Floating concrete ships, the Johnny Appleseed of oaks, a playwright and an artist…

My good friend Don from Montana sent me an e-mail recently that made me think about doing a blog about a grandfather I never knew, Charles M. Hurst.

I had mentioned in an earlier post (regarding tongue sandwiches) that my mother and her family came from England and that my grandfather had an interesting background. Don described him as sounding like “an awesome guy.” I always thought he was and I’ve been able to find out more to confirm my feeling about him.

I think “renaissance man” is a good way to describe him. Friends of the family once described him as “brilliant with a photographic memory.”

Charles M. Hurst

He was born Oct. 1, 1874 in Manchester England. Although I haven’t had time to uncover more details, he became an engineer. In 1899, he married Hannah Mason in the town of Wigan northwest of Manchester. The marriage certificate listed him as a “bachelor” and Hannah as a “spinstress.”

They had four children, all born in England,. They were Jack, who lied about his age so he could enlist in the Royal Navy for World War I; Mary, who never married and was a veteran registered nurse for many years in a Fort Worth children’s hospital; a son James who apparently died of suicide; and my mother, Joan, who would have been about 12 when she arrived in the United States.

While living in England, I am told he was involved in the design and building of ships made of concrete. I have not been able to find his name listed in any research about concrete ships, but they were definitely around at the time. Concrete ships and concrete floating docks were used in both World War I and World War II.

Long-ago abandoned concrete ships in the Thames River near London

Records from Ellis Island show Hurst arrived in the United States in April of 1921, leaving his family to come to join himat a later date. He left England reportedly because jobs for engineers were scarce after World War I and because he had a relative who encouraged him to move to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. I understand he worked for a cement manufacturing plant there — a likely connection to his concrete shipbuilding legacy.

He gained U.S. citizenship in January of 1923 in Dallas, TX. I noted in his naturalization record that he still listed his occupation as “engineer” and that he was required to “renounce” his citizenship in England and any allegiance to “George V, King of England and Ireland.”

Before moving to the United States, he wrote at least four books, three of them apparently textbooks with the sleep-inducing titles: “Valves and Valve Gearing,” “Hints on Steam Engine Design” and “Construction” and “Stationary Engines.”

Of more interest was his novel, “The Book of the English Oak,” published in 1911. He described the book as an effort to “arouse greater interest regarding the English Oak.” At first glance, the book appears to be an autobiographical story about him planting acorns around the country while taking photographs to document existing historical oak trees. However, family members say the story was entirely fiction and he really did not do a “Johnny Appleseed” kind of adventure around the English countryside.

The Book of the English Oak by Charles Hurst.

It does make for interesting reading. There’s one part in which he befriends a stray dog, who he names “Pontiflunk.” He describes it as being terrier sized but with a mix of almost every breed. He said the most interesting feature that contributed to the dog’s “eccentric appearance was a trick or habit of thrusting its tongue about a quarter of an inch beyond its teeth.”

I had thought about giving the name of Pontiflunk to our present dog, Chester, when we adopted him, but it just didn’t seem to fit.

Through some online research by my friend Dave in Santa Fe, we discovered a few years ago that a group in England had discovered the book and was planning to do a play based on it. I ultimately got in touch with the producers, who were excited to make the connection with my family. At one point, my wife and I toyed with the idea of traveling to England and re-creating at least part of the route the author said he took while planting acorns. That never came to pass, however, and I’ve lost contact with the people who were planning to stage the play. I don’t know if the play was ever performed.

My grandfather also wrote a two-act play, which I doubt was ever performed, that was entitled “The World Debated.” It was published in 1931, after he had moved to the United States.

The play focuses on a debate among celestial spirits in the Milky Way about who created our world. Ultimately, the debaters conclude that only God could have created it and leaves “Lucifer” sulking for not getting any credit for the creation.

Maybe I should try to sell the movie rights.

Charles Hurst’s two-act play, The World Debated

One passage in the play seems to be particularly applicable in today’s times.

“Beware exaggeration and false light. To curve the trend far from the line of truth till positive is negative and plus is minus, light is dark and wrong is right.”

At some point, he began developing an interest in newspapers in West Texas and ended up being editor and publisher of one in Abernathy, TX.

While in West Texas, he painted landscapes, including the one below, which we have in our home. It was painted on a watercolor mat attached to the back of a Parcheesi game board. We framed it so you can still see the Parcheesi board if you look at the back of the painting.

Charles M. Hurst paining

Continuing his interest in newspaper, he acquired or planned to acquire a weekly publication, “The Hale Center American,” in the town of Hale Center, where I was born. Apparently while there, his daughter, my mother Joan, met my father Vic, while he was working at the newspaper. We were told by family members it was “love at first sight.”

Hurst apparently did not feel my father, who did not even have a high school diploma and was self-educated, was a fitting match for a proper English girl. Nevertheless, they became infatuated with each other and hatched a plan to marry. As I am told, my mother and father left town to elope but Hurst was determined to chase them down and stop it. During the chase, as I was told by my older sister, Hurst was involved in a fatal car wreck somewhere near Hale Center.

The accident occurred Dec. 18, 1931, a week before Christmas. The death certificate listed cause of death simply as “auto accident.” His obituary noted he was publisher of the Abernathy Review at the time. He was buried two days later in La Mesa, TX.

I probably got some of the facts in his story wrong, and I’m sure my sister Wendy will correct me. My other two siblings, Jim and Kay, are now gone, but before they died gave me some of the details that I hope I remembered correctly. The whole matter of the elopement and death of my grandfather was never discussed by my parents.

I wish I could have known him. I think a conversation with him would have been fascinating. Unfortunately, I don’t think I inherited any of his talents, except possibly for a desire to write.

And thanks Don and Dave, for encouraging me learn more about my grandfather.

3 thoughts on “Floating concrete ships, the Johnny Appleseed of oaks, a playwright and an artist…

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