Martha “Mattie” Branson

Mattie Branson, fifth daughter and tenth child of John Sevier Branson and Martha Jane Ousley, was born 27 February 1870 on her parents’ ranch near Quartzburg, a mining outpost a few miles north of Hornitos, Mariposa County, CA. She was named Martha after her mother, though she did not have the middle name of Jane because that had already been given to her sister Mary. She does not seem to have had any middle name at all. In this she was like her brothers Reuben and Joseph, but it is unusual in the sense that all the other girls of the family had one. She was known lifelong as Mattie, and used Mattie as her official name in many circumstances, including when she registered to vote. However, in middle age, once she was completely outside the sphere of her family, she did sometimes use Martha -- for example Martha is the version that appears in several Bakersfield, CA city directories of the 1910s.

By the time of her birth, her parents had long resided in Mariposa County and were a well-known and popular pioneer couple, though they had acquired their ranch (“Grasshopper Ranch”) only two years earlier and Mattie and her slightly older brother John Sevier Branson, Jr. were the only two out of the ten children to be born there. Mining was still the mainstay of the local economy, but workers were far less likely to be scattered in small mining camps, and were now concentrated at the outposts centered at the mouths of deep shafts. Extraction of gold was now an industrial process, not a means of independent living under the open sky. In Mattie’s formative years, the most looming example of such institutionalized mining was the Washington Mine complex. Grasshopper Ranch was situated on the northwestern boundary line of Washington Mine. Mattie would be greeted every weekday morning by the racket of its stamp mill pounding away at quartz ore.

Mattie was so much younger than the eldest Branson children that she grew up with no memory of having shared a home with them -- and indeed, probably never did share a home with her very eldest sibling, Reuben. She went on to experience an existence well apart from her sisters, all of whom settled in Merced, Merced County, CA in their late teens, meaning that by the time Mattie was entering her own teens, she was the only girl of the immediate family left back in Mariposa County. Her greatest sibling bond was with her brothers Thomas, Joseph, and Alvin, all of whom remained in Mariposa County even after establishing their independent lives. She knew many of her nieces and nephews quite well -- being almost their contemporary -- and her class sessions at Quartzburg were shared with many cousins of various degree.

Her parents were senior citizens by the time she came of age and Mattie probably stayed right at Grasshopper Ranch helping care for them right through her twenties. Her social milieu therefore consisted of the young folk of the Washington Mine outpost and of Hornitos. Finally when she was only weeks away from her thirtieth birthday, she ended her spinsterhood. The wedding, conducted by Reverend J.D. Houck, was held in the afternoon of New Year’s Day, 1900 at Grasshopper Ranch, and followed that evening by a masked-ball reception in Hornitos. Mattie’s fifteen-year-old niece, Eunice Harrington, served as bridesmaid -- Eunice would herself become a bride later in 1900, shortly after turning sixteen. Given that the groom’s family all lived out of state, the best man was Mattie’s nephew Hugh McErlane Branson. Eunice and and Hugh were obvious choices. Eunice and her sister Elsie had often stayed at Grasshopper Ranch during their summer vacations, and therefore had spent quite a bit of time with Mattie. Hugh was practically a brother. Only three years younger than Mattie, he had been raised as a near neighbor and had stayed local and mingled with the same group of peers -- quite a contrast to John Sevier Branson, Jr. the only one of Mattie’s actual brothers who was even remotely her own age. John had departed with his wife and offspring in the early 1890s to dwell in the hills of Madera County.

Rudolph Mueller, Jr. had been born April 1872 in Missouri. He was the eldest child of Rudolph Mueller, Sr. (originally spelled Müller) and Anna Sutter (Sautter). Both of these individuals had been born in Switzerland, and had come to the United States in 1866 and 1869, respectively, drawn to the large settlement of Swiss immigrants who had come to roost in northern Gasconade County, MO. The area was so dense with residents of that origin that the community where Rudolph, Sr. and Annie were married -- the wedding taking place precisely nine months before Rudolph, Jr.’s birth -- was named Swiss. Rudolph himself may have been born in that place, though the Muellers moved frequently during the early years of their marriage and may have already left Swiss by the time the pregnancy came to term. It is somewhat ironic that Rudolph, Jr. would come to Mariposa County and be wed to a Branson. Mattie’s father had been raised from toddlerhood to adulthood on a farm near Mount Sterling, Gasconade County, only half a dozen miles or so southwest of Swiss. Inasmuch as Mattie’s parents and older brothers left Gasconade County in the early 1850s and the Muellers did not arrive there until the latter 1860s, there was no time when the families could have been acquainted in Missouri, but nonetheless Mattie and Rudolph could be said to have had a place of origin in common.

Rudolph spent the first half of his childhood in various parts of Missouri, including shorter periods in the heart of the state where Swiss and German immigrants had congregated, but greater spans at its edges, including the westernmost part of the state in or near Kansas City, along with at least one stop in the easternmost part in St. Louis, where the photograph at left was taken at the studio of “Röseh the Fotografer”). Three younger sisters were born during the 1870s. In about 1884, Annie Sutter Mueller died. Rudolph, Sr. quickly remarried. His second wife was Ursula Boehm Von Behringsoarf (for some reason, the marriage record shows her as Elizabeth Boehm). Ursula gave birth to another seven children. A year after Rudolph, Jr. married Mattie, an eighth child was added to the count. Perhaps it was the abundance of siblings and half-siblings that sent Rudolph, Jr. wandering. He came of age in Colorado, where the Muellers had moved in the late 1880s. He continued on his own out to California. The article about the wedding in the Mariposa Gazette describes him as having recently been a resident of New Mexico. It is possible he spent an interval in New Mexico in the late 1890s. However, it is more likely the author of the article simply got the detail wrong and should have referred to Colorado.

The young couple lived at Grasshopper Ranch during the early months of their marriage. They appear there in the census, recorded in early June, 1900. Eventually they established themselves on their own in Hornitos. Rudolph was a cook.

Mattie Branson and first husband Rudolph Mueller, Jr. Probably a photograph taken for their wedding.

Mattie did not have children of her own. However, she seems to have taken a maternal interest in some of her nieces and nephews. More than one surviving photo -- one of them shown at the bottom of this webpage -- shows her with her brother Alvin’s son Walter, who may have been her boarder in his young adulthood. It seems likely that Mattie often was more than a housewife, helping Rudolph with his occupation. This may particularly have been true after the arrival of Rudolph’s father, stepmother, and youngest half-siblings in approximately 1907. Rudolph, Sr. became the proprietor of the Hornitos Hotel. Though not specifically mentioned in documentation, the son and namesake probably worked at the hotel, and this would have surely have been true of Mattie as well.

By the early 1910s more and more residents were abandoning Hornitos and its outlying mining outposts. The local gold industry was in freefall. By 1914, the phenomenon had swept up all of Mattie’s siblings and their families with the exception of her brother Joe. (Joe not only stayed, but kept expanding his cattle ranch as neighbors sold out. The ranch eventually incorporated most of what had been Quartzburg. Grasshopper Ranch was one of the additions.) With such an exodus in play, the Hornitos Hotel did far less business.

The local economy was not the only thing that went sour. Mattie and Rudolph’s marriage crumbled. The pair separated and went through what amounts to a divorce. The couple may or may not have bothered to go to court and obtain a divorce in the legal-paperwork sense, but the rift was profound. The fracture appears to have occurred in 1913 or about then. Mattie relocated by the end of that year or the very beginning of 1914 and began working as a housekeeper/maid for Massena Hotel, 1627 I Street, Bakersfield, Kern County, CA. Why Bakersfield? As far as can be determined, there was no reason for Mattie to choose such a spot except that the town was the site of a large number of residence hotels catering to the robust influx of oil workers into Kern County, and she knew her odds of finding a job were good. Massena Hotel was an ideal fit for her. It was a twelve-bed facility -- seven for paying customers and five for the staff. The staff consisted of owner-proprietors Harry and Arabelle Gwendoline Massena along with a clerk and two housekeepers, Mattie being one of the latter.

Rudolph did not handle the break-up well. Many signs point to the separation tipping Rudolph down a slope that ultimately led to depression and the lack of a will to live. Family gossip implies the cause of his death a few years later was suicide. It must however be noted that the loss of Mattie’s good will and companionship was not the only precipitating factor. In the autumn of 1914, Rudolph’s father died, depriving him not only of his remaining biological parent, but of his employer as well. That incident may have been the spur that caused him to head down to Bakersfield to attempt a reconciliation. He got a job as a cook. He did not, however, succeed in getting Mattie to live with him. He had separate lodgings while she remained at Massena Hotel. After a number of months, he gave up and returned to Hornitos -- only to suffer through the sudden and unexpected deaths of two younger half-siblings in rapid succession. His brother Albert Mueller died 27 April 1915 of a lung infection, and his sister Lena Mueller Jennings died 9 July 1915 of peritonitis following an appendectomy. Albert was only eighteen, Lena nineteen. Rudolph’s connection to Hornitos no longer brought him a sense of consolation; the place only reminded him of loved ones who were not there and never would be again. He gave up the job at Victory Furnace Factory that he had obtained upon his return, and moved on to El Portal, the village at the mouth of the Yosemite Valley, where he once again became a cook. This situation lasted a matter of months or perhaps a year, whereupon he joined his stepmother and half-brothers Frank, Harry, and Fritz Mueller in Parkfield, Monterey County, CA. Rudolph passed away in Parkfield 23 March 1918. He was not yet fifty years old, which lends credence to the rumor of suicide being the cause.

Mattie remained at Massena Hotel through the rest of the 1910s. Her social life included participation in the local Women of Woodcraft chapter -- lodge participation of some sort being practially a given for any child of John Sevier Branson. Chances are she might have stayed in place even longer than she did. Her employment appears to have come to an end as a result of the death of Gwendoline Massena in the spring of 1920. As a widower already in his fifties, Harry V. Massena apparently did not want to maintain the business at the same level. He continued to be a hotelkeeper until his own death in the summer of 1930, but he was satisfied to look after only two or three lodgers with the assistance of a single housekeeper. Mattie seems to have been a casualty of the downsizing.

In seeking out a new situation, Mattie “went for it” and became a wife again. Her new husband was Joe T. White, a Standard Oil employee. Formal name Joseph Tilden White, he was a son of Ambrose White and Mary A. Tritt and a native of Caldwell County, NC, born 29 July 1876. Joe had come out to California with his brother Daniel T. White, who like him had become an employee of Standard Oil and who, like Joe, would finish out his life as a resident of Kern County. Joe and Dan were twins, the ninth and tenth of eleven children, and tended to stay within one another’s sphere, though they do not appear to have actually lived together after an interval in the early 1900s in Roane County, TN, where they shared a home with their widowed mother and siblings Ellen and William after leaving Caldwell County. Joe and Mattie had met when he was a lodger at Massena Hotel -- Massena Hotel is listed as his address on his 12 September 1918 draft card. The pair were wed perhaps as early as 1920. They were definitely man and wife by 1922.

The federal census shows that Joe was not one of the lodgers at Massena Hotel at the beginning of 1920. He had moved on in late 1918 or in 1919 to the community of Pond. Pond is such a small place today it does not appear on most maps. It is located about six miles southwest of Delano. The main transport corridor is now Highway 99, which runs through Delano and leaves Pond “out in the boonies.” In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Pond was not much larger than it is these days, but back then it possessed a solid base of prosperity as a whistlestop along the Southern Pacific Railroad line and as a place where local oil workers made their home. Joe’s housemates in 1919 were five other Standard Oil colleagues, occupying company housing. He clearly liked the idea of sharing a home with Mattie instead, and he managed to talk her into it. Or maybe she was the instigator, recalling the charming lodger she had flirted with at the hotel, and coyly pointing out to him that she would much rather clean and cook for one person than seven or more. Whatever the courtship dynamic, soon Mattie was Mrs. Joe T. White, and the two moved into a house together in Pond. She would live in Pond for the rest of her life.

Joe worked as a night watchman at an oil pumping station near Pond. He was sometimes unemployed during the difficult years of the Great Depression. Mattie raised chickens at home as a supplementary means of income and on at least one occasion, took in a lodger -- that one known lodger being widow schoolteacher Edith Jarvis, who is shown as an occupant of the White home in the 1940 census. Though based quite some distance from her kinfolk, Mattie was not deprived of company. For one thing, her brother Alvin and his grown children Maude and Ivan made a regular habit of visiting Mattie in Pond, sometimes for days at a time. (This can be taken as an indication of her warm and welcoming personality.) For another, she maintained a lively social life, not only with her friends in Bakersfield, but other women of her newfound corner of Kern County, including those who belonged to the the Delano Lunch Club and the Friendship Luncheon Club. She was a well-beloved figure within the tight-knit community of Pond. She was known affectionately by neighbors as “Auntie White.” Mattie is shown at left during those years in front of her home with a young neighbor, who was one of those who served as her surrogate nieces. Unfortunately the girl’s name was not written on the back of the photo. However, candidates include Huberta and Betty Hamlin, the daughters of Mattie’s close neighbors and very good friends Hubert Lloyd and Flossie (Bailey) Hamlin. Mattie was likewise a good friend of Hubert’s parents Myra and James Hamlin. During the 1920s, Hubert’s sister Alice lived in Pond with her husband Albert Martin Miller, a Standard Oil colleague of Joe White. That means Mattie got the chance to know their kids, one of those kids being James Martin Miller, born in 1923. Mattie may literally have been on-hand when James was born, assuming he was born at home -- his parents lived next door to Mattie and Joe. James would go on to marry Mattie’s grand niece Gertrude Ellen Branson, daughter of John Joseph Branson (see her biography elsewhere on this website). It is possible Mattie played no role in introducing James and Trudy, who may have coincidentally encountered one another in Arroyo Grande, CA the late 1930s or early 1940s, but Mattie’s fond association with the Hamlin clan certainly seems to have been the instrument. (Mattie reached the end of her life before Trudy and James were married, however, and therefore did not have the joy of witnessing what came of her pulling the pair into one another’s sphere.)

Mattie died in Pond, succumbing unexpectedly in her bed during the wee hours of the night of Monday, 28 December 1942 -- meaning technically she died Tuesday, 29 December 1942. Her funeral was held Saturday, 2 January 1943 at Delano Mortuary, Baptist Reverend Charles E. Flanagin officiating. As was often the case when a member of the Branson/Ousley family died, the funeral logistics were handled by lodge members, in this instance, representatives of the Alpha Rebekahs and the Royal Neighbors. Her grave is at North Kern Cemetery in Delano.

Joe T. White survived Mattie. As far as can be determined, he remained in Pond. Certainly he remained in Kern County. The California Death Index shows he died within the county 15 April 1947. Like Mattie’s, his grave is at North Kern Cemetery, as is that of his brother Dan, who perished in late 1951.

Note: Some web-based genealogies still unfortunately render Mattie’s death date as 29 January 1943. The ultimate source of this error was Mattie’s nephew Ivan Branson, who used that date of death in his 1982 book, Bones of the Bransons. Ivan possessed a newspaper obituary on which someone had written “January 1943.” The text of that obituary stated that Mattie had died on the 29th of the month. Ivan took this to mean January 29th. However, this clipping was from an issue released during the first week of January and the line referred to the previous 29th.

Mattie and Rudolph either in front of their Hornitos home/cabin circa 1910, or behind the Hornitos Hotel. The extremely tall young man is Mattie’s nephew Walter Henry Branson, son of Alvin. The identity of the dark-haired woman on the right is unknown, but it is possible it is Rudolph’s stepmother Ursula. A second photo taken in the same spot on the same day shows Walter’s kid brother Ivan Thorpe Branson and another boy with the same four people (and same dog) shown here.

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