notified. They proceeded immediately to the river where they found the rowboat with the weighted fishing net pulled most of the way inside, lodged against snags and willows under the highway bridge, but no sign of Claude.

PHOTO 6At first light on Sunday morning, the search began in earnest. Six local men probed the river with poles, working their way from the railroad bridge to the highway bridge. When that search was unsuccessful, the river was dragged with a net for more than 200 yards. Nat Pettenfill was one of the men who spent all day Sunday working at the river with a ten-foot pole. He returned to his gruesome task the next day and finally, at 9:30 am Monday, Nat Pettenfill of Front Street hooked the coat worn by Claude and pulled his lifeless body to shore.

The Coroner’s inquest was held that afternoon at the funeral parlors of Fred Young & Company. Henry Lencioni, now Captain of the county game wardens, who had arrested Claude nine years earlier for fishing out of season, came up from Santa Rosa to confiscate the net, which would later be destroyed. Other agents of the Fishing Commission scrutinized the crowd in an effort to identify members of the alleged salmon poaching gang. The inquest concluded with a determination that the cause of death had been accidental drowning. The newspapers were full of the grizzly details of the story and the Healdsburg Tribune even went so far as to point out that Claude’s death had come exactly 20 years to the month after his father’s violent death by the train. On Wednesday, December 22, 1926, twenty-one year-old Claude F. Congleton was laid to rest in Oak Mound Cemetery beside his father.

EPILOGUE

Although there may not have been any great accomplishments that can be attributed to Claude F. Congleton during his short life, it is worth noting that he did receive one posthumous honor. He must have made an impression on his younger half-brother because in 1942 Ed Taeuffer would name his first-born son in memory of his late brother, Claude.

 

Sources:
California Marriages, 1850 – 1952
Healdsburg California Death Certificates, 1905 – 1915
http://www.britannia.com
Healdsburg Tribune, Enterprise and Scimitar: 5 January 1910, 25 May 1910, 10 July 1913, 23 June 1917, 26 April 1917,
Healdsburg Enterprise: 18 June 1910, 1 June 1912, 15 June 1912, 10 August 1912, 12 October 1912, 12 June 1913, 30 May 1914, 10 June 1916, 12 May 1917, 9 March 1918, 26 June 1920, 24 July 1920, 23 December 1926
Healdsburg Tribune: 15 October 1925, 20 December 1926, 21 December 1926
Sotoyome Scimitar: 21 December 1926
California Fish and Game Commission Report 1917
Conversation with Mildred Harris Farrell
Navy Service Record for Claude Franklin Congleton
Dictionary of American Naval Fighting Ships
Wikipedia

 

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