Wednesday, May 14, 2008


My father’s father was Joseph Newton Riggs, Sr., but I called him Granddaddy Riggs. He was also known in Amarillo as J.N. I did not know him well and he died when I was about nine. He spent the last three years of his life in a nursing home in Dallas, so I did not see him after I was five or six years old. He was always a mystery to me.

I recall Granddaddy Riggs as a little old man who did not say much and followed my grandmother, Mammy, around and did what she told him to do. I thought she was very bossy and seemed to treat him like a child. I even thought that he might not have been too bright. The two pictures to the left are the way that I remember Granddaddy Riggs. I suspect his health was beginning to decline in those years and that is probably why we do not have many pictures of Granddaddy Riggs in our family photographs after that time.
About ten years ago, I began seeking more information about Granddaddy Riggs. I was always curious about what kind of man he really was and decided to ask my father about him. Daddy had never said much about his father and it was clear that his mother played a much more important role in his life. With Daddy’s stories, and the help of the Amarillo Public Library, and the Amarillo newspaper archives, I found out quite a bit about Granddaddy Riggs.

Daddy told me that Granddaddy Riggs was first married to Minnie Little in Paris, Texas, and they had three children. Minnie Little died shortly after the birth of Katherine (Kate), their third child. The older two children in the family were Ralph Smith Riggs and George Record Riggs. According to Daddy, the children were kept by a Mrs. Bettison in Paris, Texas, until Granddaddy Riggs married Maude Ophelia Hancock (we called her Mammy) and then the children later moved to live with Granddaddy and Mammy in Amarillo.
According to Daddy, Granddaddy Riggs worked as a salesman for a small wholesale hardware company in Paris, Texas, after his first wife died. He then went to work for Simmons Hardware Company in St. Louis, Missouri for a time. Since he is not listed in the 1900 Texas Census, I assume that he was in Missouri in 1900—just a year after the death of his first wife. However, he is not listed in the Missouri Census Index either. Daddy said that Granddaddy Riggs became a specialty salesman for Keen Kutter knives, scissors and garden tools. The Keen Kutter line of tools was a product of the E.C. Simmons Hardware Company, and those tools are now sought out as collector’s items.

Granddaddy Riggs moved his new wife, Maude Hancock Riggs, to Longview, Texas, and that is where Daddy was born. The birth certificate for Daddy states that his father was working as a traveling salesman for Simmons Hardware at the time of the birth of his son. Daddy said that Granddaddy Riggs met Mr. E.W. Hardin, the founder of Amarillo Hardware Company, in St. Louis, MO, when they were both working there. Mr. Hardin encouraged Granddaddy Riggs to move to Amarillo to work for Amarillo Hardware Company as a traveling salesman in the early days of the company they moved to Amarillo shortly after Daddy was born in 1906. At first they rented a house and then, about 1908, Granddaddy Riggs built a large home at 1410 Monroe for his family.

The picture to the left shows the newly finished Riggs home in Amarillo. Mammy wrote the names Kate, Newton (Daddy), and Maude (Mammy) on the picture. Granddaddy and Mammy raised their children in that house and Mammy stayed there until her death in 1959. The house was remodeled in later years. The porch on the left side was turned into a sun room and a portico, driveway and garage were added on the right side.

Granddaddy Riggs worked as a traveling salesman for Amarillo Hardware Company in the Texas Panhandle for a time, and then opened a car dealership in Amarillo. The 1910 census lists J.N, 35, living at 1410 Monroe Street with his wife, Maude, and children: Ralph, 14; Record, 13; Katherine, 10; and J. Newton, 2. The 1910 census states that the occupation of J.N. is “Commercial Traveler.” The census also indicates that he owned his home and did not owe any money on the house. By 1920 the city directory shows that he owned Panhandle Motor Company. He was also part owner of a hardware store in Dalhart, and was elected a County Judge in Amarillo in the 1930s. During his years in Amarillo, he also acquired a number of real estate lots and property in the city.

According to newspaper articles in the archives of the Amarillo Globe News and the Amarillo Daily News, Granddaddy Riggs was a busy and productive man in his younger days and was quite an active leader in civic organizations. He was Chairman of the Victory Loan Committee of Potter County in 1919 and is listed as an organizing member of the Amarillo Lions Club that year. He was elected eminent commander of the Masonic Lodge in 1920. He was president of the Lions Club in 1922, president of the Amarillo-Panhandle Automotive Association, and was a director of the Tri-State Fair Association in 1923. He was elected president of the Board of City Development in 1925, was a Panhandle Council Boy Scout sponsor in 1927 and was president of the group that year. He was Potentate of the Khiva Shrine Temple in 1929 (see picture to the left). He was quoted in a 1938 newspaper story entitled “Plains Drummer” describing the life of traveling salesmen in the Panhandle.

The newspapers also had several articles about his tenure as county judge in Potter County between 1935 and 1938, including one about budget woes, another about the role of the county judge, and a humorous one over a salary dispute, entitled “Ink Pots Fly in County Row.” Through Daddy’s stories and the pictures and newspaper articles that I found, I came to know much more about Granddaddy Riggs, and I feel that I have grown a great deal closer to him through my research. I learned what an active and productive man he was. I now see him as someone who was involved in a leadership capacity with a number of civic organizations, who owned his own business, and who was also a well-known county judge. I regret that I missed knowing more about him earlier in my life. However, I am thankful that the picture I have of him now is much fuller than what I remembered from my childhood.


  1. Pat, how wonderful that you were able to find all this wonderful information. It must have been thrilling to discover that the grandfather you had known as an old man had been so dynamic and successful in earlier years — that your roots are hardier than you'd realized.

    You were doubly fortunate in having a high-profile ancestor to investigate, and that he was male. Digging out crumbs of information about most women from earlier eras is much more challenging. Their lives remained mostly hidden from public records.

    What a powerful example of the value of writing our own stories!

  2. It's so neat that you found all this out about your grandfather. What a neat story!!

  3. This discovery of my "real" grandfather was one of the most moving experiences in my quest for stories of my family history.

  4. Pat, my dad bought that house in the 60's when I-40 was put in. He moved it to W. 20th. I've lived there 33 years!
    I can send you a picture of it now if you want! Maggie