The move to Houston expanded my knowledge and broadened my horizons; each day in this new environment would bring challenges into my young life which would shape my personality and my future. I would learn to live in hope that “tomorrow would be a brand new day and things would be better.”
The day we pulled our trailer into the camp ground in Houston began a brand new way of life for us. Our world became huge, just about overnight, as we joined so many other displaced people living in this strange new city. This was going to be so different from the country home we came from where people were few. I would have to learn to live closely with lots of people and I would become even more independent with my “I can do it myself” attitude.
As we entered the camp ground area on that memorable day, Daddy drove the car pulling our home behind us and sure enough, like Mother had told him, there was a place where we could park our trailer under our own tree. Lots of people watched us as we pulled into the camp and we could see many children outside playing. These children would become our friends and we would later join them in watching people pull into a special space and set up housekeeping under their own tree, if they were lucky enough to find an empty space. There was block after block of city property with sidewalk running the length of the camp that children played on. I learned to walk on tom-walkers, skate and ride a bicycle on that sidewalk. The city furnished free water and we carried water from the free water faucets where the water line ran along the sidewalk. What a blessing to have the free water, but I can’t remember us being thankful for it.
In the camps, we found many people living outside and under lean-tos. Sometimes people would get married and they would strip out an old car body of its seats, put a mattress in there to sleep on and start up their own new home in the car body. A few of the people actually found enough material in dumps and other places to build small houses to live in and if they moved they just left it for some other lucky family moving into Houston. , We were thankful for the trailer our daddy had built so that we had a place to sleep inside. This was our home; a home where three little girls and a little boy would grow into teen agers and where our minds were formed day by day, always grateful for food and shelter and a good mother and daddy who loved each other.
Mother was a soft spoken and gentle lady and she had a beautiful, sweet smile. She was a nice dresser and carried herself with dignity always. She had been raised with a big family of brothers and she was an only girl until she married. The brothers loved their “Big Sis” and respected her greatly until they all passed away. My mother had a nature to be just a cut above and loved to win friends and influence people, so she always had friends. She was a good seamstress and being properly clothed was important to her, so she made her own bras and her little girls’ panties out of flour sack material and sewed them with a needle and thread.
Mother loved her children above all else in life and took good care of us. She knew where we were at all times and she had restrictions about where we would play all day. There were some camps she would not let us go visit. She never said why we couldn’t go there -we just knew our limits. She could not holler very loud but she had a way to whistle that we could hear her for a block away and we would run home when we heard her whistle! She made sure her children were clean and gave us baths in a number three wash tub. The camp lifestyle we had to live did not diminish who she was or change what was important to her. We were lucky to have such a strong mother.
After we got settled there in the Houston camp, Daddy put his creative mind to work and began building small children’s rocking chairs and three legged tables out of Willow limbs. He would go down to the Trinity River, and cut willow tree limbs and bring them back to our camp home. He would use them to make the frame of the rocking chairs and the legs of the tables. The seat and rockers on the chairs and the tops of the tables came from free wooden apple boxes he gathered from the stores around town. After he made the chairs and tables Mother would paint them beautiful stripes of all colors. I loved to watch her paint them. She painted flowers on the tops of the tables. How pretty they were!
I loved to go to houses and sell the tables and chairs to the people who lived there. (The tables were much easier to carry from door to door than the chairs) I would be thrilled when someone bought one from me - I was so happy to run back to the car to tell Mother I’d sold a chair or table! Then, I’d watch mother count the money to make sure I had received enough for the chair or table. Until this day I can never pass a Salvation Army kettle with its beautiful bells ringing or any other person in need that I don’t put in a little something in their kettle or container. I know the joy that my little bit will bring some child along the way of life.
My mother was a good business woman at heart. She knew there was money to be made by selling items needed by the public. So, she learned about a warehouse in Houston where she could buy items like safety pins on a ring, bobby pins, thread, needles, pot scrubbers, and pencils in bulk. Mother would help Lula and I put them in a cigar box or something similar so that we could lift the lid to display our wares and then we would go from door to door in neighborhoods selling these items. Lula and I were Mother’s helpers in selling these things to make money for our family’s needs, but my big sister, Freda, did not like to sell. She would beg Mother to let her stay home and she would wash the clothes and do the cooking that day if Mother would just let her stay home. And Mother did let her stay home, but it was hard work doing the washing on a scrub board and doing the kitchen work outside with no running water, so she did her part too.
At the end of the day, my mother would blow air between her two front teeth as she counted the pennies, nickels and little thin dimes in her hands. She would be very intense while moving the money around. I knew she was thinking that her children would eat another day if she managed the money right - and we did have plenty. We never lacked for food. She saw to that. Mother and Daddy were a good team together in making our life in the big city prosperous.
People everywhere enjoy having good entertainment to brighten their lives and it was no different in those Houston camps. We had the first radio in the camp that year. It ran on a battery from our car. Every Saturday night Daddy would take the radio outside and hook it up to our car battery. Everyone was invited to come over to our camp and listen to The Grand Old Opry from eight o’clock till midnight. The grown-ups would build a big fire using old tires to make a huge fire. And we would stand around the fire and listen to the music. Young folks would use this time to visit and talk to each other. Some of these talks resulted in the young folks getting married and we children played, making sure we stayed inside of the lights of the fire. We would tease about the young folks who were courting each other. That was the year I learned a brand new language called “Pig Latin” To me it was easy to learn and most of the children knew how to speak it so we had lots of fun speaking in such a strange way that some people didn’t know. One night we heard a boy ask a girl.” Illway euay arrymay emay?” O boy - we knew there would be a wedding soon!
Although we lived among the poorest of poor people of the great Depression years, we children didn’t know what poor was. We, like children everywhere, lived each day with lively interest. We crawled out of bed every morning and went outside where we played all day with our friends from off the camp grounds. We had good friends who we enjoyed being with. As long as we stayed in whistling distance of Mother we were fine. At the end of the day we crawled under the bed on the mattress and said our prayer Mother taught us. “Now I lay me down to sleep, I pray the Lord my soul to keep, If I should die before I wake , I pray the Lord my soul to take” and then I would say, “Good night Mother , Goodnight Daddy, Good night Freda, Goodnight Lula, Goodnight Buddy” and in turn they would all tell me goodnight. I don’t remember Buddy saying his prayers but I do remember us girls always saying prayers and goodnights. That was my first fellowship with the Father.
Preachers came often to the camps and set up church outside, sometimes on flatbed trailers with lamps hanging from a tree nearby, to hold protracted meetings. I always loved the opportunity to sing to my heart’s content; I sang loud and strong with the rest of the children from the camp. One year a preacher came through with some women to preach. They gave us children sheets of paper with fifty short verses from the Bible on it. They told us if we learned those verses so we could say all fifty verses to them from memory, they would give us fifty cents! I carried that piece of paper around for three weeks, learning the bible verses. One was John 3:16 that says, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son, that whosoever believeth on Him shall not perish but have everlasting life.” I was so thrilled those three weeks, because I was determined to learn all of them and I was anticipating what I might do with the fifty cents, but the people never came back. I never saw them again so I didn’t get the fifty cents, but now, I feel like I got so much more by learning Gods Word than whatever the fifty cents would have bought. At the time I was a very disappointed little girl, but, looking back, I’m so thankful those seeds were planted.
Mother and Daddy had become lonely to see their families back In Batson Prairie, so one day Daddy hooked up our trailer to the car and we headed back to visit Mother’s mom and dad and Daddy’s sisters and their families; that meant we had to give up our spot at that particular camp ground in Houston.
We got different receptions from our families back home. Daddy’s family seemed to be embarrassed by a family who lived in a trailer and Mother’s mom and dad seemed to think it was a good way to go for our time in life. That resulted in strained relationships with part of the family. On the other hand, Mother’s mom and dad, whom we called Momma and Papa Johnson, decided to build their own trailer and join us in our next trip back to Houston. By that time Mama Johnson had a little girl two years younger than I and a boy one year older than I was…which meant more children to play with - our Mama and Papa Johnson would fit right into the scheme of things in Houston! One of Momma and Papa’s sons, my Uncle Red Johnson, also built a trailer and moved to Houston with us. He, too, had a family with several children our ages. So, with our family joining us, we headed back to Houston in a caravan of trailers. Oh, what happy days!!!
Back in Houston, we found we had lost our place in the big camp ground so we had to find another camping site. It was much smaller than the first one and did not have a sidewalk; I missed that sidewalk. But, in this campsite, there was a creek that ran the length of the few blocks of the camp. One part was a deep gully where we children would sometimes play when there was no water in the creek. It was in this gully that some men from the camp got into a fight and some folks ran to our camp and told Daddy that two men were fighting against just one man. So, my daddy went to the gully and got down into the gully with them. I was scared of the fighting and could not look. When the fighting was over we were walking back home, and a lot of women were walking with us when it was noted that daddy’s pants had been cut and were hanging down. Being the proper lady that she was, Mother grabbed his pants and wrapped them around Daddy to keep his nakedness from showing! Then, there was a lot of nervous laughter from the women!
When we got back to our camp spot, Daddy told mother to stay in the trailer with the children because someone had called the law and he needed to go out in the woods near the camp. He thought this was a good plan because, he said, the law would be afraid to come out into the woods to find him. Sure enough, the law came out to our campsite and left without searching in the nearby woods. The next morning my daddy was back home and the law never came back to ask about the fight. All was well because my mother and daddy were both home again.
Momma and Papa had pulled their trailer next to ours at the new camp ground. They were a gregarious couple of people who mixed and made friends easily among the diverse folks who had moved into Houston from different parts of the country. Mama was a short and slightly fat woman with straight, black hair which she pulled straight back into a ball at her neck. Papa was a rather tall, skinny, red haired man who dipped snuff and loved to play dominoes out at a table under the trees with anyone who would play with him. A strange thing about him was that he had a great fear of getting syrup on himself. We could just point at him and holler, “syrup” at him and he would jump and beg us not to do that. For a while we thought it was funny; then mother made us stop because it was a real fear to him. I don’t know what he would have done if someone had put real syrup on him. Mother would not allow us to torment him with it but we sure thought it was funny to see him jump and holler like he did.
Papa was a veterinarian and a horse trader who had spent years in a covered wagon going from town to town doctoring animals and trading horses. When they moved on to the next farm, they took the horses with them, tied to the back of the covered wagon. Papa was respected as an experienced veterinarian and the farmers waited for him to make his yearly rounds to work on their animals. He taught his son, Red, his trade as well and Red became a licensed veterinarian carrying on in Papa’s footsteps.
Papa was also a fortune teller and some folks believed in him. He would tell them, “I am the seventh son of the seventh son, born with a veil over my face and able to tell you your past, present and future. Cross my palm with silver and know your future. “I have seen him take people into the trailer to be alone to tell them their fortune. I guess he made them happy because they would come out smiling. He was a very superstitious man who believed in magic and old wives tales. If a black cat ran across in front of him he would turn around and go back if he could and, if not, he would make a cross and spit in it. He would not walk under a ladder. Mother taught us that all of that was not true and told us not to pay any attention to what he said about things like that. Papa was very old when I knew him. He was tall and very limber and could still squat down easily and bend like a young man. Papa was killed in a car wreck when he was in his eighties and still in good health. Mama, on the other hand, suffered with a bad heart and died at age fifty nine with a heart attack.
There was a bakery across the highway from that camp ground and we would go over and buy day old bread and cakes. Mother would send us over there with a pillowcase to carry the bread in and with a little thin dime to pay for it. We would go to the loading dock where there was a big porch that the trucks backed up to so they could conveniently load and unload their bread every day. They would fill up our pillowcase with bread and we would give them our little thin dime. We were so happy when it included cakes along with the bread! The pleasant bakery smells still linger in my mind.
That was the year I found my first love. I turned six years old and Mother enrolled me in school – I fell in love with learning! I don’t remember much about the school except going into the dining room where they had laid lots of clothes on top of the tables and we were to pick out what we could use for school. I didn’t like that part but I’m sure Mother picked out some clothes for us - Mother knew she had to do what was necessary to have clothes for us children to wear to school. But, we didn’t stay at that camp for long, so my first school year was cut short.
My Uncle Red Johnson decided to make a trip to Central Texas to the ranches and small farms out there to work on their animals so he asked my daddy if he would like to go along as his assistant to help him hold the animals while he examined them, pulled their teeth and performed all the duties needed to care for the animals. So, once again we backed the car up to our trailer and hooked on. We went to many ranches and farms on the route and my daddy was making good money, which meant a lot that year. My daddy would bring his money to mother and she would buy what we needed and save the rest. My mother kept her savings in a Bull Durham tobacco sack pinned inside her bra - that way it was always safe. To us children it seemed a natural thing to do. Daddy always said that mother took good care of the money he made and knew how to save for a rainy day and she always did. Sometimes the small farms that needed a doctor for their animals could not pay in money and would pay with barter like chickens, eggs, milk, butter, or whatever they had on hand to barter with at the time of the service. That was one time I truly had enough fresh eggs to eat!
We moved often because we needed to be near the farms and ranches and that meant we would enroll in school and maybe not be there even a week until it was time to move again. I remember once starting to school and, when I went home to eat lunch that day, Mother was packing up to move again. Even if I got to go to school for only a half a day I always enrolled in school because I just loved going to school! However, I did not like my name and the teasing I endured because it was considered a boy’s name, so one time on this trip I gave the teacher my middle name, which was Hannah. Before I left that school I was sorry I had given that name because I found out it sounded strange to me and I did not like it. I never did that again! By the time I became an adult, and people had stopped teasing me about it, I found I liked my name: Stevie. So, when I was grown up and married my name was Stevie Hatcher Oldham….and I decided that is a pretty good name after all!
In those days, when my daddy came home from work I always met him down from the house and he would stop and I’d jump on the running board of the car. Then he would reach out and wrap his arm around me to hold me and then drive on back to the trailer. I looked forward to my daddy coming home every day! But one day I saw the car coming and he wasn’t driving - instead my Uncle Red was driving. My daddy was really white and he wasn’t smiling like he usually did when he saw me running to meet him. My gentle loving daddy was sad and he was holding crutches in front of him in the car. He had been badly hurt while working on a mule at a ranch outside of town. He told us later that he had not paid much attention when all of the cowboys ran and got on the fence when they brought in the mule. No one told them that this mule was mean and prone to fight. He was about the fifth animal to be examined that day on the ranch and the last one for Daddy to help with because he chewed my daddy’s leg almost off before Red got a piece of timber and prized his mouth loose from Daddy’s leg. Red took Daddy to the doctor and got him looked at and some emergency care, but my daddy never went back to the doctor after that. Instead, Mother nursed him and picked bones out of the wound for many months after that terrible experience.
Red kept working and would give Daddy a little money along to help us. Then, about two weeks after Daddy got hurt, Mother got a letter telling her that her brother had burned to death in a house fire in Houston. Her young brother was in his early twenties when he died and she could not even go for the funeral. That must have been a hard thing for her to bear.
I guess my Uncle Red had finished his veterinary work for that season because he loaded up his trailer, hooked on to it and went back to Houston to be with the family. With Daddy being so sick we were not able to move him, so we stayed behind in the little community somewhere northwest of Houston where Daddy had gotten hurt. I don’t know if Mother knew how to drive at that time but I’m not even sure Mother could have pulled the trailer down the little country roads by herself anyway. Mother was still carrying Buddy everywhere she went and by now the doctors had him in iron braces on both feet that extended to the knee. They were so heavy! I remember one night I was on the top bed with Daddy, and Mother was walking Buddy back and forth, back and forth the length of the trailer, to keep him from crying. Daddy sneezed real loud and scared me so bad I started crying too and Daddy said,” Everybody is scared of me and I wouldn’t hurt anybody.” I was so sorry he was feeling that way. I don’t know what Mother gave Daddy for pain but, even with it, I know he hurt really badly all the time. So, we had to stay there, my strong mother managing the best she could, until Daddy was finally well enough to drive us back to Houston.
Back in Houston we were lucky enough to get a place in the big camp grounds on Jensen Dr where the sidewalk was and I was really happy about that! We entered into the campground society again and life went on, but Daddy stayed on crutches for a long, long time. Buddy received treatment till he was about 4 yrs old
We resumed our door to door sales, so our mother began to purchase our sales items at the big warehouse in Houston again. Sometimes, since I was getting older, I went with her to buy them; I enjoyed it so much! In addition to the small household items such as bobby pins, shoe laces, thread, sewing needles, razor blades and safety pins, sometimes Mother would buy good smelling, pretty bars of soap that were packaged three to a box for us to sale. Back then, the housewife was usually at home because women didn’t often work outside their home. It was expected that the man of the family would go out and work a job, but during the difficult days of the Great Depression, twenty five percent of the men were out of work. They begged for jobs to buy food for their families and they were willing to work for anything from fifty cents a day to maybe a dollar a day while their wives managed the home and cared for the children. So, money was tight and the housewives bought very carefully, usually only purchasing items absolutely needed by their family. But, even in tough times, like the #greatdepression, the frugal housewife might purchase the good smelling, lovely soap we offered, seeing it could have a dual purpose: to keep her family clean and to add a touch of elegance to her life, though in a subtle, simple sort of way. When the housewife came to the door, we would present our display boxes, so that she could choose what she wanted to purchase. The women would go all through the boxes, handling and looking closely at everything in the box and I didn’t like it when my thread would get dirty from so much touching by different people.
Sometimes it was Daddy who drove us out to the neighborhoods to sell and sometimes we caught rides with other people from the camp who were going out to sell. I had friends who loved to sell and would brag to me about how much money they made a day. One particular child always made more money than I did. One day he told me I was too clean and if I’d not comb my hair and would wear ragged clothes I’d sell more, but when I told my mother she would not let me do that. Mother believed in being clean and our hair combed nicely.
I remember mother would meet us at the end of the block, take our box with our money and count it. The day would be hot at times and mother would be bent over the box counting the change and making those now familiar sounds like she was blowing between her two front teeth and making a clucking noise with her tongue. Sweat would be on her face, but still she was intent on counting the pennies, nickels and little thin dimes (never a quarter or half dollar). If I could go to twenty houses and sell something for a nickel at each house I’d have a dollar. We could go home when each one of us had made a dollar, but every house did not buy something and we had to go to many houses and knock on many doors to earn that dollar! With the money we earned, Mother bought food and gas for the car and more items to replace those we had sold. The rest of the money went into her Bull Durham tobacco sack where she kept her extra money she saved for a “rainy day.”
In those days, most people had a screen door behind their front door. Often the people would prop open the front door so a cool breeze could blow through the house but the screen door would be there to keep out the flies, dogs or other unwanted varmints. One day I knocked on a door and, as I was looking through the screen door, I saw a woman coming toward me and her face had something white all over it. The look of this woman scared me really badly but all I could do was just stand there! When she got to the door I asked her if she wanted to buy something and I was glad when she told me “no”. I went to where Mother was and told her about the woman and she told me she had what was called a mud pack to make her skin pretty, so I wasn’t scared anymore. I knew about putting something on your face because Mother was always putting stuff on her face to keep her skin pretty - but I sure was scared for a while!
Every year I looked forward to Christmas time, not because I got presents, but because we got to go into uptown Houston to sell on Main Street where the people hustled and bustled past and the atmosphere was so filled with energy! For about two weeks we did this instead of selling door to door in the neighborhoods. It was so exciting! I could stand in one place and watch the men, women and children walking swiftly by and enjoy all the sights and sounds around me. Sometimes, I would sit on a fire hydrant jutting out from a huge brick store front; it was nice not to have to just stand all day. It would be a couple of weeks of pure bliss for me!
Inside my box were only pencils. Mother would buy cedar pencils and also number two yellow pencils for us to sell. She knew people didn’t have time to stop and look at what I had but, if it were only pencils, they could keep on with their brisk pace, grab a pencil and leave a nickel or whatever they wanted to leave. Sometimes, maybe they left only a penny.
All around me would be people and movement! I remember the bells ringing from the Salvation Army’s places on the street. They did not stand close to the wall as I did, trying to keep a little warm, but rather they stood out next to the street with their tripod, which held the kettle that people put money in as they went by. They did not have anything to sell but were just asking for money to help the needy. Sometimes there would be a man selling small mechanical toys that he had to keep wound up so they would keep dancing or jumping. He would have eight or ten jumping around at one time. I loved to station myself near where he was displaying his wares because his windup toys were so pretty and fun to watch!
One year the Red Cross had a place on the edge of the street roped off and was collecting little thin dimes to help crippled children. Like the Salvation Army, they did not have anything to sell, but were just accepting these donations from any benevolent or kind hearted person who passed by. It was called “The March of Dimes” and I watched those two weeks, as those dimes multiplied over and over again. Since then, I have wondered how they kept the dimes safe overnight because there were too many to pick up and carry away every night. A man stood with them in the day time while I was there and he had a stick with a piece of wood on the end, kind of like a golf club. When someone came by and threw in a dime he would reach out and line it up with the rest of the little thin dimes. So, they kept stretching out, “marching” down the street. The width of the area was about as wide as a car and stretched out all the way down to the end of the block. By the end of the Christmas season, there were thousands of small, thin dimes and it was an amazing sight to see!
Along with the pleasures I enjoyed when I was selling the pencils on Main Street, I ended up in unpleasant situations sometimes too. Several times I saw kids from my school passing by and I’d turn myself sideways and pretend not to see them and when they were passed by I’d turn the other way. I felt embarrassed for them to see me selling pencils on the street. Oh, and sometimes it was so cold! But, if I were lucky enough I would be standing by a store door and would get to feel the warm air when the door opened.
All the while, as I managed the difficulties and enjoyed the pleasantries, people were rushing by and putting money into my box,sometimes taking a pencil and sometimes not, but I was glad when they gave me money and did not take a pencil because I knew mother paid a lot for those pencils. Sometimes, I ran out of pencils and it wouldn’t be time for mother to come back for me, so I’d just keep standing there with my open box and people kept giving me money.
One Christmas, when I was eight years old, I really wanted to buy my mother something. So, one day when I had made thirty-five cents, I decided to do it! (We were instructed to never spend any of the money we made but I did anyway, that one special time.) I went into a store near where I was standing and told the woman I had thirty-five cents and wanted to buy my mother a card or something. She advised me not to buy a card because she said a card would not last as long as something else and showed me a little gold shoe. It was so pretty to me, but I wasn’t sure it was special enough because it was so small. The sales lady said Mother would like it and that it would be a good keepsake for my mother, so I bought it for her. When I got it home, I got an old metal rouge box and painted the top with red fingernail polish to cover the name of the rouge company. I got some cotton from an aspirin bottle out of mother’s medicine shelves above her bed and laid it in the box and put the beautiful little gold shoe on the cotton and gave it to my mother. Mother kept that little gold shoe and still had it when she died at age eighty-five. The gold is just as shiny and pretty as when I bought it. (I recently sent it by my daughter, Becky, to one of my granddaughters named Ellen. Ellen is living out my dream of being a teacher and has taken extra college work to become a Reading Specialist in her field of teaching and she is now teaching gifted and talented children.) Life goes on… Praise the Lord! God’s blessings are still with us.
One day a woman with red hair asked Mother if she could take me into one of the big clothing stores on Main Street and buy me something. Mother said she could and waited for me at the door. Inside the store, the woman picked out a sweater for me that was very soft and furry; it would have been very nice but the shoulders were hanging down on my arm. When I said it was too big the woman said that shoulders hanging down like that were the latest style. Well, it may have been the latest style, but it was very uncomfortable to me and I thought it looked way too big on me! But, the woman thought it was beautiful and bought it for me. Mother was getting worried about me and was relieved when we finally came out of the store. I never liked the sweater that felt too big rather than “the latest style.” I cared nothing for style.
I remember a policeman who was standing in the middle of an intersection in downtown Houston, directing traffic. There were no red lights in Houston yet and the policeman would blow his whistle really loud and stop all the traffic and then he would raise his hand and the cars would go East and West and then he would blow his whistle and then raise his hand and the other cars would go North and South. I loved to watch how smoothly the traffic traveled. (There were not a lot of cars on the road back then.) One time Mother didn’t come back when I thought she should and I got afraid and went into the street to the policeman and told him my mother had not come back for me and he took me to a place where I was safe. Later, Mother came back to pick me up and I was gone. She was frantic! Then, she went to the policeman who told her where she could find me and, so, she went where he had told her, and found me waiting there. I was so glad to see her! That was the only time I ever got afraid being left alone on the streets of Houston; most of the time I loved being in downtown Houston selling those pencils at Christmastime!