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Hoover Dam and the grandfather I never knew

August 9, 2013


This is a two parter: in my Another Way newspaper column today, I give most of the how-we-got-there-and-why of a stop at Hoover Dam while on a week traveling through some of southwest U.S. earlier this summer. Here I’m posting our photos of Hoover Dam and a (loose) connection to the grandfather I never knew.

My grandpa on my mother’s side, Ivan Stauffer, was killed in a car accident when I was about seven months old. I’ve always wished I could have known the “Grandpa Stauffer” piece of my family history.

Originally called Boulder Dam, my mother says she remembers her father, Ivan, talking about the dam while she was growing up in northern Indiana. I figure anything that you remember your father talking about when you were young must have been something he talked about more than once.

This was the 1930s and like everyone else, they were struggling just to pay rent. Mom was born in 1924, so she would have been just seven years old when construction on the dam began in 1931 and 11 years old when the dam was dedicated in 1935. Had her dad ever thought about heading west with some 5,000 others to make what was a decent wage at the time, 50 cents to $1.25 an hour doing anything from carpenters helper (50 cents an hour) to shovel operator at $1.25 an hour (top pay)? The wages were not bad by 1930 standards, with $1.25 an hour equating roughly to a doctor’s wages then. I’m guessing the thought might have crossed my grandfather’s mind.


Workers on a jumbo rig used for drilling Hoover Dam’s tunnels.

I do know this from a note Mom wrote about dad in some reflections earlier:

“My dad made us fun things to play on, he was quite clever really. We always had most of the neighbor kids there to play ‘cause we had the fun stuff. My parents were poor but always had plenty of food and nice clothes because mother made them all. We were too poor for a phone in the 30s and always went up to my grandparents to call someone.”

More back story: Ivan’ s mother died when he was eight. When he was 12 in 1905, his father sent him to live with a Christian family who raised him well.

Meanwhile, Ivan’s father, John went to work on a farm in North Dakota and eventually moved in with another son, Eli, in Port Susan, Washington, where son, Arthur, also settled. So I don’t think it is a far stretch of the imagination for Ivan, given his penchant for coming up with clever toys for his kids during the depression probably had an adventurous, imaginative streak. He was likely fascinated by what he heard and read of the innovative building of the Hoover Dam. Later, a similar huge dam, the Grand Coulee Dam in Washington where his father and brothers were living, was built in the 40s.

In the 1920 census Ivan’s occupation was listed as being employed by Sidway Mercantile, a baby strollercarriage factory that operated in Elkhart County, Ind. By the 1930 census he was listed as farming, but he did not own the farm; his father-in-law did and according to some reports, Ivan was frequently told what to do by his father-in-law. His own father, John, came home to Indiana for a while but eventually died back in Washington state. The only time I remember meeting the “Washington” side of the family, Uncle Arthur, was on my own family’s six-weeks-long western trip in 1964. I’m so grateful to my daughter Michelle who researched some of these pieces of the family tree puzzle on

I don’t want to make too much of this weak family connection, but the creativity and excitement that surrounded the build, as well as the terrible sacrifices of human life certainly caught my imagination in ways I had not expected.  And I’m glad it made me go back and ponder more of my family tree.

This photo is from 1940, where my grandfather’s whole family was reunited. Ivan is in the far left corner in the back row. (Double click for caption and bigger view. Sorry about the funky framing.)

What do you wish you knew more about your family tree? What are the traces of stories you’ve tried to piece together? What do they hint about your background?

(And if you happen to know more about my grandfather’s history, don’t hesitate to send edits and corrections! This can be like Wikipedia–open to anyone’s additions!)


Photos from Hoover Dam


A small scale display of the seven state area impacted by the Hoover Dam water project which changed agriculture, industry and life for the southwest, even today.


Inside Hoover Dam, a view of some of the mammoth generators powered by the flow of water.


Lake Meade, created by the dam project, has receded to disturbing low levels.


That’s a lot of concrete; the creative folks who worked on the dam thought of innovative ways to dry all that out which allowed them to finish the project two years ahead of schedule.


My brother-in-law, Nolan and yours truly with a highway spanning the Colorado River in the background.


From → Family Life

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