Downtown Wichita Falls, Texas, in the mid 1940’s was a bustling metropolis for a boy of 7 just away from the farm and ranch community where he was born. My father, a cook and cowboy by trade, had just started as one of the first cooks for the Casa Manana restaurant in 1947. He moved us to an apartment on Ohio Street, right across from the Gem Theater, between 7th and 8th Streets. It’s here that we would stay for the next three years. The Gem Theater became a magic palace for a young mind. But it had to share that distinction with the rest of the magic that was Wichita Falls. I attended San Jacinto and Carrigan elementary schools, as well as Reagan Junior High, and belonged to the Boys Club on 6th Street. Please join, and share your stories and pictures through a Guest Blog, of early Wichita Falls - or your home town. Contact me at or leave a comment. We could use old pictures of movie houses, drive-in theaters, and other nostalgic pictures related to our youths.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Times Were Hard

Times Were Hard

My family settled in Wichita Falls when I was seven years old, where we would reside for the next ten years before eventually moving back to Seymour. When the city was first laid out around the railroad, Ohio Street became the first main street of Wichita Falls, just a half block from the tracks. Buildings that first sprouted up catered to the many businesses that served the needs of the people and the railroad. Many of these establishments were two-story structures, the business on the ground floor and living quarters on the floor above. In the late 1800s, Ohio Street was the main hub of activity. But by the 1940s, it had become a street of bars, winos, and poorer class families trying to eke out a living, while the main business district had moved a block over to Indiana Street.
            The apartment where we lived was across the street from the Gem Theater on Ohio Street between 7th and 8th Streets, above a bar owned by an older woman who lived in a nice home at the edge of the city. Her daughter ran the establishment, and lived in the apartment at the top of the stairs. She had a son my age, and we played together and went to the same school. I never knew what had become of my friend's father, but he and his mother were alone - most of the time.
            It seemed that everyone was struggling in 1947. I don't remember very many of the dwellers, although the Martin family lived across the hall from us. They had two daughters and a son. Their son was a teenager, and rode his bike to Reagan Jr. High School every day. I didn't know him very well, but I do remember that bike. It was my duty to go for milk and bread every morning, and at the bottom of the stairs was usually a wino or drunk, passed out from the night before. I always had to jump over one of them to reach the outside door. My heart would stand still until I was on the sidewalk and safe. I would then pray that the sleeping man would be gone by the time I returned. Sometimes they were, but most of the time they were not, and I would have to climb over them again. It was scary! But when the Martin boy left for school, he rode that bike down those stairs and made the most awful racket you ever heard as the wheels hit each step. Before he reached the bottom, the doorway would be clear of drunks!
            Another man I remember was a big redheaded fellow. I heard he was recently discharged from the Army. But now he was setting up illegal card and dice games in the rear of businesses along Ohio Street, and staying one step ahead of the law. I don't know if they ever caught him.
            Another product of the Army was an abundance of photographers. There must have been several from Wichita Falls, for we encountered them quite often. Returning from the war in Europe, they had no skills, except for a camera. Some got jobs with studios or the newspaper, but others turned to freelancing, and would approach families in cafes or stores hoping to take their pictures for a little bit of money. The "man on the street" usually worked for a studio. For a while they were tolerated by the businesses, but by the 1950s I think most were forced off the street by city ordinances. Later, I would see the independents in little communities going from door to door, trying to take pictures of families, while the studios mailed postcards soliciting business. The independents got smart later, and a few brought small ponies around, with little cowboy outfits, and talked parents into having their children's pictures taken on the pony!
            But even in the late 1940s, there was a demand for other type photographs. Some of the photographers ended up taking pictures of nude women to sell. My older sister, age 13 or 14 at the time, answered an ad in the newspaper for a babysitter. When she arrived at the house, there was a man who told her he wanted to take her picture, and started undressing her. Just in time, the police broke in the door and arrested him. They had been watching his house ever since he placed the ad in the paper. Evidently, he was a known pervert. I don't know if he was going to take nude photos of my sister, or molest her. But the police warned my mother not to let her answer ads in the paper after that.
            I mentioned my friend and his mother. Every so often my friend would tell me that he had a new father the night before. At the time I didn't understand, as these things were beyond the knowledge of little boys. But the same oddity was happening down the block. We were only a couple buildings down from the Holt Hotel. I got a job selling newspapers along Ohio Street around this time. I made a lot of money outside The Hub. Airmen from the base often gave me a quarter for a nickel paper, which gave me extra money fpr those two-for-a-nickel comic books at the magazine exchange on 7th Street. I even sold a few papers in the beer joints, then I used to sneak into the Holt Hotel and go from room to room, knocking on each door, trying to sell newspapers. I often saw older men with younger women, but never thought anything about it. One old man started to run me off when the young woman told him to buy a paper from me … because they had time. I even ran into my teachers coming out of  the Holt Hotel one morning, and I don't think he was married. He told me not to tell anyone I saw him there. Of course, I didn't understand that, either. I saw just about everyone at the hotel at one time or another. The teacher went on to become the principal of my school. Today, I sometimes wonder who was with him that day, another teacher, the parent of one of his students, or a "friend"?
            Even though the Korean War started in 1950, there was a boon in the economy in Wichita Falls, and jobs opened up. I think some of the photographers went back in the service. People were moving to the suburbs. Soon there would be a TV in just about every home, along with a two-car garage. I'm sure that everyone was glad to see the 1940s come to an end. We moved from Ohio Street, and I left the winos behind. I never went back to Ohio Street or the Gem Theater.
But for some families, life did not change much. My dad started drinking more, and we had trouble paying our bills, and never had enough to eat.
            Times were still hard for some.

Postscript: I was overseas in 1968 when the Gem Theater burned down, and two police officers were crushed in their car as the outer wall fell over on their car. I think my childhood finally came to an end when I read that the Gem Theater was gone. Unfortunately, today the downtown theaters are just a memory. The Wichita Theater remains, but it just isn’t the same. I will revisit the theaters in some of my coming articles, as well as other things about Ohio Street in the 1940s, but for now I will move to the next seven years remaining of my time in Wichita Falls. I hope you will Bookmark this Blog and check in once in awhile. There will be more pictures, and more tales of the early days.

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