Sunday, October 22, 2017

A Bitter Night of Peril

Early in the morning on November 20, 1930, my third great-grandparents Michael and Mary Jane (Andrus) Bair received distressing news.

Verda Esther (Bair) Byers
Their 28-year-old daughter Verda Esther sent word that her husband, Robert Byers, had been found frozen to death and she, along with their seven children, were stranded in Nevada.

Later that afternoon, Michael left his home in Plainville, Kansas and headed west. In the following days, the harrowing details of that evening began to come together.

Robert, Esther, and their seven children (all under the age of ten) were driving from Idaho to find work in California. Motoring across Nevada, a combination of poor weather and automobile problems culminated in the tragedy.

On December 4, 1930, the Plainville Times provided Esther's account:

"...the family left Buhl, Idaho, where Mr. Byers had been working, Nov. 13, heading for California, and were snowbound at Contact, Nev. till the 16th. They drove eleven miles to the Utah Construction Ranch on that date and stayed there till Tuesday noon. The water in the radiator became exhausted a point 24 miles out, on the way to Wells, Nevada. They were compelled to abandon the truck at that point and started on for Wells in a Studebaker, owned and occupied by a man and wife and little girl, who were taking the route with them. The combined party went about four miles when that car also ran out of water. The men did everything possible to get motive power from the car but failed. After sizing up the situation Mr. Byers suggested to his friend that he, Byers, had better seek help. The friend agreed, and Byers was up and gone before the party fully realized the hopelessness of the quest or could make their protest effective enough to detain him. He left between 6 and 7 o'clock in the evening on a 14 mile walk to Wells. The weather was extremely cold, and Byers was in an exhausted state before he began the journey, as he and his friend had helped two other parties over the divide that evening..."

Meanwhile, Esther and the rest waiting in the car were left in tormented hope that Robert would make the arduous journey to help.

"...The remaining members of the Byers party, eleven persons, put in a bitter night in the stalled motor, scantily clothed, and with no food since morning. One party passing who it seems was fearful of undertaking a rescue without additional aid, providing them with a few sandwiches and some coffee. There they remained until they were discovered by a sheep herder, whose camp was located about 300 yards west of where the motor stalled. They were taken to the sheep camp where the children were warmed and fed and the others comforted."

The newspaper editorialized the tragedy, surmising:

"The fact that food and warmth, counsel and assistance were so close at hand is both tragic and pitiful. If Bob Byers could have restrained his paternal impulses to seek aid for his suffering family for a single hour this tragedy might never have been written; but Bob's impulse was to seek aid for his wife and children and carried him into the bitter night with no sense of his own peril."

Robert's body was discovered mid-morning the next day "by two men who were driving north on the snow drifted highway." They notified authorities in Wells, and the coroner retrieved the body.

On the death certificate, the coroner noted that the "Deceased came to his death by exposure at a point 14 miles north of Wells on Contact-Twin Falls Road." The exact causes of death were determined to be "Exposure, worn out and freezing to death."

Michael Bair signed the death record as the official informant.

Robert's remains were returned to Plainville for burial. Esther eventually remarried and passed away at the age of 81 - a full life but not without bitter heartache.


  1. Hi cousin. Is this on your dad's side? What a tragedy!

    1. No, this is my mother's side. Esther was a sister to Nevella Lumpkins' mother.

  2. So very horrible for his wife. He couldn't have known help was so close at hand and did what he felt he had to do.

    1. It's true. I'm certain he did what he felt must be done, but it's all the more tragic considering how near the shepherd was to them.

  3. What an awful story---that poor family. It's a grim reminder of how risky these trips were back then. Today we take for granted that our cars will work and our cell phones will be available in case the cars don't work.

    1. I can't imagine all those people crammed into one vehicle during such inclement weather. Technology has made these journeys so much safer.