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Interview with James Sprouse

Sprouse, James F.
Sprouse, Cynthia
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with people and places; Childhood adventures
James Sprouse talks about his parents stories from the Great Depression and growing up on a farm.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Cynthia Sprouse interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
CS(Cythia Sprouse): This is Cynthia Ann Sprouse. I am making this recording for English 3132, Introduction to American English. It's March 21, 1999. I am interviewing my father. What is your name?
JS (James Sprouse): James F. Sprouse.
CS: Where were you born?
JS: I was born in Oswego, Kansas, on December 3, 1943, seven-thirty p.m. I was born in the Oswego Hospital, which was the only small hospital around.
CS: Do you ever remember being told stories as a child?
JS: Yes, ah, both my father and mother used to love to tell stories about their, ah, life when they were children and growing up and when they were first married. And my mother used to read stories to us. The, ah, main two stories that I can remember her reading was ah, ah, The Three Pigs, of course, which has been around for generations. And ah, about The Billy Goats Gruff, the billy goats that were going over the bridge.
CS: Hm-hmm.
JS: That's the main ones I can remember. And then I can remember my mother reading us ah, um, Huckleberry Finn when we were small. And then I can remember her reading other storybooks, but I can't remember what they were 'cause she used to read to us quite a bit.
CS: Ah, what kind of stories did your father tell you?
JS: Well, my father was, ah, a carpenter. He had an eighth grade education, which was common back in that time. He was born in ah, 1907 and my mother was born in ah, 19, ah, 16. Ah, one of, most of their favorite stories had to do with, ah, when they were growing up. And course, both of them lived through
in the 1930s and then, ah, World War II. And, ah, probably their favorite stories telling about their childhood was, ah, they both, ah, lived on a farm. Ah, and where I grew up was in a small farming community in southeastern Kansas. The town was only 1,200 people. And both my mother and father were raised around there on farms. And, ah, times were pretty tough back then 'cause, ah, when they were growing up and they went through the Depression, ah, they didn't have any money and, ah, the only way to live was raising, ah, chickens and farm stock and, ah, farming. There wasn't any money to buy seed and such as that. So, ah, that's where most of their stories came from. I can remember my father telling about, ah, when they first got married, ah, he was a carpenter. And, ah, his father was a farmer and a carpenter and his brother was a carpenter. And, ah, when they first got married he was, ah, building a barn. And, ah, he and my mother lived in a tent, which they pitched inside of an old barn. And that's where they lived when they first got married.
CS: Hmm.
JS: But a lot of his stories, one of the favorite ones that I can remember him telling was, ah, when he was a child. And he had several brothers and sisters that they had a, ah, jenny. A jenny is a mule. And they used to ride that to school. And, ah, one of his favorite stories was telling about the time that, ah, they were, I don't remember whether they were on their way to school or on their way home, and the sisters Aunt Margie and Aunt Larry and Aunt Jessie were riding that jenny down the path. And he and one of his brothers slipped way up ahead of them. And when they about got to them, they jumped out and scared the jenny. And the jenny, of course, bucked and threw Aunt Jessie off and knocked her out. [Laughter] And he used to tell that over and over again. But it didn't hurt her. And then, ah, I can remember him telling, ah, when he was a young man and their family driving in a Model T from, ah, Kansas to California. And, ah, that was quite an experience. He used to love to tell that story because the Model T didn't have, ah, windows. It had canvas that rolled down. And ah, the two main things he liked to tell was when they got to the Rocky Mountains they had to back up the mountains because, ah, they didn't have a fuel pump on the old Model T. And so the gas would always run to the back of the tank and the engine couldn't get gas. So that's why they had to back up the mountain so the gas would go down into the engine. He used to like to tell that. And then he used to like to tell when they hit the desert. And, ah, they got into the sandstorms. And the roads, of course, weren't paved. Ah, most of them had logs across them. And ah, ah, when they got into the sandstorms they'd have to roll those canvas windows down and try to keep the sand out. And then one thing that I remember is his youngest brother, Uncle Bob, they were riding along on those little bumpy roads and he got tossed out of the car. [Laughter] But, most of those stories that I can remember him telling had to do with their family life when they were small.
CS: Anything in particular you remember as you were growing up?
JS: Oh, I can remember, ah, I lived on the farm. We lived on a farm until I was in the fourth grade when we moved to a little town where I grew up. And ah, probably the two [chime] real [chime] important things that I remember was first time we got electricity. And ah, we were riding the school bus at that time to, ah, go into the, the city school, the consolidated school district. And every evening when we'd get home it seemed like the longest time from when they wired the house until they finally turned the electricity on. But that was a big event because we'd always, ah, ah, lived with coal, oil lanterns and, ah, Coleman lanterns for light in the evenings. And I can remember Grandma Sprouse reading to us in that. And I can't remember any of the stories she used to read back then. But ah, we had a, ah, battery operated radio which every evening at 6:30 we would listen to The Lone Ranger. And, um, I remember listening to Dagwood and Blondie. And ah, I was trying to remember, there was a mounted policeman. Oh, I know what it was. It was Sargeant Preston of the Yukon. And he had a Husky dog. And that story was on. But we would listen to generally three radio programs and then go to bed about seven o'clock. So I remember that. And that was one of the big events. The first time we got electricity and then the other was getting a telephone. And the telephone was the old crank style. And it was a, was a party line. And everybody in the section, neighbors and everything were on that party line and, ah, everybody listened in to everybody else's conversations because they were all on the same line. And of course, you didn't want to tell anything that was, ah, private because everybody else would know it. You could always tell when someone was listening because you could hear the telephone pick up or hang when they hung up. [Laughter]
CS: Hmm.
JS: But, that's the other thing that I remember. And I remember, ah, when we lived on the farm. I can remember the thrashing, when they harvested, ah, the wheat. And that was always a fun time because all the neighbors would come in and help. And ah, you know I was born in 1943, but I can remember when they harvested, ah, and a lot of people would come in and they would bring their own. And they had horses and wagons. And there was some tractors, but the thrashing machine, nowadays, you know they run a combine that moves. And then they had a big old thrashing machine that sat in one spot. And then everybody would go harvest the grain out in the field and they'd bring it in to the thrashing machine and feed it to it. And that's how they separated the wheat from the grain. I remember that. And I remember when I was small my job was water boy. And I had a horse. And, ah, I had a big old gallon glass jug. And that glass jug instead of being like a thermos that you know, today with Styrofoam around it for insulation, they would wrap burlap bags around it to make insulation. And then I had to keep that wet in order to keep the water cool. And then I would ride my horse around over the field and give the farmers water. And that was my job. [Laughter] Kind of neat, isn't it?
CS: Do you ever remember stories about you and your brothers growing up?
JS: Yeah, a lot of stories. Uh, [pause] oh, [pause] I remember when we lived on the farm I can remember some. We always used to play out in the woods. And, ah, I had two cousins that were both boys, ah, same age. And, and we used to love, they lived in, ah, in the city. And ah, when they'd come visit we always had a good time. And we would spend all our time out in the woods. I remember building log cabins out there. And we always carried an ax with us out in the woods and we'd build a log cabin. We'd play all day long out in the woods, swing on grapevines, smoke grapevines. [Laughter] They were awful.
CS: [Laughter]
JS: But ah, we used to smoke grapevines. [Laughter] And used to always be really neat, because you know as a child you never think about, ah, getting caught. But every time we'd come in the house after we'd been smoking grapevines, Grandma Sprouse said, "Oh, you've been smoking grapevines 'cause I can smell it." [Laughter]
CS: [Laughter] Do you remember any stories about actually being in the old farmhouses?
JS: Heh, yeah. Ah, I can remember they were dark. And especially before we had electricity that, ah, the kids always slept upstairs. My two brothers and I always slept upstairs. And it was always cold because the upstairs never was heated. Ah, the old farmhouses were heated with, ah, coal and wood. And I remember, ah, my mother used to cook breakfast and all the meals in fact, on a wood-burning stove in the kitchen. But come time to go to bed, and it was always cold as could be upstairs, and you'd run as fast as you can to get upstairs and get to bed and try to get warm. But, ah, oh, even up after I was, ah, probably in the, ah, fifth or sixth grade and, and, ah, well it was after my two brothers went off to college and I was still scared to go upstairs by myself. [Laughter] I, ah, and I used to run as fast as I could up that stairs and hop into bed. [Laughter]
JS: I guess I found some sort of protection by pulling the covers up or something. [Laughter] I was always scared to go upstairs by myself.
CS: Do you remember any stories about any of the animals that lived on the farm?
JS: Well, when we lived on the farm, my pet was a big old billy goat. [Laughter] And, ah, one of the stories I like is, ah, these two cousins were always city kids and they used to come out and visit us. And, ah, I was the youngest, and then one of my cousins was just older than me, and his brother just older than him, and then my next two brothers. And, ah, not, my cousin that was the older of the two decided he was going to ride that billy goat one day. And he hopped on that billy goat. And that billy goat threw him right off into a trash pile. [Laughter] That was I ever remember the last time I remember him trying to ride the billy goat. And, ah, oh, I can remember one time, when, ah, we were walking. We, all of us and we went down into the pasture to play. We always had an ax with us. And I remember, ah, my brother throwing that ax up over his shoulder and hitting my cousin in the head with it. [Laughter] And he was, he was bleeding pretty badly. So we got him to the house and Grandma, my mother, bandaged him up and never did even take him to the doctor. But I remember him hitting him in the head with that. And I can remember one time at the same farm we lived on, ah, when, ah, I don't know why but, ah, we got to pole vaulting. [Laughter] And we didn't have any pole vaulting equipment. We used a couple cane poles or, ah, boards that we stuck in the ground with nails on them. And, ah, that, you know, the nails were at different heights. And we'd high jump over that. But, ah, we decided we'd try pole vaulting. [Laughter] This is pretty good because [cough] my oldest brother, I remember him and, ah, he had some kind of old board.
CS: [Laughter]
JS: It couldn't have been over like a one by three. And he was using that as the pole to pole vault. And it would bend.
CS: [Laughter]
JS: And about the time he went to pole vault, that thing snapped and he fell on his arm and broke it 'cause I remember him lying on the ground groaning and the rest of us making fun of him because he was hurt.
CS: [Laughter]
JS: He broke his arm pole-vaulting out in the front yard. And you know that farmhouse was close to the highway and I remember, ah, [pause] the hobos. You don't ever see real old hobos but the hobos used to be walking down that, do you know what a hobo is?
CS: Hmm-hmm.
JS: Yeah? They used to be walking by down that highway and they'd stop there at our house. And, ah, Mom would always usually fry them some eggs and fix them a meal. And that's probably why they always stopped 'cause I always heard, you know, as I read about them that they'd mark somewhere out along the road if it was a good place to stop. [Laughter] They could count on a meal. But I remember the hobos several times stopping there and she'd feed them. I guess she was a good samaritan. [Laughter]
CS: Do you have anything else you'd like to share with us? Any old stories?
JS: You probably get tired of hearing my stories. But, ah, ah, when we lived out there on the farm I remember, ah, one of the most exciting times was when, ah, Grandpa and Grandma, my mother's mother and, ah, and step, my, her stepmother, but that was the only Grandma I ever real, really remember. And, ah, it was always very exciting when they would come to visit 'cause they didn't come very often. They lived in, ah, ah, Eureka, Kansas which was probably 150 miles away. And, ah, but it was always exciting when Grandpa always came. Because when, for one thing, he liked to fish and he would always take us fishing with him. And that was always a lot of fun. But, ah, one time in particular, I remember, ah, Grandpa Sprouse had fished, er, fenced off the front yard, and don't forget we lived on a farm, and there was all this grass around in the, ah, yard. So he fenced off the front yard and put a, ah, ah, wire gate up across the driveway so that he could let the horses, ah, he had a couple, ah, work horses that he worked as a team out in the field. And then we had the pony that we always rode. And, ah, so he fenced off that whole yard. It was a about a big farmhouse. And he let the horses graze up there where they could get to the grass. So, Grandpa, er, ah, Grandpa Eram was supposed to come visit us that evening. And so we were always sitting out on the front porch when we knew somebody was coming, waiting because it was always exciting, you know. We didn't get too many visitors. And, here he came down the road. And I don't know, just like any grandpa it seemed like to me, he was always old. And as he came the driveway he drove right through that fence. [Laughter] And bang, he knocked that thing down. [Laughter] And he didn't even realize it until he was through it. So, but that was funny. And, ah, oh, I can tell you a good story. I remember one Christmas. That's the only Christmas I can remember when I was small. We lived in that big old farmhouse, but the place is huge. It must have been like four bedrooms upstairs and, ah, there was one bedroom downstairs and my mother and father always slept in the downstairs bedroom where it was warm of course, and the kids had to sleep upstairs where it was ice cold. But, there was a nice big living room in there and it had a fireplace in it and we never used that room. It was always kept closed off 'cause we heated with coal and wood. And I remember one very special Christmas when she opened that room up with the fireplace. And that's where she put the Christmas tree. And that's where we celebrated Christmas that year. And that was a, a, real fond memory. And when I was a child because, ah, it was the only time I remember having Christmas around the fireplace.
CS: Hmm. Tell me about that billy goat again. Did you ever get on top of it?
JS: Um, no. I don't think we were that stupid. [Laughter] Because you had to be stupid. It was a big old billy goat. [Laughter] But one thing I can, I can tell you is we had that billy goat trained. And we had a harness for it just like you have horses pull a wagon.
CS: Uh huh.
JS: And we had a little red wagon ah, a Western Coaster Wagon, and ah, we had a harness for that billy goat that we'd hook up to that wagon. I got to ride in the wagon a lot because I was the smallest. And ah, one, ah, Fourth of July they had a parade in the little old town there close to us. And, ah, we took that billy goat in and we were in that parade. And we made a covered wagon out of the wagon. And I rode in the wagon. And the billy goat pulled it and my two brothers led the billy goat.
CS: Huh. Did you ever ride any ponies when you were younger or did you ever sit on any of them?
JS: Yeah. [Laughter] That, that, ah, the pony that we had, well, I, ah, actually we had a riding pony and then, ah, the old work team my father had had a, ah, colt. And, ah, when that colt up got big enough you know, where he's first wanting to train him, I can remember my dad sitting me up on that horse and I was scared.
CS: [Laughter]
JS: [Laughter] In fact, I just wanted to get off of it. And he wanted me to sit up on there so they could take my picture. But, ah, that was a big horse too. And I'll tell you another story, too. [Laughter]
CS: [Laughter]
JS: Now that you got me started. Ah, when I was a child, ah, we had, ah, well that same colt that the old workhorses had, ah, my father traded it for, ah, a pony. And that was the pony I used to ride when I carried the water jug around at the, at the thrashing time. But, ah, that um, we had a colt, a baby horse from that, ah, pony I used to ride. And that was the nicest, prettiest little colt. And, ah, this one's kind of a sad story. And ah, ah, we were just getting that pony to ride, in fact, I was small and I was the only one that had been riding it just getting him broke to ride. And, ah, when I would go out into the barnyard I always took sugar or a carrot to feed that pony. And that pony would play, play hide-and-seek because he knew he was going to get some sugar. So he would always come hunt you. And he could hide. And, ah, so that was our, I'd say our favorite pet when we were young and, ah, caught anthrax. There was a big anthrax breakout between the cattle and the horses at that time. And, ah, that baby colt got anthrax. And, ah, and, ah, and died. Because I remember, ah, having the veterinarian out there trying to take care of it and I remember him telling us there was nothing he could do about it.
CS: Hmm. That's interesting.
JS: Yeah.
CS: Do you have anything else you'd like to share with us?
JS: No, I can probably think of a thousand other stories, but that ought to hold you for now.
CS: Thank you.
JS: [Laughter]