Remembering Nettie

Eighty years ago today

The two-story brick apartment building at 1414 Thirteenth Street in Lubbock, Texas, no longer exists. In Google Street View, you can see that there’s a parking lot there now, where the apartment building stood, in March of 1934.

Nettie (Cottrell) Holley c1900

Nettie (Cottrell) Holley c1900

The apartment building where a widowed woman, Nettie Hyburnia (Cottrell) Holley was the manager, in March 1934.

Where she and her one surviving child, Myrtle, had been living in a less desirable basement apartment.

Where, when a first-floor apartment became available, Nettie was thrilled that she and Myrtle could move into the better apartment.

Where, on Wednesday, the 7th of March, 1934, she took gasoline-based cleaning supplies up to scour the bathroom fixtures.

Where she opened the bathroom window because of danger from the fumes.

Where the air from the window drove the fumes out to the living room, where there was an open fire.

Where, just after 11 a.m. that Wednesday, the fumes from those cleaning supplies ignited … and exploded … trapping Nettie in the burning bathroom.

Nettie — my grandfather’s older sister — had never had an easy life.

She was born on 6 February 1879,1 either in Parker County or in Clay County, Texas,2 the third child and second daughter of Martin Gilbert and Martha H. Mattie (Johnson) Cottrell.3

As one of the older girls out of a family that ultimately had nine children (seven surviving to adulthood), Nettie surely had lots of responsibilities. The family moved often when she was young — to Wichita County,4 briefly to Utah where a younger sister was born and died as an infant,5 possibly a brief stint in Colorado,6 back to Texas and Wichita County.7 Her parents’ marriage was stormy, eventually ending when Mattie took the younger children and moved to Oklahoma.8

Nettie left home before then. She married Henry Dixon Holley around 1906,9 and gave birth to her first child, daughter Mary, on the 7th of April 1907. But Mary was born with hydrocephalus and lived only seven months. She died 3 November 1907 in Iowa Park, Texas, and was buried in Wichita Falls.10

A second daughter, Myrtle, was born on 2 March 1909 in Wichita County.11 This second child was healthy — and you have to think that Nettie thought life was finally going to be what she wanted it.

But it was not to be.

Little Myrtle was only six years old when her father died of tuberculosis.12

Nettie (Cottrell) Holley, 1934

Nettie (Cottrell) Holley, 1934

Nettie found herself a widow with a child to support.

By 1920, she was working as the manager of the telephone office in Mountain View, Kiowa County, Oklahoma. She didn’t own her home; she was boarding, along with her 10-year-old child, in the home of Mary Biggs.13

By 1930, she was back in Texas, living in rented quarters in Post, in Garza County, just south of Lubbock, where Myrtle was working as a bookkeeper.14

And by 1934, she and Myrtle were living in Lubbock.

In that apartment.

At 1414 Thirteenth Street.

Where the gas fumes exploded into flames.

Where Nettie was trapped.

The family story is that she managed to get out onto the fire escape.15 The newspaper report didn’t say how she got out, just that she was badly burned and taken to the hospital. That Myrtle — who wasn’t home when this happened — had been called to her bedside. And that Nettie was fighting for her life.16

It was a fight she couldn’t win.

Just about 6:30 a.m. on 8 March 1934 — 80 years ago today — Nettie Hyburnia (Cottrell) Holley succumbed to third degree burns over more than half of her body.17

The last photo you see here is the last photo ever taken of Nettie. That fact alone makes it poignant. But even more poignant is the writing on the back, in the careful script of my grandmother, Opal (Robertson) Cottrell.

She couldn’t go to the funeral, you see. She was in the late stages of a difficult pregnancy; she had to stay behind and only my grandfather Clay Rex Cottrell traveled from Midland for the funeral.

Someone asked my grandmother, years later, for the original of this photograph. She spent money she could ill afford to have a copy made instead. And on the back she wrote, “An enlargement of a snapshot of Nettie made a few days before she was burned to death. I would give it to you but it is one we treasure very much…”

You were loved, Nettie.

And today, 80 years after you left us, we remember you.


  1. See Texas State Department of Health, death certificate no. 14160, Mrs. H.D. Holley, 8 Mar 1934; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin. And see interview with Opal Robertson Cottrell (Kents Store, VA), by Bobette Richardson, 1980s; copy of notes privately held by the author. Opal Cottrell was the grandmother of Bobette Richardson and the author.
  2. The exact date when the Cottrells arrived in Clay County from Parker County isn’t known. M.G. and Mattie married in Parker County in 1874. Parker County, Texas. marriage license and return, M G Cottrell-Mattie Johnson, 27 Aug 1874; County Clerk’s Office, Weatherford. They were in Clay County by 1880. See 1880 U.S. census, Clay County, TX, population schedule, Precinct 4, enumeration district (ED) 164, p. 492(B), dwelling 17, family 17, M.G. Cottrell household; digital image, ( : accessed 12 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T9, roll 1296.
  3. See ibid.
  4. M.G. first bought property in Iowa Park in 1889. Wichita County Deed Book O:64-65; County Clerk’s Office, Wichita Falls.
  5. See notes of interview with Opal Robertson Cottrell (Kents Store, VA), by Bobette Richardson, 1980s.
  6. Ballenger & Richards 25th Annual Denver City Directory (Denver : Ballenger & Richards, 1897) 300, entry for Martin G. Cottrell; digital image, ( : accessed 7 Mar 2014).
  7. See 1900 U.S. census, Wichita County, Texas, population schedule, Iowa Park, enumeration district (ED) 127, p. 238(A) (stamped), sheet 5(A), dwelling 86, family 86, Martin G Catrell household; digital image, ( : accessed 29 Sep 2012); citing National Archive microfilm publication T623, roll 1679.
  8. See 1910 U.S. census, Tillman County, Oklahoma, population schedule, Frederick Ward 1, enumeration district (ED) 248, p. 41(A) (stamped), sheet 4(A), dwelling 71, family 74, Mattie Cottrell household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1275.
  9. See 1910 U.S. census, Wichita County, TX, population schedule, Justice Precinct 5, enumeration district (ED) 233, p. 73(A) (stamped), sheet 13(A), dwelling 180, family 180, H Dixon Holley household; digital image, ( : accessed 14 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T624, roll 1597. The census reported that the couple had been married for four years.
  10. Wichita County, Texas, Death Register, Mary Holly, 3 November 1907; County Clerk’s Office, Wichita Falls.
  11. 1910 U.S. census, Wichita County, TX, pop. sch., Justice Precinct 5, p. 233, ED 73(A) (stamped), sheet 13(A), dwell. 180, fam. 180, Myrtle Holley.
  12. Texas State Department of Health, death certificate no. 14222, Henry Dixon Holly, 17 June 1915; Bureau of Vital Statistics, Austin.
  13. 1920 U.S. census, Kiowa County. OK, population schedule, Mountain View, p. 142, enumeration district (ED) 98(B) (stamped), sheet 6(B), dwelling 59, family 59, Nettie H and Myrtle M Holley, boarders, in Mary E Biggs household; digital image, ( : accessed 15 Oct 2011); citing National Archive microfilm publication T625, roll 1467.
  14. 1930 U.S. census, Garza County, Texas, Post, population schedule, enumeration district (ED) 85-1, page 5-A (stamped), dwelling 101, family 105, Nettie and Myrtle Holley; digital image, ( : accessed 7 Mar 2014); citing National Archive microfilm publication T626, roll 2336.
  15. Email, Cladyne Cottrell Barrett (niece of Nettie Holley) to the author, 29 Sep 2002.
  16. “Woman Badly Burned Here,” Lubbock (Texas) Morning Avalanche, 8 Mar 1934, p. 2, col. 2; digital images, ( : accessed 7 Mar 2014).
  17. Texas State Department of Health, death certificate no. 14160, Mrs. H.D. Holley, 8 Mar 1934.
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22 Responses to Remembering Nettie

  1. Renate says:

    That’s a very sad story, but very well told. Thanks for sharing it with us.


  2. Pat Biallas says:

    What a story, Judy. It gave me goosebumps! Though life was not easy for anyone during the Depression era, Nettie had more than her share of burdens and heartbreaks. I bet she’d be happy to know she’s still being remembered 80 years later though, because of what you’ve written today.

    Pat B.

  3. Mary Ann Thurmond says:

    Thanks for sharing this, Judy! As family members, and as genealogists, it is very important for us to remember and give tribute to those who had tragedies in their lives, as well as those who had “better” lives. And you do this so well!!

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Thanks, Mary Ann! The tragedies of our family history are a little like leavening for the bread. Without it, life’s story is flat.

  4. Cynthia says:

    Do you have your Cottrells in a family tree on Ancestry? I went to check my tree when I saw you mentioned Holley and noticed I have Cottrells, too. Not my direct line, but Lucinda Cottrell in Texas married a William Cullom. My Holleys (not direct line)came from Arkansas to Tx/Ok.


    ps. I am the one related through the BATTLES line.

  5. Very powerful story of your ancestor. It really shows how piecing together someone’s life from bits and pieces can result in a family memory to preserve forever.

  6. Tina Telesca says:

    Thank you for sharing this. Such a sad story. Sometimes when I think I’m having a bad day, I think back to my ancestors and realize how good I really have it. Keeping our ancestors memories alive is so important.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      There sure are a lot of things they had to cope with that — fortunately — we don’t! Keeping that in mind does help when things get tough for us, doesn’t it?

  7. Paula Williams says:

    Wow, all this time I thought the note on the back was from Myrtle or one of the sisters – logically that made sense. It never occurred to me that it would be Mama Clay’s handwriting. And I know her handwriting well – how silly I feel for not noticing it was hers! Carol had told me it was from some things from Daddy Clay. I think at the time I was just focused on how cool it was to see the photo and its note :)

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      Take another look at it and see if you don’t think, now, it is Mama Clay’s handwriting. If you don’t think so, lemme know! (But I sure think it is…)

      • Paula Williams says:

        Oh, it sure looks like it. What I was trying to say in that comment was that I feel stupid for not noticing it was her handwriting. I’ll blame it on being wrapped up in the excitement of having such a cool photo :)

        • Judy G. Russell says:

          Oh heavens, yeah! It is one of the coolest finds, for sure. But all of a sudden I was having one of those “ulp… it is her handwriting… isn’t it???” moments…

  8. Annick H says:

    I am sad because of this tragic story, but I am in awe of your ability to tell it. I envy your writing skills and the depth of your feelings.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      What a nice thing to say, Annick! Thank you. It is a sad story, for sure. I’m glad you think I did it justice.

  9. Kristin says:

    Such a well told and moving story. Poor Nettie, her life was so hard and every time it seemed to be looking up, things fell apart. Last photos are so poignant.

    • Judy G. Russell says:

      I wish I had known more about her, Kristin. I’d like to at least think that she got a lot of joy out of her daughter, Myrtle (who was a gem — we have some lovely photos of her and she did live and prosper and marry and there are descendants I’ve been in touch with), and that she had some peace in her life before this tragic end.

  10. Debi Austen says:

    Judy, what a tragic story but as others have said, you told it so beautifully. I had chills and tears as I got to the end. Thank you for sharing Nettie with us.

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