Kevin L. Hoover
Mad River Union
ARCATA – Something terrible happened in Arcata on Sunday, Feb. 10, 1952.
That rainy morning, Guy Stewart Montgomery and Eleanor Elaine Rudolph Montgomery, ages 32 and 27, were riding in the back seat of a car driven by Harold Rhoades, 26. The two couples were headed back to Arcata after a long night of socializing, probably in Blue Lake.
According to the Arcata Union and Humboldt Times, while traveling westbound on Highway 299, one-and-a-half-miles east of Highway 101 near the Mad River Bridge, Rhoades’s car hit a patch of gravel at a turn and slid out.
The car sailed 600 feet off the road, rolling over and ejecting Mrs. Montgomery, who died instantly. Her husband, along with Mr. and Mrs. Rhoades, were taken to Trinity Hospital.
The Rhoades’ were treated for minor injuries, but Mr. Montgomery’s injuries were critical, and two days later, he died.
Rhoades, the driver, was later charged with manslaughter for the Montgomerys’ deaths.
The accident left the young couple’s five children without parents. But at least in the immediate sense, that may have improved their fortunes.
Police found the girl and four boys in neglectful, even desperate conditions. They’d been left on their own at an Arcata wrecking yard owned by William Wayne “Mac” McCarty where Guy worked, and showed signs of malnutrition and physical abuse.
The five-year-old girl, Myrna, had taken charge as a stand-in mother to her male siblings, doing what she could to protect and help them fend for themselves in the industrial facility.
The five Montgomery children were taken into custody, and in due course adopted out in Arcata and Eureka. They were dispersed among several families, and gradually lost contact with each other.
A long-shot outreach
Last month, 67 years and five days after the accident, a letter arrived at the Mad River Union’s office, postmarked Colorado.
Written in shapely cursive on lined yellow paper, the letter read:
“My name is Myrna Renner Montgomery, and I am one of five children that was left behind due to a fatal accident that caused the death of my parents,” the letter read. “I am now trying to find the other children.”
Of the five Montgomery kids, the youngest was Jody. Then Guy, Jr. and Stanley, with Myrna the second oldest at age 5. Her big brother was Stewart. She’s had no contact with any of them since childhood.
“I don’t know if any of these boys remember me or know of me, but I would like to know if they do, and if they’re all right. Was life good to them?” wrote Myrna.
Her life has had its challenges, and though she lived with her step parents into her teenage years, her memories of them are very sketchy.
“Mostly, my reasons are probably selfish, as I am 72 now and spent my entire life not knowing anything about my parents,” she wrote. “No pictures, names, nothing until a little over a month ago.”
Myrna, who is “old school” and no techie, enlisted the aid of computer-friendly assistants to dig up what they could about her family. “I found the names (adopted) and have been trying to put the puzzle together since,” she wrote.
Myrna’s adoptive parents, whom she hadn’t seen since age 16, were Joseph Roy Browne and Kathaleen Ruth Browne of Arcata, now deceased.
Everyone wanted to help
Along with a notice in the Union, Myrna’s appeal was posted on the popular nostalgia/history Facebook page, “Arcata, Back in the Day.”
This elicited a wave of immediate and enthused assistance. Commenters probed their memories, and looked up valuable genealogical information on DNA-testing websites. Some even located what could be distant relatives and offered to get in touch.
Cautious about online approaches, the Myrna camp was pondering how to respond, when this comment was posted:
“Hi Myrna, my name is Jane, I am your brother, Guy’s wife. He would love to hear from you.”
The commenter, Jane McCarty is Myrna’s sister-in-law. Within minutes, Myrna was speaking with her brother Guy. He proceeded to clear up many of the mysteries that had haunted her these 67 years.
Myrna learned that the McCarty family had wanted to adopt all of the children, but ended up with Stanley and Guy. Jody, the baby, was adopted by the Petich family in Eureka. Stewart was adopted by a family in Pennsylvania.
The four boys had kept in touch for a time, and even held a reunion in Arcata perhaps 40 years ago. Guy and Jane were in touch with Jody as recently as 2010, when he was about to move to Sacramento or Redding. Stewart became estranged, and later died. Stanley too passed away.
“This is like winning the jackpot,” Myrna said later. “It’s been a heck of a day.”
Difficult, patchy memories
Myrna shares her own memories. She recalls her biological parents as avid socializers who were “pretty good at drinking,” and “not in the best shape.”
The family lived in Arcata at the time, and on Saturday, Feb. 9, her dad apparently stashed the kids at the Arcata wrecking yard to “go out partying with the other couple all night long,” Myrna said.
Myrna remembers being left alone overnight with her baby and toddler brothers in the “great big junkyard” owned by Mac McCarty – apparently what is now Arcata Scrap and Salvage on South G Street.
An online weather history website lists the low temperature for the Eureka area that night as 41 degrees, with nearly a half-inch of rainfall.
Myrna doesn’t recall just how the children made it through the night, their sleeping conditions or how they kept warm in the cold, wet scrapyard.
“From what I understand, we didn’t,” she said. “Inside, it was bad,” she said. “We were in pretty bad, bad shape.”
Her step brother said that responding authorities for the situation “horrendous – the worst they’d ever seen.”
“They said I was the ‘parent.’ They just wrapped us up and took us away.”
To finally know
Guy and Eleanor’s shared grave marker is located at Arcata’s Greenwood Cemetery.
A photo on findagrave.com indicates that Myrna’s mother was born Aug. 28, 1924 in Pennsylvania. No data is listed for her father.
Myrna said the revelations about her family have been life-changing. “Some were good and other things broke my heart, but I’ve always been strong and answers are better than having nothing,” she said.
The breakthrough “opened a door to my past life and I was given peace and the gift of finding my brothers that were lost to me for over 60 years. I now have some and also gained a brother and with him, answers to the others. I can now have peace with the past and try and root out the stories I’ve heard all my life. Sometimes the truth can be harder than the stories in your mind. There’s healing in truth, but none in not knowing.”
She’s deeply appreciative to those who helped her put the pieces together, especially with “the way the country is today, with all the turmoil and distrust and people always in a hurry, they can’t even tell you their neighbor’s name.”
More to come
Of course, a visit is in the works. Myrna will be traveling to Arcata soon to meet her long-lost brother and sister-in-law.
Jane is hunting down more family photos, including one of Myrna and Guy’s mom and dad. If she finds it, it will be the first one Myrna has ever seen.
“I’ve waited all these years,” Myrna said.