When the Great Depression struck in 1929, many people lost their jobs and were struggling to maintain their former lifestyles. My 2nd great grandparents, Thomas and Jessie Robinson, were no exception. My unusual source is a job application that Thomas filled out in 1931 after he had either lost or left his job with the Nashville Bridge Company.
Thomas, in the words of his son, was a self-made man. He was born to Samuel D. and Sallie (Cassetty) Robinson on 18 Feb 1873 in Nashville, Tennessee. Samuel had moved to Nashville just before the beginning of the Civil War. He served throughout the duration of the war and returned home after the surrender. He married Sallie in 1869 at the home of her father, Thomas D. Cassetty, on Spruce Street. Samuel was a very interesting man. He worked for several Nashville newspapers as a typographer for about 30 years and was active in the Tennessee Historical Society, Typographical Union, Frank Cheatham Bivouac, and the Sons of Temperance. He and Sallie only had 1 child, Thomas Henry, most likely named for Sallie’s father and Samuel’s brother who died in the Civil War. Sadly, Thomas lost his mother when he was 13 years old and his father died of pneumonia when he was 18 years old. I think this is what Thomas’s son meant by a self-made man. Thomas lost both parents by the age of 18, his paternal grandparents had been dead for many years, and his maternal grandfather died a few years earlier. He had few relatives still living apart from some of his maternal grandmother and Cassetty aunts, uncles, and cousins. Without his parents, Thomas was alone and had to rely on his relatives for help.
Samuel never purchased property in Nashville. Instead, he lived with his in-laws and rented property throughout the city. So, when he died, Thomas moved in with his grandmother, Matilda Cassetty. His uncle, W. M. Cassetty, offered him a job at the Cassetty Oil Company as a clerk, which he took. After the death of his grandmother, he moved once again, this time to his Aunt Ollie and Uncle John Roberts. He worked for the Cassetty Oil Company until 1897, when he married Jessie, and soon after their honeymoon, they moved to St. Louis. Thomas and Jessie only lived there for a short while, and they were back in Nashville by 1900. Thomas was once again working for his uncle, this time as a traveling salesman.
In 1908, he took a new job as a civil engineer who served as a traveling agent and contractor with the Nashville Bridge Company. He helped build bridges all over the southeast and was the most successful contractor in Nashville. Because of this, he was able to provide his family with everything they needed – beautiful houses in exclusive neighborhoods, cars, jewelry, private schools, and vacations. But by the end of the 20s, Thomas’s life started to take a turn downward. He was not the most upstanding man in some ways, and losing his job after the Depression hit was the first in a series of bad events that eventually culminated in his death in 1937.
He was then in need of a new job, so he applied, or at least filled out an application, for a engineering position with Du Pont. Whether or not he ever sent in the application is unknown, and as far as I know, he never worked for Du Pont. But the application itself is fascinating. Here are a few of the most interesting observations I made about the application:
- Like most applications, it asked for personal details like full name, birthday, address, etc. This seems pretty basic, but I saw that Thomas lied about one very important detail: his birthday! He gave it as February 18, 1875 instead of 1873. Thomas was a very meticulous person, I am sure this was not an accident. I wondered if he lied about his age so that he appeared younger than he was to be more attractive to employers.
- The application asked for the names of his parents and their birthplaces. I thought this was unusual, but it was helpful genealogically speaking. It helped me connect Samuel Robinson of Nashville to the Samuel Robinson of Winchester, Tennessee and the Cassetty family of Nashville to the Cassetty family of Gainesboro, Tennessee.
- The application asked for his previous employment history, which helped me determine when he began working for the Cassetty Oil Company, when he moved to St. Louis, how long he worked for the Nashville Bridge Company, and why he left all of those positions.
- The final, and to me, most interesting section, was his educational background. I knew that he was a civil engineer, so he had to have attended college at some point, but my family had no idea where. While in his 20s, he moved to Chicago and attended the Armour College of Engineering. Unfortunately, he did not graduate from the institution because of “insufficient funds.” He finished his degree in Nashville, and to my surprise, he also received his law degree. At one point, he was the only man in Tennessee to hold both degrees simultaneously.
This application gave me so much insight into the mind of my 2nd great grandfather. Sometimes, it pays to keep items that seem insignificant, because very often the opposite is true!