Friday, December 09, 2011

Ft. Worth East Side Evolution - 1

For anyone wishing to better understand the experience of growing up on Ft. Worth’s East Side during the post-WWII years, a general understanding of Ft. Worth’s own evolution is useful. The following fine piece was written by a 1964 Highlander whose own East Side roots date to the early 1950s and included his grades 1-12 matriculation through the East Side schools—Meadowbrook Elementary, Meadowbrook Junior High, and Eastern Hills High.

The Setting

CJ64--Fort Worth, Texas in the late 1940s, 1950s, and early 1960s was a town of roughly 300,000 people who made their livelihoods in the cattle (Fort Worth is on the Chisholm Trail, and has served cowboys and cattle since the 1870s) and oil supply businesses (the West Texas oil boom of the 1930s was supplied by Fort Worth), the newer defense contract business, and the traditional small retail shops and supply houses.

The great preponderance of people in Fort Worth had grown up there or had moved from small towns close by during the war. There was, however, a terrific influx of WWII veterans who had been stationed in Texas, fell in love with the place and stayed, or who had married local girls and settled in to their wives' hometown. The town was overwhelmingly White, Anglo-Saxon/Celtic, and Protestant, so it enjoyed the benefits, and narrowness, of a common culture.

Fort Worth did have a large black population and several enclaves of Mexican-Americans or recent immigrants from Mexico; but they were in the background of everyday life in Fort Worth. We were undeniably prejudiced in those days and almost never interacted with blacks or Mexicans except in their roles as servants or gardeners or laborers. Blacks were denied entrance to our schools and were funneled into a separate (and unequal) school system. Mexicans enrolled in our schools but were confined to just a few of the poorer schools -- there was no rule on this; they were congregated in the poorer neighborhoods.

As to blacks, the only positive thing you could say was that individual civility prevailed. In one-on-one situations, overt prejudice was unthinkable and we often formed careful relationships. We practiced prejudice against blacks as a group, and the prejudice was maintained and institutionalized by custom and law. We knew it was wrong; we always had a gnawing feeling about the whole thing; but, unfortunately, we accepted the situation much the same as you recognize that most people are right-handed -- it was the nature of things and not subject to change. Of course, the law did change in 1964 and long-established custom became inappropriate virtually overnight. We are talking about a massive cultural change, enforced from above, tough to adhere to against an established mindset, even given that the change was supported by the majority (which it was -- the majority of whites in the South knew it was a welcome change, required, necessary, and just -- they just weren't prepared to deal with all the ramifications).

As to Mexicans, Texas is unique among the states in having a long and bloody history with Mexico. It began with our land-grab in the 1820's and 1830's, continued in the Mexican War with numerous incidents before and after. Until recently, the name of La Rinches (meaning Texas Rangers) provoked fear and loathing among the border Mexicans. And, to the direct-talking Anglos, the roundabout ways of the Mexicans were deemed dishonorable and deceitful. It was a fundamental cultural clash and the memories were deep and undeniable. Interestingly, this prejudice is mostly gone, replaced by a mutual respect. I don't know how this happened, when it started, or what provoked the change, but the change is real.

Fort Worth stands astride the 98th meridian; east of which there is sufficient rainfall, west of which there is not. It is literally where the West begins. The eastern part of town stood in the great Cross Timbers, the geographic anomaly of dense oak forests that stretch, for no apparent reason, across the Great Plains. The Western part of town was pure plains. The old fort (and site of downtown) was located on a high bluff that overlooked the Trinity River to the north. The town had spread from the original bluff across the mesas and rolling hills, up and down the river valley, and into the oak forests. The result was a town of neighborhoods -- sections of town with their own character and history generally bounded by the features of the geography or later man-made additions.

Starting at the southeast and rotating clockwise, the first named area of town was Poly, named for Polytechnic College, which later became Texas Wesleyan. Polytechnic High opened in 1908 and was named for the incorporated town of Polytechnic (or Polytechnic Heights), which also took its name from the college. Polytechnic High was always known by the shortened version, Poly High. Poly was largely blue-collar, small neat homes, older neighborhoods. By the late 1950s it had begun to develop a reputation as turning rough and tough.

To the south was Morningside, largely pre-war homes from which more affluent people were beginning their exodus to newer sections of town. The kids attended Morningside Junior High which fed into Paschal High.

Southwest was Paschal/TCU, dominated by Paschal High and Texas Christian University. Paschal was the money-and-power center of Fort Worth. The town movers and shakers had graduated from Paschal and TCU, and they expected their children to do the same. Paschal High was the descendant of old Central High renamed for an influential principal. Over time the Paschal High neighborhood became depressed, so in the early 1950s the town fathers up and built a new Paschal and parked it near TCU, leaving the old building for Technical High. Paschal maintained a student population twice the size of the other "big" schools in Fort Worth and usually won everything.

Due west was the only real rival for Paschal -- Arlington Heights/Ridglea. Ridglea was a newer section of town and attracted the emerging-rich workers from the defense plant (Convair) and Carswell Air Force Base. Arlington Heights High was built in the 1930s but thrived on the new influx of affluence on the west side. An odd thing about "Heights" (as we all called it) was that it produced an inordinate number of gorgeous, long-legged, long-haired blondes. Another thing about Heights was their signature cheer, which they would crank up several times a game. It was particularly effective at basketball games in the old Public Schools Gym. They were the Yellow Jackets, and the cheer went:

J-J-J-A-C! K-K-K-E-T-S! J-A-C! K-E-T-S! Boom, boom, boom-boom-boom (from the drums)

You had to have been there to appreciate it. Which reminds me, the most exciting basketball game I ever saw was the Paschal versus Heights playoff for the 1963 district championship. Paschal was dinged up, so they went with a stall, even though they had the top scorer in the city, Tommy Newman. Every shot counted, and the suspense was unbearable. Heights won it 19-18 (yes, 19-18!) on a free throw by Charlie Williams. I think we have given up a lot with the shot clock.

To the north was the north side with poor, old North Side High, which up until the early 1950s was a thriving high school that sent many athletes to TCU, but by the late 1950s was run-down. They had their moments, though. They developed a passer in 1962-63 named Raymond Davila who could put the ball anywhere he wanted to at any speed, and they upset some better teams (including EHHS). The north side was dominated by the old Fort Worth Stock Yards, still in operation at that time. You could smell it for miles. It was also the site for Joe T. Garcia's, the home of the best Mexican food in the world.
Riverside was in the northeast section of town, off to itself, cut off by the Trinity River. The high school was Carter-Riverside. The Carter kids tended to be overachievers. They were one of the smallest schools, but they could beat you in any sport if you weren't careful. The “Carter-“came from the adoration of Amon Carter, the epitome of town fathers. Amon Carter owned and ran the Fort Worth Star Telegram, the influential newspaper in West Texas. He also ran Fort Worth. He also founded American Airlines and Texas Tech. He was also famous for selectively giving away the Shady Oak Stetson, made exclusively for him. He gave one to FDR, for example. He also gave one to J. B. Thomas, the CEO of Texas Electric Service, who gave it to my uncle Bob Riggle, who gave it to me. Too bad it doesn't fit.

To the east was the Meadowbrook/Handley area, my home. This area was an elongated horizontal V bounded on the south by East Lancaster (Highway 80), on the north by a right-of-way which later became the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike (later I-30), and the east by farm country. Meadowbrook Drive started at East Lancaster and ran west-east the entire length of the area until it turned into another name (Randol Mill Road, I think) in the farm country. It was bisected in Handley by, naturally, Handley Drive. 

Meadowbrook and Handley were two distinct areas in those days, and they didn't necessarily like each other. Meadowbrook tended to be more white-collar; Handley tended to be more blue-collar. Meadowbrook folks more or less looked down on the Handley folks, and the Handley people thought Meadowbrook was filled with a bunch of snobs. Actually, the only differentiator between the two was the brand-new development called Eastern Hills -- upscale homes built on the Eastern edge of Meadowbrook, right up against the Handley boundary.

To add to the differences, Handley had at one time been a separate town and boasted their own high school, the Handley Greyhounds, complete with football stadium. They had a very proud and long tradition and still thought of themselves as a town. The Meadowbrook kids did not go to Handley High, they went to Poly High, the big school south of East Lancaster. All this changed in the fall of 1959 when they closed Handley High, picked up the teachers and the coaches and moved them into a new building -- the new home of the new school -- the Eastern Hills Highlanders. The kids from Meadowbrook Junior High and Handley Junior High now had a single high school to attend. That, by the way, was no problem for most of us since we had played against and with each other in the Meadowbrook-Handley Little League, in Pee Wee football, and other activities, and we knew each other very well.

The Handley Junior High feeder elementary schools were John T. White, East Handley, West Handley, and Littles elementaries. The Meadowbrook feeders were Tandy Elementary, on the extreme western side of the area; Meadowbrook Elementary; and Sagamore Hill Elementary, located just south of East Lancaster. Some of the Sagamore Hill kids went on to Poly High out of choice instead of Eastern Hills -- it was closer to their homes.

We also had a common enemy to loathe -- the Paschal Panthers; who we beat, by the way, 8-7, in 1962 for the district championship on a two-point conversion pass from Roby Morris (Meadowbrook) to Max Rhodes (Handley) -- very appropriate. Roby (pronounced row-bee) was the best high-school athlete I ever saw (he had a 94-yard punt against Carter as a junior). Max was the only Rhodes I have ever known who refused to be called Dusty, and was also the owner and operator of Big Otis, which is definitely another story.

You also have to remember that things were very different in those days, besides the obvious such as no cell phones, no Internet, and so forth. First, very few people had central air conditioning in their homes. Instead, we would every spring mount a massive evaporative cooler in one of the house windows. It was called a "Squirrel Cage" from the reel-type blades that revolved to blow the cooled air into the house. It was not very effective. On the positive side, we were used to it and never suffered as much as you think we would have; and we had the pleasure of feeling and smelling the morning breeze filter across the room from the open corner windows.

Second, we were very much connected to a past that is now very distant. We all knew people who had known Civil War veterans (both my grandmothers were born in 1886). When you stopped for gas between towns, the restroom was very often an outhouse. The Interstate Highway system was just beginning to be built. Almost no one had a color TV. Virtually all of our grandparents, aunts, and uncles had not even finished high school. Almost none of our parents had attended college. The house I grew up in was 1,400 square feet with one bathroom, and we thought of ourselves as middle class. We were really only one generation away from a lifestyle that would have been familiar in 1900, 1870, or even 1800.

Third, we all felt the profound influence of the aftermath of World War II. Nearly every father was a veteran, and the coaches certainly were. They ran their teams the way their Drill Instructors had run their platoons. When we were 10 years old, we were only 11 years away from a time when the entire world was at war -- think about it. And yes, we had Atomic Bomb drills as kids, but we took it in stride and never worried about instant annihilation in the way some of my generation enjoys writing (and whining) about.

Fourth, what we were afraid of as kids was Poliomyelitis. It seemed that every class had a child in braces and crutches, and we had at least two kids who died over the summer ("Where's Ross?".."Oh, he died from Polio in June." -- scary). Our class was the first to be inoculated with Jonas Salk's vaccine when we were third graders. I don't think Dr. Salk can ever be thanked enough. I know my generation is very grateful.

Fifth, life wasn't nearly so full of conveniences. Most people hung their wash on the clothesline to dry. We had one mini-mall, Fair East, dominated by a department store called The Fair. We had one medium-sized shopping center called Forty Oaks with a grocery, a Five-and-Dime, and other miscellaneous stores. We had a very small shopping center containing a convenience store, a cleaners, a pharmacy with a soda fountain, and a Barbecue mini-restaurant. If you wanted to do some serious shopping, you dressed up (Mom would always wear hat and gloves) and you traveled downtown. We had Arvil Lewis' Conoco station on the west side of Meadowbrook and Henry Huddleston's Phillips 66 station on the east side. The only restaurant worth eating at was the Mexican Inn on East Lancaster, and the food was excellent. There was the Gateway Theater, and a couple of drive-in hamburger places complete with carhops – and that was it.

Anyway, that was the setting for our memorable growing-up years.



Jim said...

Nice history of the area. I had forgotten about the area of Oak trees passing through the area.
Thanks for sharing.

Anonymous said...

Great history of the area...though I never felt there was any of the white-collar/blue-collar stuff back then...we kids didn't even know that kind of terminology! And while the Mexican Inn was and STILL IS the favorite place to eat, I can remember going to Wansley's a lot of Friday nights for the best chili, to Klein's Chicken and Taters (both out in Handley), to Wyatt's Cafeteria in 40 Oaks for a great lunch, but Jack Collier's Drug Store had great burgers with a 400 or 800 (iced chocolate milk) and fries! Later on, Pat's Barbeque on Meadowbrook Drive became one of the most popular places on the East side! And don't forget the CharKing that is now Smokey's!
One thing that should be remembered is that the Fort Worth ISD didn't have problems during the civil rights era because our fine Superintendent of Schools, Joe Moore, an Eastern Hills resident, saw to it that all of the schools, in all areas of town, had good teachers and were that no one had grounds for complaint!
Gus, thanks for all your hard work!

Gus said...

Thanks for your insightful comments. There are nuggets for at least 2 additional articles in them; one, the notions and origins of "white collar/blue collar," and two, an examination of the 1950s-60s perceptions of "class" as it relates to some of the neighborhoods. In my experience and recollections there was a kind of "stew" brewing in those East Side neighborhoods that didn't necessarily translate into anything either good or just was. And it did tend to drive some minor wedges between some of the subsets of youngsters as they sought to develop their own identities while growing up.