Monday, September 8, 2014

George Rutherfurd

George Rutherfurd was my great-grandfather; the much-beloved father of my Grandma, LaVerne Rutherfurd Smith.  For the first two years of his life, his name was George Roscoe Griffin.  His parents were Anne "Annie" Amelia Dickson and John T. Griffin, and he was the only child of their very brief marriage.  George was born on January 23, 1895 in Douglas, Wyoming, months after his parents separated.  There is no indication that he ever met or communicated with his natural father, John T. Griffin, who lived in Detroit.  When his mother, Annie, married Malcolm Brakspear Oliver Rutherfurd in 1897, George was adopted by his step-father.  His legal name became George Roscoe Oliver Rutherfurd.1

George as a baby in 1895

George spent the first seventeen years of his life in Douglas, Wyoming.  His mother Annie's family had settled there just a few years before George's birth, when one of Annie's brothers took a job in the Douglas telegraph office.  His stepfather, Malcolm, had arrived in Douglas as a Scottish immigrant intent on owning a cattle ranch.  After Malcolm and Annie were married, they had four boys of their own: Malcolm Archibald Oliver Rutherfurd (b. 1898), Archibald Dickson Oliver Rutherfurd (b. 1899), Robert Leslie Oliver Rutherfurd (b. 1903) and Arthur William Oliver Rutherfurd (b. 1906).  Apparently, George got along well with his half-brothers, but my grandmother always said that he was gentler than his younger siblings; more interested in academic and artistic pursuits.

George and his brothers

The ranch where George was raised was a busy place, and George and his brothers were expected to earn their keep.  From his earliest days, George was riding horses, doing chores and working with the cattle.  However, he liked to sneak away and visit with his maternal grandmother, Mary Bellangee Dickson, who read him poetry and encouraged his interest in literature. 

Mary Bellangee Dickson with her grandsons, George (left) and Malcolm (right)

There is some indication that George may have disliked the strictness of the household in which he was raised.  My uncle Tom Smith said that George, known to him as "Pappy," spoke of being beaten regularly for childhood misbehavior.  He claimed that Malcolm would beat or whip all five boys, something he described as "being beaten on Saturday for all the things they did wrong during the week."  Whether this was corporal punishment typical of its time or rose to another level is unknown, but it seems George objected to it.  George also told his grandson Tom that Malcolm's strict Presbyterian teachings put him off religion for life.

George in 1905, at age ten

George told his grandson, Tom Smith, a tale about growing up on the ranch in Douglas.  One day, Malcolm and Annie were away from the ranch, and a fox approached the family's chicken pen.  When the fox jumped up on the fence to attack the chickens, George grabbed a rifle to defend them.  He knew he was not allowed to use the rifle, but he also knew that he had to save the chickens.  He killed the fox.  When his mother and stepfather arrived home, Malcolm congratulated George on the kill, but then punished him for using the rifle.

The Rutherfurd ranch in Douglas, Wyoming

Malcolm Rutherfurd died suddenly on April 12, 1913.  He contracted pneumonia and was dead within days.  He was thirty-eight.  This unexpected loss had major consequences for Annie and the Rutherfurd boys.  Annie sold the ranch and took her children to Los Angeles.  Annie's parents, George and Mary Dickson, and her sister, Elizabeth Dickson, had moved to Oregon a few years before Malcolm's death, and shortly thereafter had moved again, to Los Angeles.  Upon the death of her husband, Annie decided to join her family in California.  Her parents and sister were soon reunited with Annie and the boys in Los Angeles and helped them settle into a new life.

Life on the ranch.  Malcolm Rutherfurd is second from the left in this photo.

This major life change occurred at a critical time in George's adolescence.  He was seventeen, on the verge of manhood.  Now, he was suddenly partially responsible for supporting his family.  He might never have had the opportunity to go to college had his stepfather lived, but once Malcolm died and the weight of responsibility became clear, that door was conclusively shut.  By all accounts, George was a very bright young man, one who would have loved academia and flourished at a university.  Beyond his passion for literature and poetry, George was fascinated by the sciences.  He had an endless curiosity for botany and geology.  He liked to paint and became interested in photography.  Arriving in Los Angeles, George set those interests aside to focus on earning a living.

At first, young George got work riding a horse in Western movies.  He'd grown up riding, so this was a natural fit for him. However, he soon became disenchanted with the treatment of the horses on set.  In those days, trip wires and prods were still being used to manipulate the animals, and George found it cruel.  Then, he took a job at Pacific Telegraph and Telephone.  He would remain there for the rest of his career.  This choice of employment had huge ramifications.  It would determine which branch of the armed services George entered during World War I, and it was the place where he would meet his wife.

To be continued...

1 A note about the Oliver Rutherfurd surname:  In the 1700s, the Scottish Rutherfurd family found themselves with only a female heir.  That heir, Jane Rutherfurd, married William Oliver in 1771.  The surnames were then combined, so that the Rutherfurd name would live on, and both were given to all the children in this family for many generations.  While the surname is technically Oliver Rutherfurd, in modern times only Rutherfurd is used on legal documents.


  1. Wonderful pictures and great post! Looking forward to reading the next installment.

  2. Thank you, Andrea! I just published the second installment. It's a little slow going right now-- very busy at work-- but I'm looking forward to continuing the story.