John D. Bennett was born near Triune, TN, the son of Dr. Thomas J. Bennett and Sallie Pauline (Jarrett) Bennett. The family lived on a small farm south of Nashville. His nickname among family members was "Dee".
John grew up playing with the children of former slaves who still lived and worked for his Grandfather Wiley Brown and his father, Dr. T.J. Bennett. He recalled local people paying his father with livestock and produce in exchange for medical services. He remembered, "He took in what ever they could give. Two mule, sack o' potatoes, bushel of corn, whatever he could get. We had so many damn 2 year old colts, we didn't know what to do.". John recalled breaking the colts with the help of the blacks who worked the farm.
Restless and unruly as a teenager, he quit school in the 8th grade. In 1897 the 14 year old boy rode the rails west. 80 years later John recalled, "Back then all I was thinkin’ about was havin' a few dollars and havin’ a good time. Nothin’ else mattered anything to me, just getting a few dollars and havin’ a good time on it.".
He travelled by hopping freight trains, bumming his way west and hitting places like New Orleans, St. Louis, Evansville, Denver, Chicago, etc. He rode a steamboat from St. Louis to St. Paul, Minnesota, sleeping on bales of cotton and earning a dollar a day plus meals to help load and unload the boat at each stop. He took short term jobs wherever he could find them. John often returned to Tennessee to briefly live with relatives before hitting the road again.
In the 1900 US Census, he was 16 years old and listed as a boarder living with his sister Susie (Boring) and her family in Davidson County, TN.
Per notes from his wife Ella, John was in Denver, Colorado in 1906, working on a ranch for $30 a month. He and a buddy jumped a train bound for Texas, but got off in Albuquerque, spent a short time there, and then decided to head west to Los Angeles.
In 1907 he was in Los Angeles, working as a day laborer and including time as a longshoreman at San Pedro unloading lumber ships for $4 a day.
His younger brother Word Brown Bennett was a sailor on USS Minnesota as part of Teddy Roosevelt's Great White Fleet. John visited with his brother in April of 1908 while the fleet was in port near Santa Monica. In late 1908 he rode the rails home to Nashville, riding the Southern Pacific to New Orleans, the Illinois Central to Memphis, and then the L&N to Nashville. His brother Ben hired him to work his dairy near Nashville.
The 1910 US Census lists John D. as a boarder living with his sister Emma (Lee) and her family in Davidson County, TN.
Sometime in 1910 or 1911 John's cousin Will Lee talked him into heading to Milwaukee, Wisconsin to work in a shoe factory. He lost the job there, and bummed his way through Cedar Rapids and Des Moines, Iowa, finally ending up back in Denver with a job at the Griffith Shoe Factory.
John met his wife, Ella Whelan, while staying at her parent's boarding house in Denver in the summer of 1912. The couple married Christmas Day 1912 and moved to Racine, WI where they had three children, Grace (1915-1979), John T. (1917-2002), and Robert W. (1921-1999). John D. worked in a shoe factory while they lived in Wisconsin. Ella's pet name for her husband was "Al".
Sometime after 1921 they moved from Racine to San Bernardino, CA, where Ella's parents had retired. John took a job with Southern California Edison in the late 1920's, working as a stock clerk and station attendant.
John's mother Sallie gave him a series of handwritten notes in the 1930's to document his grandparents, parents, and siblings, (births, deaths, marriages.) Interestingly, she closed the notes by saying "(I) don't know when you and Word were married". It appears she felt more detached from her two youngest sons than from her other children.
By the 1940's the Bennetts owned a small California bungalow house at 3908 Elmwood Ct, Riverside, CA, where they would remain the rest of their lives. In 1943 John volunteered for the Civil Defense force, Emergency Utility Repair Corps. His ID card says he was 5'9" tall, 150lbs, brown hair and grey eyes.
John kept his job at So Cal Edison well past normal retirement age, finally retiring in his 80's. He was naturally a very quiet and unassuming man. Despite the fact that he smoked a pipe, he was rigorous his entire life and chopped firewood until a couple years before he died at age 98.
He loved to tell stories of his youth and travels across the country, all in a thick Tennessee drawl punctuated with whistles through his dentures. He was truly a window to the past for his family, both good and bad as some of his stories were marred by the racist humor so common in his younger days.
Information in this bio from oral history known to John D.'s great grandson, Rob Bennett, an audio recording of John D. recorded at his 90th birthday party, notes from John's wife Ella, and US Census records.
Ella Edith Whelan Bennett
1891–1982 (m. 1912)
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