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Stuart woman recalls life in years around recently released 1940 census

Reba Erlene Masterson was 11 years old when this picture was taken in 1939.


Reba Erlene Masterson was 11 years old when this picture was taken in 1939.

Reba Shepard, education director of the Martin County Genealogical Society, organizes paperwork before starting her search of the 1940 census records on the National Archives website Tuesday in the Special Collections room at the Blake Library in Stuart. The 1940 census information was released April 2.

Photo by Grayson Hoffman, special to Treasure Coast Newspapers

Reba Shepard, education director of the Martin County Genealogical Society, organizes paperwork before starting her search of the 1940 census records on the National Archives website Tuesday in the Special Collections room at the Blake Library in Stuart. The 1940 census information was released April 2.

STUART — When the enumerator for the 1940 U.S. Census counted 11-year-old Reba Masterson, her parents, Delmer and Clara Masterson, had just moved the family home to Seventh Street in Grove, Okla.

Literally moved the family home, that is.

“We had the same house in three different locations,” said Reba Masterson Shepard of Stuart, education director and vice president of the Martin County Genealogy Society, who was born Sept. 2, 1928, in Picher, Okla., and grew up in nearby Grove.

The sheet of paper filled out by the census taker showing the old house’s new location and information about the Masterson family is one of more than 3.8 million digital images of census schedules, maps and other sociological minutiae released April 2 by the U.S. National Archives.

General statistical information is readily available from every decennial head count conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau. However, the “manuscript census,” the individual forms filled out by citizens that includes detailed and personal information such as names, ages, race, family relationships, education, birthplace, 1935 residence, employment and income, can be released only after 72 years of confidentiality expires.

Pamela Cooper, head of the genealogy department at the Indian River County Library in Vero Beach, said the volumes of new information “puts the meat on the bones” of what’s already been released.

The 1940 census had up to 34 questions for each man, woman and child enumerated and up to 15 more for every 14th and 29th person on each 40-person tally sheet.

The 2010 census, by comparison, was touted by the U.S. Census Bureau as “10 questions, 10 minutes,” the shortest questionnaire in the history of the national head count.

“I’m still very upset with the 2010 census,” said Patti Kirk of Vero Beach, creator of Family History Researchers. “It was terrible. There were almost no personal questions. It was just about getting numbers in order to rearrange congressional districts. It’s going to be of no use to genealogists in the future. Of course, the excuse is that there’s so much personal information about everybody available through the Internet that you don’t need to get it from the census.”

The 1940 census, on the other hand, “is so exciting because it brings people who have been lost back closer to reality,” Kirk said. “There’s lots of personal information, more in-depth information about families that’s invaluable to genealogists.”

Genealogists both amateur and professional are eating it up. As of Wednesday, the National Archives website devoted to the census ( had delivered more than 100 terabytes (one terabyte is 1 trillion bytes) of 1940 census data; and the U.S. Census Bureau’s website on the 1940 census ( had received 1.2 million hits.

Historians think data from the 1940 census will be particularly enlightening because it documents the end of the tumultuous 1930s, when members of the so-called “Greatest Generation” were coming of age; the country was pulling itself out of the Great Depression; millions of Americans were moving off the farm and into the city; and World War II was looming on the horizon.

In some cases, the “city” Americans moved to was as small as Grove, Okla.

“That last move (in 1940) was from the country into town because my brother (Wayne) had just started high school,” Shepard said, “and my father thought we should be close to the school. It was the first time we had indoor plumbing, which was a big deal. Before that, my mother used to do laundry in a big pot over an open fire.”

The Mastersons would later join the mass migration from Oklahoma and western Arkansas to California.

“My father was in construction,” Shepard said, “and there was more work in California. It was fine with me; I was ready to get out of that hick town.”

Once in California, Shepard quickly shed her Oklahoma accent.

“Out there, if you were an ‘Okie,’ you didn’t fit in,” she said. “I wouldn’t have made junior homecoming queen — which I did — if people had known I was an Okie.”

A census is supposed to take a snapshot of the nation; and in 1940, the Census Bureau and the federal government were particularly interested in the country’s economic picture.

“The reason behind every single question is politically motivated,” Cooper said. “This was at the end of the Great Depression, and they were asking a lot about personal income.”

The census asked 13 questions about the employment status of people 14 and older, including No. 32: “Amount of money, wages, or salary received (including commissions).”

Question No. 23 asked whether the person was seeking work, and No. 27 asked how many weeks the person had been unemployed up to March 30, 1940.

The census also asked whether anyone in the household was employed with public emergency work projects such as the Works Progress Administration and the Civilian Conservation Corps.

“The government was focused on the economy,” Cooper said, “and wanted to know how people were faring.”

The Masterson family was getting by, but just barely.

Black-eyed peas were a mainstay of the family diet, Shepard recalled, because they were the cheapest bean available. But once, when her father found a quarter lying in the road, he splurged.

“He told the grocer, ‘I’ll have pinto beans,'” Shepard said, “and the grocer gave him a sackful. We feasted for a long time on pinto beans thanks to that quarter.”

Every 14th and 29th person listed was asked additional questions about where their parents were from (questions 36 and 37) and what language was spoken in the home “in earliest childhood” (No. 38). Three questions (39-41) were about the respondent’s status as a veteran.

Pat Giordano, past president of the Treasure Coast Genealogy Society in St. Lucie County, said some of the questions were controversial at the time.

“The census asked women how many times they had been married (No. 48) and how many children they had given birth to (the last question, No. 50),” Giordano said. “As a genealogist, if you know someone has three siblings, but their mother reports she had five children, then there may be some unknown siblings out there to track down.”

Shepard said she doubts the respondents always answered truthfully.

“Lots of people don’t like the government in their business,” she said. “They didn’t back in 1940, and they don’t today.”

The recently released data are a cornucopia of information for genealogists, but the information also has problems. The first is that it’s not searchable by name — at least not yet. The data consist of scanned images of handwritten documents cataloged by location. That means researchers have to know the address of the person they’re looking for to determine which of 147,000 enumeration districts the person lived in, then scan through pages of records for that area.As soon as the data became available April 2, thousands of volunteers began “indexing” the census by name, an arduous task that could easily take until the end of the year.

The data have other problems.

“We’ve already found that the census takers made a lot of mistakes,” Cooper said. “Sometimes they made the worst mistake, which is misspelling someone’s name, which in some cases could have been a language problem.”

Census takers were supposed to go sequentially from house to house, Cooper said, “but we’ve been seeing them zigzagging all over the place.”

Cooper did laud the 1940 census takers’ handwriting as “the best we’ve seen so far. On all the previous censuses, the handwriting is atrocious.”

The United States has gone through a lot of changes since the 1940 census was taken. That year, for instance, there were slightly more than 132 million people in the country. By 2010 — the year of the most recent census data — there were nearly 309 million.

Other changes enumerated by the Census Bureau:

• In 1940, nearly 90 percent of those surveyed were white. About 9.8 percent were black and 0.4 percent registered as “Other.” By 2010, 72.4 percent signed up as white and 12.6 percent were listed as black or African-American.

• The three most populous states in 1940 were New York (13.4 million), Pennsylvania (9.9 million) and Illinois (7.9 million). In 2010, the top three were California (37.2 million), Texas (25.1 million) and New York (19.3 million).

• Only 5 percent of the 1940 population had college degrees. By 2010, 28 percent of Americans were college graduates.

• The median income for a man in 1940 was $956. Seventy years later, the median income was $33,276. Women in 1940 earned 62 cents for every dollar a man earned. In 2010, women earned 74 cents for every dollar a man earned.

• The top five industries in 1940 were manufacturing (23.4 percent), agriculture (18.5 percent), retail (14 percent), personal services (8.9 percent) and professional services (7.4 percent). By 2010, the top five industries were educational services, health care and social assistance (23.2 percent); retail (11.7 percent); professional, scientific, management and administrative services, waste management services (10.6 percent); manufacturing (10.4 percent); and construction (6.2 percent). Agriculture was not in the top five.

Source: U.S. Census Bureau

The 1940 census data won’t be searchable by name until thousands of volunteers complete work making an index, and that could take several months.

In the meantime, there’s a simple two-step system to find Mom, Dad, Grandma, Grandpa or, if you’re over 72, yourself:

1. Start with the address where the person was living on April 1, 1940. If you know the town but not the street address, Patti Kirk of Vero Beach, founder of Family History Researchers, suggests calling that town’s library and asking the name be looked up in the local city directory. “They can look up a name in a few minutes,” Kirk said, “and they’ll do it for free.”

2. The 1940 census divided the country into 147,000 geographic areas, called enumeration districts, for surveying. Using the person’s address, identify the person’s enumeration district, a two-part number separated by a hyphen, at the website and then access census records directly.

Volunteers at the local genealogical societies offer free one-on-one help with family histories.

Indian River County Genealogical Society: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the first and third Saturdays of each month at the Indian River County Main Library, 1600 21st St., Vero Beach. Information:

Martin County Genealogical Society: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays, 5:45 to 7:45 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month at the Blake Library, 2351 S.E. Monterey Road, Stuart. Information:

Treasure Coast Genealogical Society: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Tuesdays, 9 a.m. to noon Thursdays at the Fort Pierce Branch Library, 101 Melody Lane. Information:

Family History Researchers (Port St. Lucie): Noon to 5 p.m. Wednesdays at the Morningside Branch Library, 2410 S.E. Morningside Blvd., Port St. Lucie. Information:

Family History Researchers (Palm City): 9 a.m. to 2 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of every month at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 2401 S.W. Matheson Ave., Palm City. Information:

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