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A quest for their father's father

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Photos by Tamie Meck Sisters Becky McKinney, left, of West Point, Mo., and Joan Ratliff of Littleton show a story on their triplet father and uncles, who were featured in a Time-Life book.

In 1942, a man named Obid Martin worked in Hotchkiss for a sheepherder named William Green.

His biological granddaughters, sisters Joan Ratliff of Littleton, Colo., and Becky McKinney, of West Point, Mo., would like to know more about what he did here, and where he might have been headed from here. Until last winter when a search on the genealogy website Ancestry.com revealed a World War II draft registration card that says he was in Hotchkiss and Lazear in 1942, they believed he had died during the Dust Bowl or Great Depression.

"That's the last official evidence we have on his trail," said Joan.

Their family history is quite remarkable. Obid Martin was born in 1888, in Mansfield, Wright County, Mo. In 1925 he lived in Hartville, Mo., with wife Verba Estell Martin and six-year-old son Vernon. The Dust Bowl era had begun, jobs were scarce, and he set out to find work.

"He did not know she was pregnant," said Joan.

"I don't know that she knew she was pregnant," said Becky.

With no income and no word from Obid, she sought help in delivering her baby at a home for women in dire straights. "On Feb. 2, 1926, she didn't have one baby," said Joan. "She had three beautiful triplet boys." They weighed nine, seven and six pounds. "Delivered naturally," said Joan. "Without any help."

Their birth caused a media firestorm. People lined up to get a glimpse of the triplets. A Miss Bowman ran the home and sent daily updates to the local paper.

"Then the gifts started pouring in," said Becky: money, bolts of felt for diapers, and two tons of coal. "Even a Confederate soldier came through, and he donated some of his silver coins."

The only way to tell them apart was to weigh them, so a local jeweler made diaper pins and engraved them with the boys' names: Peter, James, and John. "And Daddy was Peter," said Becky.

With no money and a son to care for, Verba relinquished the triplets to the orphanage. Not wanting the media circus, Miss Bowman put all three in a basket, boarded a midnight train to St. Louis, and prayed. "She prays all the way from Springfield to St. Louis for these boys and the lives they are about to have," said Becky.

The Children's Home Society of Missouri took them in. They were twice adopted together -- to a dentist and his wife who wanted twins but didn't want the media circus, and to a policeman with a family who couldn't afford them on his salary.

At age 2, the home adopted the triplets out separately. Dad Peter's name was changed to John C. Burch, and his brothers became John Jones, whom the sisters referred to as "JJ," and James "Jimmy" Hahn.

They grew up in the same area, and their adoptive parents never revealed their past. The two Johns did have two accidental meetings. Burch's grandfather was a contractor in St. Louis, and JJ Jones's dad was a plumbing contractor on one of his projects. One day they both took the boys to work. When a cousin of theirs saw them together, he gasped at the similarities. Mr. Jones told everyone it was coincidence, then shared the truth with his nephew and made him promise to never say "a damn word about it."

At 17, they met again at a drug store in Poplar Bluff, Mo. On a slow day the owner told Jimmy to go home and help his mom mow the lawn. Minutes later, JJ stopped in on his way through town to buy a soda and was mistaken for Jimmy by the owner. Struck by the similarities, he called for Jimmy to get down to the drugstore quick. Suspecting something was up, his mom went along and brushed their similarities off as coincidence. The boys shook hands and walked away.

Just before their 21st birthday, Jimmy's mom decided it was time the boys met. The Children's Home Society agreed and released the information on his brothers. She sent letters, but John Burch's letter returned misaddressed, and JJ's mother "point blank said absolutely no," said Becky.

In 1971, their dad learned he was adopted through documents left by his dad after his death. "We all were in complete shock," said Becky. Hurt by all the lies and deceit, their dad said he didn't want to hear another word and became clinically depressed.

Ten years later, John Burch needed a passport and contacted the orphanage for his birth certificate. When he asked if anything else was in his file, said Becky, the lady on the phone says, "Mr. Burch, are you sitting down?"

They found the other boys and in 1982 they all met in Wichita, Kansas, where their mother lived out her life and older brother Vernon lived. About 40 family members, including Vernon and a half-sister, Norma were there.

The similarities were remarkable, said Becky and Joan. They not only looked alike, they sounded alike, loved tap dancing and catfish dinners, and dressed alike right down to their style of slacks, bowties, eye glasses and Hush Puppy shoes. Their handwritings were almost indistinguishable, they all had ringing of the ears, and two of them married a lady named Mary.

They were interviewed on Good Morning America by Joan Lunden and featured on the "That's Incredible!" television show, on all the major networks, and in the tabloids.

In researching their family history, Joan and Becky learned more about their grandmother, Verba, and the "crushing" story of her life. Before Vernon, she and Obid had a son and daughter, Ralph, and Arine, who both died in the influenza epidemic of 1917-18 and are buried in Hartville.

After relinquishing the triplets, Verba moved to Wichita, remarried, and had Norma. She believed all along that Obid had died shortly after leaving her and Vernon in Missouri. Her sister wrote to her, "Don't you know your man has died, or he would have come back," said Becky.

Verba died in 1978 -- three years before the reunion of her three sons, and is buried in Hartville, Mo.

In searching for Obid, Joan and Becky have followed several leads -- Obid went to Garden City, Kan., to work on sheep ranches; worked at the Mays Sheep Company in Utah; died in a mine explosion in Miami, Oklahoma; and married a redhead in Arizona and had a whole family of red-headed children. Becky thought he may have worked on Hoover Dam in the early 1930s. They were unable to verify any of them.

Through Ancestry.com they read a credible account of him having a son and that both are buried in Idaho. A search of the state records for his death certificate came up "zero," said Becky.

Last winter, they found the draft registration card on Ancestry.com. They believe Obid Martin may have been drawn to Hotchkiss by relatives. In September they came to Delta County to see what they could find.

They searched records at the Delta County Court House and visited Lazear Post Office and were referred to Dixie Luke, whose local ranching history dates back 100 years. At the Hotchkiss-Crawford Historical Museum they met longtime Hotchkiss resident Karen Martin, whose late husband, Harold Lee Martin, is from Hartville, Mo.

But they found no new leads. "He moved on, apparently," said Becky.

They are hoping someone in the area knows something about William Green and where he raised sheep, or about James Madison "Matt" Martin. He was born in 1899 in Hartville, Wright County, Mo., died in 1961, and is buried at Riverside Cemetery in Hotchkiss along with wife Vivian. His father, David Nelson Martin, is listed in the 1880 and 1910 Wright County census.

Two of Matt's sisters, Tabitha Ellen Martin Latimer died in 1984 and Atlanta Sabre Martin Goswick died in 1974. Both are buried at Riverside Cemetery.

Joan and Becky's dad and Uncle Jimmy have both died, and "JJ" is living in Missouri and is in the care of their sister. He doesn't have a lot of time. While Becky and Joan want closure, Uncle Jim wants very much to know what happened to his father. "I think it would be much more meaningful to him," said Joan. "And the clock is ticking."

They ask that anyone with a credible lead email them at either beckym718@bellsouth.net, iratliff@msn.com, or tmeck@deltacountyindependent.com.

This World War II draft registration card led two sisters to Hotchkiss in search of biological grandfather Obid Mason Martin. They hope someone in the area knows something about Matt Martin or William Green that could help them find out more about him.
The only known photograph of Obid Martin.
Newspaper clippings about dad John C. Burch, and his reunion at age 57 with his two triplet brothers are among the documents Becky and Joan have collected on their family history. They are looking for information on their biological grandfather, whose last known location was Hotchkiss/Lazear.
The gravestone of James “Matt” and Vivian Martin at Riverside Cemetery in Hotchkiss. Matt Martin was listed on Obid’s 1942 draft card as his person of contact.
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