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Interview with Roger Albert Stephens

Interviewee: 
Stephens, Roger Albert
Interviewer: 
Reynolds, Elizabeth
Date of Interview: 
1979-10-23
Identifier: 
OHST0156
Subjects: 
Georgia; Charlotte, NC; Entertainment; Wages; Depression
Abstract: 
Mr. Stephens describes his childhood in Georgia and his move to Charlotte when he was seventeen. He gives details of early Charlotte and working during the Depression, as well as information the street cars and forms of entertainment of his day.
Coverage: 
Charlotte; 1917-1979
Interview Setting: 
Interview as part of the WSOC-TV Oral History Project. Interviews conducted at either the downtown public library or the Midtown Shopping Mall.
Collection: 
WSOC-TV Oral History Project
Collection Description: 
The Oral History Project of 1979, headed by Dr. Edward Perzel, was an effort to gather and preserve spoken recollections. Interviews were conducted with older citizens, primarily over the age of 65, who were encouraged to share their memories and stories.
Transcript:
ER (Elizabeth Reynolds): Elizabeth Reynolds interviewing Roger Stevens, October 23, 1979. Would you like to tell us about your background? Where you grew up? And.
RS (Roger Stephens): I grew up in Atlanta, Georgia. I was born in Jacksonville, Florida and moved to Columbia and moved to Atlanta. I started in Atlanta and went to school when I was five years old, six years old. One of the main things I remember about that of course they had the street cars, you know, down there before we had them here in Charlotte. And they had a big Atlanta fire, and I lived about three blocks from where that fire started. And it spread for, from Edgewood Avenue downtown Atlanta over to Ponce de Leon Avenue 'bout three of four miles. And you could see people just coming and going from four or five blocks from us, and we started to move in. And finally they had to dynamite to Ponce de Leon Avenue all through that section to stop the fire.
ER: Um-hum.
RS: Next morning you could look out my porch and see miles and miles of nothing but bathtubs and empty fixtures you know that was left from the fire. That was a terrible thing. They said, that a gentleman, gentleman set it afire. That was in 1917. And as a youngster I used to sell Saturday Evening Posts. They used to call it, you know, Saturday Evening Post, Ladies Home Journal and the Country Gentleman and I'd stand up on the Candler Building where Mr. Candler made famous Coca-Cola. I used to sell that at night after school and, and I, I'd take take my Ladies Home Journal and go through the hospitals and sell it to them. But the thing that I won a prize. I won a prize of a membership in the YMCA for a year. I got a whole set cutlery, you know knives and forks, for selling County Gentleman. I'd go into a barber shop and keep on talking until the manager would give me a nickel just to get rid of me. [laughter] And in those days you know the youngsters, about fourteen or fifteen, oh, they used to wear these kind of knickerbockers with stockings. And you as soon as they put on long pants, you know, they'd be jealous of a man sixteen years old started putting on their own pants. Everybody looked up to him, you know. They had the street cars and I came to Charlotte and, and got a job at the railroad station with the Southeastern Express. Upstairs in the old station in Charlotte and trains used to come from Atlanta, number 36 came from Atlanta and 32 come in from Columbia. And we would go on and take a break and go downstairs and watch the passengers get off you know and have a good time. At that time the train from Columbia went right across North Tryon Street down where the Arnold Palmer Company is now. Cadillac just the one right across the street. When I got off work at about five thirty, I'd get on the train and ride and when it got to the there I'd hop off. And one time I lived right around the corner about four blocks from there. I didn't jump off in time so I really had trouble trying to get off. But it's out in Dilworth is where they Mr. Latta first started development in Charlotte. The home and the street car ran around through down hill Dilworth Road passed around to Dilworth Road East and still see the tracks over there. About a mile long.
ER: Um-hum.
RS: They had five-minute service. And he put in his will that it's supposed to maintained by ten minutes to five or ten minute service everyday and that was Mr. Latta. But those were real ( ) you'd get on that streetcar and come uptown and see the picture show, you know. Take your girl for five cents on a street car. Come uptown and see the Vaudeville show. The first motion picture you know, with the Shiek, you know.
ER: Um-hum.
RS: Al Jolson was another big picture we used to see down here. Right next to where the Charlotte National Bank used to be. I don't know of anything else particular.
ER: How old are you when you when you said you used to see Al Jolson movies?
RS: Well that was when I came here in 1922.
ER: Well, how old were you?
RS: Well, I was seventeen years old then.
ER: Was he real popular?
RS: Oh yeah, Al Jolson was a big singer. You know Al Jolson.
ER: Did you have to stand in line to see him and stuff?
RS: Oh yes. That was one of the first movies to come out. Al Jolson and also the Shiek and that. They had a picture show right next to where the Charlotte National Bank used to be on the corner of Fourth and Tryon. Fourth and North and South Tryon Street. They had a lot of and that's when they first started talking movies.
ER: Did you, did you see Valentino?
RS: Yes. I, I saw his pictures.
ER: His pictures, right.
RS: Valentino's pictures.
ER: They were real popular too, I bet.
RS: Oh yes. Then they had big like a Billy Graham's evangelist show was on and at that time it was called Billy Sunday. He had a big, he had a big tent out there right close to the old courthouse which was right next to where the ( ) is now. And he had a lot of people, you know. He used to sing songs back there throughout the night and so forth. He was evangleist just like Billy Graham was one of the first ones, you know. He was a baseball player. But in those days of course after about in 1929 though that's when they had the stock crash.
ER: How old were you during that?
RS: Well that was 1929. I was twenty-seven.
ER: Did you work during that time? Or did it cost you your job?
RS: No, I was working for the Southeastern Express and then left there and got married. 1932 was the heigth of the Depression. And my wife ( ) she lived with her mother and ( )used to be back down there where the Ramada Inn was before they tore it down. And in those days during the Depression years, you were lucky to have a job.
ER: That's what I hear.
RS: So, I would work all day then I would take what they call waybills at home. That's where waybill they would give you a receipt you know, showing where it's going, how much it weighed, and we would get the waybills and her mother and my wife because I had to give ( ) asking about everything then.
ER: You were providing for your mother and your wife?
RS: Yes.
ER: Did you have any children then?
RS: My sister also.
ER: Your sister too.
RS: My younger sister. She worked, worked with us and she worked some too. She worked for an insurance company up there in ( )
ER: What kind of hours did you work then?
RS: Well, we, we worked from about 8:00 to when all the trucks got away about six or seven o'clock at night. We worked on Saturdays, too, all day.
ER: Uh-huh.
RS: And you had to think about taking a vacation because when you got back it was right there on your desk waiting for you.
ER: You were talking about wagebills did it?
RS: Waiting on you.
RS: Waybills
ER: Waybills.
RS: Waybill. It's you from and to, what city, the commodity, and the rate so forth. And that's what you write up and give to you. Shipper gets a copy, the company gets one, and the other goes in your file so they know how much you paid. That was --
ER: So, that's how they did you salary was how much business you or how much stuff you had handled?
RS: Yes. I, I worked up in the office at that time.
ER: Uh-huh. How much were you paid usually? Now that times were tight.
RS: My first job I started when I came to Charlotte in 1922. I started off on top of the old Independence building on which is still up on Tryon Street and I walked down to, started up there, went to every office and asked if they had a job or anything I could do. I told them I could do a little typing. The man said, in one of the office's, said, "I can put you to work right now." So they did. They put me to work typing envelopes until I found out later that I got me a job at an employment agency. And I had to pay them the first's week salary.
ER: Even then.
RS: So they ( ) got me the job. And they got me the job at the Southeastern Express. Employment agency where you paid them so much.
ER: Right. So, when you first got your job then and after you had paid off the employment agency. About, this is what '29, '32, that year bracket in there, about how much did you make then at your job like a week, weekly?
RS: I made at the Southeastern Express about twenty-five dollars a week.
ER: Twenty-five dollars a week.
RS: I went with the Fredrickson Motor Express in 1929, and I made seventeen dollars a week then.
ER: What that enough I mean to-I mean, I know you didn't have luxuries but you were able to eat and keep clothes on your back.
RS: Fortunately we did. My, my mother when she was in Atlanta she made hats. When she came to Charlotte, well then she got an apartment, but rented out part of the apartment which helped us during the Depression.
ER: And she still made hats during the Depression?
RS: Yes.
ER: OK. Did your sister work?
RS: She worked at the Traveler's Insurance Company ( ) my sister would help me. And later on, later on after I got married in 1933, then my, my wife she ( )and my sister got married. And my wife stayed working, and we were able to get along just very well.
ER: What was Charlotte like during that time?
RS: Well, Charlotte I'd say it's city about 90,000. It had the Independence Building on North Tyron Street and Trade. Had the building on Jefferson, no didn't have that but they had in the second block of Tryon Street they had building about twenty-two stories high and at that time, the old Charlotte Hotel, was just, just made. Of course they had the First Presbyterian Church. It was still there.
ER: The Observer building it was there?
RS: The Observer building. No, the Observer Building was over with the news was over on S. Church Street.
ER: Right.
RS: And my father, he came to Charlotte in 1922 with my mother before he died. And he was an engraver at Garabaldi and Bruns.
ER: Really.
RS: ( ) jeweler seller.
ER: Right.
RS: And he'd engrave the seal, the Georgia State Seal and engrave all the ( ). Also they used to at that time, the ladies the ( ) had the ivory combs you know and purses and he'd engrave their initials on those. This is solid gold watch and he was an artist.
ER: I see.
RS: Engraved my initials.
ER: I see. I do.
RS: R-A-S. And he engraved that. That's solid gold.
ER: That's lovely. Did Charlotte have streetcars then?
RS: Yes, Charlotte had streetcars when we, when we came here in 1922.
ER: Did you use them much?
RS: Yes, we used them. I when I want to go to the picture show uptown. I'd just get on the corner, which I lived right where on --
ER: Ya'll lived in town.
RS: Right on Rankin Place which at that time would be South would be North College Street.
ER: Right.
RS: I mean would be South College Street. Right across the street would be North College Street. And we lived right there just two blocks off Tryon ( ) South Tryon and East Morehead. And I'd get a street car and go uptown at night for five dollars and see the picture show and me and my girlfriend--
ER: Five dollars?
RS: Five cents.
ER: Five cents.
RS: Five cents. Yes, and went to picture show was about I think maybe fifteen cents. We'd see the picture show and sometimes we'd walk up there. ( )
ER: Right. Were there that many cars in Charlotte did most of the people in town use the streetcars?
RS: Well, the street cars at that time as the best as I recall it went out, one went out to the Dilworth section. One went out to where the Secretary College is, Hospital is now. Used to be an old Elizabeth -
ER: Elizabeth's College.
RS: College. Yes. The other went out. I'm not sure about the west side.
ER: Right. Uh-huh. Did you have a car? I mean did your family have a car back especially during the 20s?
RS: Not, not during. Yes, yes we did. We had one when I worked at the Southeastern Express. I bought the first car I had.
ER: What kind was it?
RS: It was a Studebaker. An old Studebaker.
ER: Studebaker.
RS: It was two door Studebaker.
ER: How much did it cost you then?
RS: I really don't know. We, we had rumble seats, you know. Rumble seats in the Studebaker.
ER: Some of the best riding in town.
RS: The best part as after the picture show we'd drop off at the had an ice cream parlor about where the old YMCA was which was right across from the old Masonic Temple.
ER: Yeah.
RS: They had an ice cream parlor and you could go down there and get you some dishes of ice cream and get all the candy and everything else. Very, very reasonable.
ER: Is that where a lot of the people went for fun and stuff was the soda shops?
RS: Yes. A lot, lot would go get your ice cream and they also had a soda shop that still a block and a half from where I live where the bridge is across Morehead Street. It's still there. It's an old drugstore.
ER: Right.
RS: At that time, of course, you could get your soda for about ten cents. Most of it ice cream topped with vanilla soda. Pushed it out of these gadgets, you know, pressed down on it and put the ice cream on it and make your soda.
ER: Oh, I see.
RS: And it's still there. With the big fan that circulates up at the top. Mrs. Spoon she had -
ER: Is this Spoon's drugstore by any chance?
RS: Now she had one down there on 7th street.
ER: Uh-huh.
RS: She's had one for years and years. And later on in about the 30s is when we used to go down there and get the ice cream from the Mrs. Spoon. In fact Mrs. Spoon is [pause] her granddaughter married my, my son, (). And her granddaughter was, was married ( ). Just cut that part out. But, anyway, Mrs. Spoon's ( ) stepmother, she was the stepmother of my present daughter-in-law.
ER: I see. I see.
RS: But that that my son married later on. But anyway, she had a store. That she and her husband had a store and they made their own ice cream, which was just recently changed and sold it last year to someone else. But she was in business for years and years Mrs. Spoon's Ice cream.
ER: Well, is there anything else you'd like to share with us?
RS: No, I don't know ( ). I just wanted to tell you about that fire.
ER: I appreciate you talking to us
RS: I guess it's probbaly, I'm sure it was in your history book. I was right there when I looked out and it happened. Get my mother-in-law getting things packed get ready to move out because it was spreading toward our home. And fortunately they dynamited out on Ponce de Leon Avenue which is about two blocks from Georgia Tech, the tech school. They stopped it right there. But the next morning I'll never forget that, just look out and see the ol' bathtubs, and the fixtures, you know, and the for miles and miles that's all you saw. .
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