top of page
  • Facebook

Memories from the Homestead: Bob Nolan's early life, 1908-1921 (Part 1)

Bob Nolan's Father and Mother, Harry B. Nobles and Flora (Hussey) Nobles were living in Winnipeg, Manitoba when they married in 1906. (Photo courtesy of Elizabeth McDonald—Sons of the Pioneers Museum)

As many of you have noticed over the past year, I often mention my favorite state of Arizona. The Sons of the Pioneers and I are doing performances at Old Tucson Studios at the end of this month. This weekend on April 13, we celebrate our founding member Bob Nolan, born in 1908. A songwriting genius, Nolan wrote several hundred tunes (he called them song poems); his most recognized are "Cool Water" and "Tumbling Tumbleweeds." Both are in the Grammy Hall of Fame. In the Globe’s October 13, 2023 issue, I touched on Bob's life in Arizona and how the desert turned him into a man. Today, I'd like to start at the beginning in 1908. Let's go north to Winnipeg, Manitoba!


     Let me mention that back in 2004 I became acquainted with a friend of Bob's family, Elizabeth McDonald, a resident of Chase, British Columbia, who felt that much of Bob's life was a mystery. She tracked down a number of individuals, including Bob's grandson, to assist with her research. I worked closely with Elizabeth, providing materials for ten years-plus as she assembled a website dedicated to Bob's life and career. What I'm about to share is quite detailed. It's so worthy of being made into a movie, but I seriously doubt that will ever happen! 


     Bob's birth name was Clarence Robert Nobles, born April 13, 1908, in Winnipeg, Manitoba. His parents were Harry and Flora (Hussey) Nobles. Harry had worked as a tailor, and Flora worked as a stenographer. They married on January 1, 1906. They would have a second son, Earl, who was born in 1911. By 1915 Harry and Flora's marriage fell apart. The family of four had moved to Vancouver, but would return to Winnipeg. Flora went to work for the Manitoba Government Telephones, while Harry went to New Brunswick to see his parents, and then crossed the border and relocated to Tucson, Arizona. It was there that Harry changed his name permanently to Nolan. He would join the U.S. Army in 1917 and was discharged in November 1918. More about that in a moment.


      Things got difficult for Flora as she struggled. Working for the phone company would become a problem. Labor laws in Manitoba were strict, and Flora soon learned that according to law, a woman with dependent children was not allowed to work outside the home, plus Winnipeg was experiencing labor issues. Left with no other choice, in 1916, Flora took Clarence and Earl to their grandparents, Harry's folks in Hatfield Point, New Brunswick, and left them there. She did intend to return for them when things improved, but unfortunately that did not happen. This troubled young Clarence (age eight), and he would never see his mother again. Earl would locate her sixteen years later, but Clarence refused to speak to her. Years later in interviews, Bob would claim that he knew very little about his mother. Years later, his feelings toward his mother would be revealed in future songs.


     On the Nobles family farm in Hatfield Point, New Brunswick, the boys lived with their grandparents for the next three years. Divorce was looked down upon, perceived as a shame to the family. The boys' grandparents did their best to erase their mother's memory. They were not allowed to say her name, and her letters never reached them. The boys were convinced their mother deserted them; this hurt remained with Clarence the rest of his life. 


     Clarence found peace in the backwoods behind their house. He called it his "wildwood." This is where he would remain and politely avoid everyone. In the fall of 1916 Clarence started school at age eight and Earl attended, too, but often their grandfather would take them out to help with farm chores; he felt that schooling was not a major priority. This is the reason that years later Bob's spelling abilities were not as good as they should have been, due to the lack of early schooling. He recalled that during a year they were lucky to attend a month of school, and that one way it was a five-mile walk. His teacher was Miss Tingley, and she taught all the students ranging from ages six to seventeen. 


     Clarence and Earl made friends with the neighbor kids, the Boyds, but unfortunately they didn't get to spend a lot of time together, as their grandfather kept them busy. Earl was remembered by the Boyd family as outgoing, but Clarence was a quiet boy who kept to himself. Bob recalled in an interview that there were a few pleasant memories on the family homestead, but after arriving out West, he never returned to the property and never saw his grandparents again. His Grandfather Charles Nobles died in 1935, and his Grandmother Ella Jane Nobles died in 1943. The three years that the boys spent with their grandparents was often confusing and sometimes sad.


     Things suddenly changed in the summer of 1919. Clarence was eleven, Earl was eight. Their father Harry had received word that their Mother Flora was coming to Hatfield Point to reclaim them. Harry immediately wrote an urgent letter to his sister Fannie in Boston asking if she would take them with her. Fannie arrived at the family homestead unannounced one afternoon, taking the boys with her the next morning. It was not a good situation. Earl cried and Clarence remained very quiet. Arriving with Aunt Fannie in Boston, their names were immediately changed to Nolan, and their mother would never find them. Also according to Manitoba law, custody was always given to the husband; the wife had no rights.


     For two years the boys lived with Aunt Fannie and attended school in Boston at Belmont School. They did change addresses several times according to research in city directories, and it's unknown if the boys lived with any other relatives—there indeed were other aunts and uncles in the Boston area.


     I want to back up for a moment and explain that according to Harry's discharge papers from November 1918, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in Phoenix, Arizona, in December 1917 using the name Harry B. Nolan. He also gave his birthplace as Somerville, Massachusetts. He also changed his date of birth to show that he was 32 when he joined; he actually had just turned 33. He was discharged at Camp Funston, Kansas, and was given travel money by the Army to return home to Arizona. His discharge information also states he wasn't involved in any battles, wasn't wounded, and was listed in "good physical condition."


     Harry settled in Tucson residing at the Hotel Tucsonia. In 1921 he was ready to begin moving his sons to Tucson. Clarence would come first. He was sent by train from Boston. A tag, with his name and destination written on it was pinned to his jacket. Aunt Fannie likely was the one who dropped him off. This began his love of trains and years later, his first composition with a freight train yodel was introduced. Clarence was now thirteen. Three years later Earl was sent to Tucson to join them.


     Stay tuned and next week I'll discuss the schools Clarence attended and cover his high school years as well. I will also talk about the impact of the Arizona desert. This is truly an amazing story!


     I also would like to send out a huge THANK YOU to all of you wonderful folks—the readers, who have supported my little column over the past year! The comments, emails, phone calls and texts have been wonderful! I can't believe I've written 52 of these columns! Keep the comments coming. The team here at the Branson Globe along with myself greatly enjoy the feedback!


Happy trails!


bottom of page