Norris Chambers Old Timer's Tales

Another Old Fort Worth Tale

by Norris Chambers

   This old Fort Worth tale is not about a shoot out on the street or a trip through Hell's Half Acre, however the district had not been closed too many years when I first came to Fort Worth. In 1935 I graduated from a country school with a senior class of 10. I received a scholarship from Brantley Draughon College in Fort Worth in secretarial studies. In those days most secretaries were men. Very few women had entered the work force. It was a common profession for men. The course taught typing, shorthand, bookkeeping and related courses in business law, business spelling, office machines and so forth.

  The school, located in the upper floor of two adjoining buildings in about the three hundred block of Main Street, advertised that they found jobs for those wishing to work for their board. I arrived on a Saturday afternoon, after graduating the night before, and met the college representative who was to get me located. His name was Harcrow, and he knew exactly where he was taking me.

  A ride in a Travel Bureau car from Brownwood to Fort Worth cost $1.00. Almost every town had at least one travel bureau. I remember at least four in Fort Worth. The operation was simple. A person traveling through a city and desiring to get a little help with expense registered at the bureau and a person wishing to go that way paid the fee. The bureau kept their percentage and the person making the trip rode to his destination. Sometimes several rode in a car, if necessary. Some bureaus offered a trip to Chicago for as little as $12.00.

  The bureau car let me off at the office on Main Street at about 13th or 14th and I walked northward to the college office, carrying my old "suitcase". Mr. Harcrow greeted me and gave me an automobile ride to 6th and Burnett. This was a large two story house known as Beck's Boarding House.

  Mrs. Beck was a tall, thin lady. I thought she was nicely dressed, but she apologized for her appearance. She said it was "work day". I found out later that Saturday would be work day for me, also. I was introduced to her. She was pleasant, but didn't smile. After thanking Mr. Harcrow and sending him on his way, she told me to follow her.

  "I have four boys who work here," she told me, as we walked toward the stairway. "I will show you your room, then I will explain your duties." We climbed the stairs and entered a long hall with three doors on each side and one in the far end. A window above the stairway on the east side allowed enough light to examine the hallway. She knocked on the>middle door on the right, but there was no answer. She opened the door and we walked into the room. There was a bed, a chest of drawers, a table and two chairs. There was a small window on the north side and immediately to the left an even smaller door. She opened the door and pointed into a very small area that contained a metal cot, a narrow table and a chair. I guessed the size of the room to be about six by eight feet.

  "This will be your room," she said. "You are lucky to have your own bed. A gentleman rents this room. When you leave, be very quiet. Keep the door closed between you. When you pass through his room, always knock softly. When he is not in the room, don't disturb any of his belongings." The little room had been added on the side of the house. I supposed that it had been a small patio at one time, and it had been enclosed to make a bedroom. I shoved my bag inside, closed the door and followed her downstairs. She continued talking.

  "You will report to the kitchen every morning at 5:00. Mr. Beck is in charge of the kitchen, and he will tell you what to do. You will work until 8:00. You will go to school, and you will report back to the kitchen at 12:00 and will work until 1:00. You will begin the evening's work at 6:00 and will work until 8:00, or until Mr. Beck tells you are finished. On Saturday, you will work the regular hours, but will also work in the yard and do other chores as needed. Sunday will be the same as Saturday, but we will not work during the day. I encourage my boys to go to church on Sunday.

  "We have sixteen boarders who are fed at all meals and usually we have many more drop-in's. We serve the best meals in town for only 25 cents. On Sundays we have many families stop by after church. We have a long waiting list."

  The front room was large. There were two tables that ran almost the full length of the room. A smaller room at the left of the entrance served as a waiting room for those who had come to dine. The boarders always had top priority and were seated as soon as they appeared.

  The breakfast preparation started very early, along with preliminary preparations for dinner. The breakfast menu consisted of just about everything normally eaten for breakfast - eggs, bacon, sausage, biscuits, toast, jellies, fruits, etc. Special requests for just about any dish were honored and delivered to the table. Mr. Beck was an excellent cook. Each of the tables had a boy assigned as a waiter. It was our job to see that all dishes were kept full and to take care of any special request. We poured coffee, tea and water as needed. Empty bowls or platters were returned to the kitchen where the other boy and Mr. Beck refilled them. Dinner and supper were the same way. The table was loaded with all kinds of meat, bread, potatoes and other cooked vegetables with many kinds of pie and cake for desert. Coffee, tea, water and soft drinks were dispensed as requested. It only cost a quarter for the complete meal. Some other places in town offered similar meals for as little as fifteen cents, but the fifteen cent meals were not as elaborate.

  A competitor, Mrs. Simpson's Boarding House, at about second or third street offered similar meals for the same price. I later worked there for awhile, and it was there that I first got acquainted with W. Lee O'Daniel, a future Governor of Texas and later a Texas Senator. He hired me for $12.50 a week after he left Burrus Mills and started his own flour company. Things went well at Beck's for two weeks. We did our jobs during the week and then on Saturday worked in the yard or did clean-up in the house. Using a hose and spraying water was new to me. All the water I had handled had been from a bucket. I was quite fascinated by the high pressure and the stream of water you could project with those new-fangled hoses. The second Saturday morning I was spraying the grass and washing off the hedge, etc, as I had been instructed when disaster erupted. I had a strong spray of water on the hedge along Burnett Street when I targeted a sparse section and a passerby on the sidewalk happened by. I must admit that I gave her a good sprinkling over the upper portion of her body and over the face and head. When I realized what was happening, I turned the spray in another direction and retreated to the other side of the house.

  That wasn't the end of it. The middle aged lady evidently had a poor sense of humor. She was very upset and stormed into the house to complain. Soon Mrs. Beck told me to come inside, after determining that I was the guilty party. The poor lady was sitting in a chair with a large towel in her hands. She looked up at me and gave me a very belligerent look. Mrs. Beck looked at me about the same way.

  "Apologize to the lady," she ordered me. I lost no time in complying.

  "I'm sorry," I told her. "I didn't see you on the other side of the hedge." She didn't take my apology gracefully and began a tirade that left little doubt that she was very unhappy. If this had happened during the 1990's she would have probably threatened to sue. Mrs. Beck pointed her finger at me and began a lecture.

  "I will have to speak to the school about you," she concluded. "Now get back to work!"

  I was not accustomed at that time to berating. Without giving it much thought, I walked down the street looking for a place to stay. My wandering took me up in the vicinity of the court house and Belknap and Bluff Streets. In about the 200 block of one of the streets I saw a sign hanging over the sidewalk proclaiming: ROOMS FOR RENT, 50 cents a day and weekly rates. The sign was over a stairway, so I walked up several flights to the second floor. There was a desk at the top of the stairs and an old gentleman sat there. He looked up and asked me what he could do for me. After considerable discussion, he rented me a room for $2.50 a week.

  The room wasn't much. Probably about eight by ten feet in diameter. It had a single bed, an old chest of drawers and a wash table by the bed. There was a pitcher of water and a snuff glass on it. The rack above held two towels and a wash cloth. There was a window on the north side, looking out on the street. There were rooms on both sides of a long hall and the bathroom was at the end of the hall.

  I had brought about twenty-five dollars with me, and I felt like this was the proper thing to do. I had a little money in the postal savings at Brownwood and I knew I could get by for awhile until I found another job. I went back to Mrs. Beck's and started packing my worldly possessions in my old suitcase and a big paper sack. My belongs had increased a little - mostly text books from school.

  When I came down carrying my stuff, Mrs. Beck asked me where I thought I was going.

  "I thought you didn't want me here, so I got a room and I'm leaving!" She told me that wasn't what she meant. She had never had a boy leave before. What would I do? Where would I live? I explained to her that I had a room at the Clinton Hotel and would stay there until I could do better. She told me I couldn't stay there. That wasn't a respectable part of town. But I walked out and moved into my new home.

  Monday morning when I arrived at school, I was called into the business office. Mrs. Beck had already talked to them and they thought I ought to go back. But I was determined to stay away. Mr. Kirby, one of the administrators, told me I couldn't live where I was and suggested that I stay with a room mate in a better area. He said there was a nice young man from Shamrock looking for a room mate and he had a nice rooming house at 700 West 5th that we could rent for $3.00 a week. He introduced me to Louis Ellison and the two of us walked to Mrs. O'Connor's at the new address. She had an old two story house with many rooms that she rented. No cooking facilities were available. She let us have a nice roomy place on the second floor, at the end of the hall nearest the bath room. We moved in late that afternoon.

  Louis and I became good friends instantly. He had been staying at the YMCA nearby, and he introduced me to the swimming pool in the basement. We spent a lot of time there exercising and swimming. I have very pleasant memories of the YMCA. We used their facilities free of charge and they were very nice.

  Mr. Kirby got me a job at Bybee's Cafe on Commerce Street. I got two meals a day there for four hours work. The work consisted of washing dishes and whatever else Mr. Bybee needed. He was a good boss. Louis got a job at the Gusher Cafe on lower Main Street. He had a similar arrangement, except he had to work 6 hours. A few weeks later I worked at the Gusher. It was a good place to work.

  On Saturdays and Sundays I rode the street cars. They went to all parts of town and the drivers were very nice about transfers. I could ride for hours on a nickel. On one trip that I made the track made a sharp turn around a narrow corner and a automobile had parked too close to the track for the car to make the turn. The driver stopped and the street car passengers got out and pushed the auto out of the way and we continued the trip. The telephone numbers were much simpler then. A "2" prefix followed by four numbers designated a down town phone. A "6" indicated Polytechnic, etc.

  I spent as much time as I could in the radio stations watching the different bands perform. There was much live entertainment on the radio in those days and I got acquainted with several of the performers.

  On the 4th of July the city provided a FREE barbecue at Forest Park with free swimming. Louis and I rode a street car to the area and walked down the hill to the park. We enjoyed the free barbecue and spent a lot of time swimming in the pool. We looked at the animals and just generally had a good day.

  I found a job at New England Cafeteria, on either Houston or Throckmorton. I took that job because it paid the tremendous sum of 25 cents a week in addition to the two meals. The work there consisted mostly of rolling the dirty dishes back to the kitchen on a cart. After a few weeks I was given a promotion to 35 cents a week, but my duties now included keeping the bucket under the drain at the water fountain emptied. The first day I forgot it and it ran over on the floor. At the end of the week the boss paid me my 35 cents and told me my services would not be needed any longer. At the end of the summer Louis' scholarship expired and he went back to Shamrock. This left me without a room mate. Since I was newly in search of a new job, I was hired at the Gusher to take his place. This cafe had a wooden oil derrick over the front porch that was well lighted at night. The prices were very low and they had a very busy business. All the beans and corn bread you could eat was only five cents and you could have tea or coffee with it. They froze their own ice cream and it was only a nickel for a big bowl. Very few items on the menu were higher than five cents.

  When a customer came in, he was handed a ticket with prices on the sides starting at a nickel and going up to about two dollars. When we got an order for the customer, we punched the total with a hand paper punch. If he added anything to his meal, it was punched into the side, showing the total at all times. When he left, he went by the cashier and paid the amount. The cashier then put the ticket in a box by the register.

  One dishonest character I knew took a handful of the tickets and when he ate and went by the cashier to pay he would present a ticket with a lower punch on it. I was raised to be honest, so this irritated me. I didn't tell who did it, but I told the owner that he ought to put the box of used tickets out of reach of the customers. He did, and that solved that little problem. I worked there for two or three months and was always treated nice. I could eat all I wanted to, any time I wanted to. The only reason I left was because I got a job that paid more. I have told you about that job in another story.

  Once, when between jobs, I worked two weeks in Leonard Brothers Cafeteria while another boy was on vacation. It was a great place to work and they were very generous with the food, both in choice and in quantity. Some places where boys worked for meals they were given only food that didn't sell well or cheaper dishes. Leonard's and the Gusher were the most generous. I was in Ft. Worth about a year and there are other tales I will get around to telling later. The moral to this story, if there is one, is to have fun in what you are doing or do something else!


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