The Early Years—School, Work and Loneliness
Camilla: And that was the main elementary school?
Jimmie: Yes, it was. You went there for first through fourth grade, the only first through fourth grade in town. There was no kindergarten. Then you went to South School, which is called Ocotillo now, out on south Florence Street/Chui Chu Highway. That was where you went fifth through the eighth grade. Then you went on to the high school. I went to Central School for four years, South School for four years, and high school for four years.
Camilla: Was there segregation at that point?
Jimmie: Yes, there was. To tell you the truth, the one over by Ocotillo must have had but I wasn’t aware of it at Central School. I guess there weren’t any Blacks enrolled at Central so I didn’t realize any difference. As there is today, there were lots of Hispanics. One thing I remember in regard to Hispanics was that, if they couldn’t speak English when they entered school, a lot of them got carried over an extra year early on, like at second grade. They had to have some kind of proficiency. A lot of our classmates ended up having to repeat the second or the third grade.
But segregation was still practiced. When I realized that was happening was when I went to South School. Mr. Dallis and his wife, the teachers at the segregated school, were across the South School playground on the southwest side. They were the only teachers there that I remember. In later years Essie White was a teacher over there, I think.
Camilla: The Black children were in some parts of the school and the whites in the other part? Were they actually integrated in the classrooms at all?
Jimmie: No, they weren’t at that time. They had their own building, the one that’s now at the Historical Society, and it was across the playground. Segregation was alive and going strong in those days. But it wasn’t by the time I went to high school. By then the high school was integrated. There was no segregation there. I never saw any problems or that blacks were treated any different from anyone else. But at the lower schools, generally speaking, Blacks were on the other side of the fence. We used to play them in sports and sometimes P.E. would be commingled, but otherwise, no.
I started to work delivering newspapers when I was a youngster. I probably started at 6-7 years old. I had a morning and evening paper out of Phoenix. The Republic was still in existence as a morning paper. The afternoon paper was The Phoenix Gazette. Several guys threw papers. You’d ride your bicycle and throw the paper. Each of us had a district and we went out and asked people to subscribe. Every week you’d go and collect money for payment. I threw newspapers both morning and afternoon until I was 12 years old.
We got those papers at the train station. The papers were always coated over with old newspaper and wrapped with wire. You would get them at 4-5 o’clock in the morning and it was pretty cool in the winter time so you’d get under the cover where it was warmer and take the old wrapping and wire and throw them up on the roof of the train station. The station master, Pappy Guinn, would come out and get after us, every once in a while, and we’d all get up there and clean it off. Then, after a period of time, we’d do it again and he’d be after us again.
After World War II we got the papers at the Greyhound Bus Station which was down on Main Street. Immediately east, on the south side of Main Street, was a huge black water tank for the railroad. Just beyond that was the Greyhound Bus Station. Then we’d go across the street to the Chinese restaurant called the Owl Café to eat doughnuts. We’d fold the papers up and put them into a big canvas bag on the handlebars of our bikes and we’d sail those papers into the yards.
When I got to be twelve I went to work for Long Enterprises which owned the theaters here and for the local manager, Henry Bowers. I think he probably owned a percentage of the business but the lion’s share was owned by a fellow by the name of Louis Long out of Safford. Movie theaters were the main entertainment not only here but throughout the state and the nation, too. It cost a dime to go to a movie in those days. The Chief Theater was on Main Street. It was open four days a week, Friday-Monday. It was very convenient for me while I was in school as a youngster. I continued to work at The Chief until I graduated from high school. I started as a ticket taker and an usher—in those days they’d take you in with a flashlight and help you find a seat. Sometimes I sold popcorn, candy or pop. On Friday and Saturday we used to run Mexican movies. Sunday and Monday was American movies in English.
After World War II, Casa Grande was really booming. People were leveling land. There’d been a big demand for cotton during the war, but after the war a lot of the service guys were coming back home and people were going out and taking the desert areas, putting a drag behind them and just dragging them off. They’d found that if you put some water on the desert, it just grows fantastic! And the price of cotton was good. We used to have the migrant workers come in because of the cotton. The town would swell to double or triple the normal size which would have been about 3-4,000 people by 1946. I’m not sure. We had a lot of businesses start here because of the migrant workers. Let’s say there were 8 or 9,000 people here during picking time so there was a need for more businesses to service them. There were 323 seats in The Chief Theater and on Saturday and Sunday afternoons we’d have a line to go into the theater and we would see all 323 seats filled up. Then, when it was over, we’d open the exit doors on the back as well as the front and get everybody out and we’d lock it back up and we’d already pre-sold the people waiting outside.
Camilla: Oh, my. You did it twice each day!
Jimmie: It’s hard to believe but Stanfield had a theater, too. Mr. Long put a theater there that was probably 6-700 seats. Most of the migrants lived out on the farms and Stanfield was right in the middle of it.
Camilla: You’ve had a long career of being very active—even as a young man.
Jimmie: Yes. I grew up fast and I needed to work for any extras. My Dad provided the basics. I was raised in a man’s world. My Dad was single and he was a heavy drinker. He liked women, chased women, and he loved to gamble. So, I grew up in a little different world—I certainly wasn’t sheltered. But I wasn’t abused, either. My Dad never beat up on me. There was always food. If I wanted more than two shirts, I needed to work for whatever extras I wanted.
At The Chief I just worked four days a week. Later on I was transferred to The Paramount. Then, through most of my high school time, I worked 44 hours per week at night and on the weekends. Saturday and Sunday we had matinees. There was a confectionary on the north side which was a hamburger stand, not freestanding, on the north side.
Many of my friends’ mothers coddled me. I guess they thought, “Poor little redhaired boy. He has no mother.” I had two cowlicks in the front. (Laughter.) I had a teacher in the fourth grade, Mrs. Owens, who liked to pull hair. I guess I was a jibber-jabber because she would have me sitting at a desk right up by her. She’d reach over and pull my hair. So I started getting crewcuts. I wore crewcuts all my life when I had hair.