Interviewed by Logan Wilson
June 26, 2014
WILSON: My name is Logan Wilson. Today is the twenty-sixth of June, 2014. I’m interviewing Mr. Wyman Harriman at my home. This interview is sponsored by the Limestone County Historical Commission and is part of the Footprints of Times Past project. I want to thank Mr. Harriman for his time and for his contribution. The next voice you hear will be that of Mr. Harriman. (moves microphone closer to Mr. Harriman)
HARRIMAN: (clears throat) Well, I’m happy to do this. I’ll do the best I can. I was born in Farrar, Texas, in 1932. I attended—started to school at the Fairoaks Elementary School in 1938. Went through the elementary school, graduated from high school in May of 1949. [Harriman note: The superintendent at that time was Clayton Oakes. The valedictorian that year was Margie Shorter. I was lucky enough to squeak in as salutatorian. Over the years I have managed to stay in contact with the Fairoaks people. I have been secretary of the Fairoaks Ex-students Association for several years.] I think I know quite a bit about the Fairoaks community. It was primarily a farming community, as most rural communities were in that era. The principal crops grown at the time were cotton and corn, cotton being the money crop. And there was a Fairoaks High School; it was a consolidated school. It consolidated in 1935 with the communities of New Hope, Farrar, Lost Prairie, Personville, and the existing Oakes school. [Harriman note: Prior to 1935, the community, school, and local cemetery were named Oakes after the Oakes families that may have been the first to homestead and occupy land in the area. After the school consolidation the name Fairoaks was chosen for the new school system and community. Now, I don’t remember this, but it is written that a man by the name of Ernest Moore suggested the name Fairoaks. But the local cemetery kept the name Oakes Cemetery as it is today.] That lasted for many years and through 1958.
But back to the livelihood of the people, it was mostly farming. There was many poor people, a lot of sharecroppers. As I’ve said before, one of the most important things to rural people in the Depression and the era following that was the general store, a community general store. Most all community general stores were very good at loaning money to the poor farmers and it was very important. These stores stocked many things and all kinds of foods and staples, and they’d even loan them money. There was different people in the community that would loan people money.
Fairoaks had some good teachers. Some of the earliest students that graduated from Fairoaks were John Oakes, Guy Bond, R. W. “Sonny” Sims, Bruce Wilburn, Stancil Webb, Alvie Rodgers, Marjorie Easterling, Hattie Abbott, and Tee Burleson. One of the things Fairoaks High School was known for was its winning basketball teams. [Harriman note: Clayton Oakes was the coach and a strict disciplinarian.] Some outstanding athletes were Clovis “Cody” Williams, Valdon Reed, R. Q. Sims, Donald Sims, John/Don(??) Little, Alan(??) Little, Charles Johnson, and Jerry Don Harriman, just to name a few. [Harriman note: One of our archrivals was Prairie Hill. They were in our district and they were always pretty good. They had a good coach; I think his name was Callaway.] They [Fairoaks] had several superintendents. The first superintendent was R. B. Johnston, next L. A. Holmes, Clayton Oakes, J. O. Nash, Homer Goodrich, Herbert Yielding, and Tom Cameron. [Harriman note: The members of the first school board for the Fairoaks ISD were Ben D. Bond, president; Leonard C. Hardison, secretary; Elbert H. Williams, H. M. Thompson, T. N. Liles, and J. B. Sims.] They had some outstanding teachers. One outstanding teacher we need to mention is Mrs. Ethel Kennedy, affectionately known to all her students as Miss Ethel. She taught in the Fairoaks school system for forty years and is revered by many. [Harriman note: Another teacher that comes to mind is Clayton Oakes.]
There was one Baptist church in the community and well—had lots of people at the Baptist church every Sunday. Most of them were farmers, as I said. [Harriman note: It was a tough life back then, working from sunup to sundown, and after, with no electricity until 1946–47, a lot of tenant farming and sharecropping.] Prominent pioneer families of the area were the Oakes, Reed, Justice, Martin, Morton, Bond, and the Turners. [Harriman note: Many landowners would enter into agreements with sharecroppers to let them farm part of their land and take a portion of the crops as rent payment. The average size of the farm might be fifty to sixty acres, with an old farmhouse and log barn associated with it.]
The Great Depression was still in force in the late 1930s, but this was primarily a rural nation prior to World War II and agriculture was the main livelihood. The National Guard trucks one time during the Great Depression would come to the school, the elementary school, then deliver what was called then as relief commodities, and they would give them free to the students. They’d give you a paper sack and you were allowed to take home goods like apples, oranges, dried peaches, canned milk—things of this nature. And it helped out.
And, as I say, the general store sold all these kinds of foods: sacks of flour, cornmeal, sugar, beans, potatoes, boots, clothing, tools, farm equipment, and fuel. But a lot of people needed credit and the merchants were very good in helping out these people. At Fairoaks, two merchants were L. C. Reed and later Bill Bivens. At Personville, it was Al Crider and Bill Kennedy. At Farrar it was Harve Reed, H. L. “Harve” Reed, and Lennie Slaughter. And another man that was prominent in this part of the county was Jake Hudson, later a banker in Donie. He made small loans to many people that helped a lot get through the hard times.
Times were really hard, and a lot of times people thought they couldn’t get any worse, but they did because suddenly we had Pearl Harbor and World War II. There was all the young farm boys and in towns eighteen years or older were called up for military service. Then we had rationing of consumer goods by the government because so many had to go to the military effort. A lot of times, the general stores would—made sure that they had enough to supply each family with the scarce goods, and they did a good job of it. And at that time, no one—at least prior to 1939, no one in the rural areas had electricity. [Harriman note: Electricity had come to the communities proper in 1939, which usually only included the general stores, the schools, the churches, and maybe a few nearby homes, but most all of the rural families did not get electricity until 1946, when the REA finally came on out to the rural farms. Now people could have electric refrigerators and washing machines. The Barnes & McLean farm store in Groesbeck sold many farmers their first electric refrigerator and allowed them to make payments as they were able. The ice trucks from the nearest towns that hauled block ice to the homes gradually went out of business.]
WILSON: Excuse me. What are some of the goods that were hard to come by?
HARRIMAN: Well, regular staple goods: sugar was rationed, flour was rationed, shortening was rationed, tires for the cars were rationed, and many things that you wouldn’t think of. [Harriman note: Coffee and even footwear were rationed. A lot of people that had cars, many were not running. I can remember when I was very young seeing almost as many wagons and teams at the Oakes church as there were cars. The war was still going on and families would sit by their battery radios every night and listen to the war news, famous broadcasters long since forgotten like Walter Winchell, Lowell Thomas, and Edward R. Murrow.] And that’s where they invented—during World War II, they invented saccharin to take the place of sugar. That’s where it started. I remember putting it in your iced tea. This was still during the—late in the war. People didn’t like it, but it was better than anything else they had. But they were—it was—a lot of things were rationed. They had ration stamps. They would issue ration books, stamps books, and there are some still in existence. I have friends that has one, a ration stamp book, for— gasoline was rationed. But I made a point once—one point is that the poorest people suffered the least because some of the poorest people didn’t have money to buy any more than they received anyhow. It was—(laughs) so the rationing didn’t hurt the poorest people very much. But that’s some of things that were rationed.
The World War II was a horrible war. It affected almost every nation on Earth. The present estimations at this time is there were between fifty and eighty million people perished from the face of the Earth, and probably most of these were civilians. At one time—I remember specifically reading in the Life magazine in the forties in high school—at one time, there was five thousand people each day dying of starvation, mostly in Russia alone and that was in Europe. And there were people in the Philippines dying of starvation everywhere, so it was a horrible, horrible war. But it was finally over, and, as I say, the people mourned their—the young boys that were lost. It was such a relief, and everybody just tried to get on with their life after the war was over.
The boys that had been called up and went into military service off the farms in Limestone County, the ones that came back, most of them were—started to try [to] farm again. It was very difficult because we’d had some inflation during the war, and to try to make a living after a little inflation on a fifty-acre farm in southeast Limestone County that was primarily sandy loam—you couldn’t produce a lot of cotton and corn without fertilizer. It was tough. [Harriman note: A government program called the GI Bill allowed veterans to go back to college or take advantage of programs that were set up to teach several trades such as welding and auto repair.] And within a few years, you saw these—and this was countywide—you saw these young boys, couldn’t hardly make ends meet, driving to Mexia and Groesbeck and Teague, working at brick plants, grain elevators—anywhere they could find work to supplement their income. A lot of people started moving to Houston from south Limestone County. It seemed that we lost more people moving to the Houston area than we did Dallas-Fort Worth, but they went both to the cities looking to make better wages. That was very important.
Consequently, over a few years, farming deceased. People went gradually to cattle. And as a result, the student enrollment at these—at Fairoaks and many more rural schools in the county started diminishing due to these families moving. Eventually, in a few years, they didn’t have enough student enrollment to justify the continuation of the school there. Therefore, they first consolidated the high school with Mexia after a few years in 1958, and then after they lost the elementary school, they all consolidated with Groesbeck in 1964. So today, if you drive down [Texas State] Highway 39 through Personville and Fairoaks and Farrar, you won’t see any farming. All you see is pasture and cattle and hay. It’s such a change, such a change, from fifty years ago or sixty years ago.
[Harriman note: So the Fairoaks school is gone today, and maybe because we were a country school, I think we as graduates felt we had to measure up to a certain standard to be ready for the world ahead, and since then and still today, Fairoaks and those pioneer families have produced their share of prominent county leaders, educators, attorneys, judges, law enforcement, and professionals of the highest moral character. Some examples: the R. Q. Sims and A. B. McBay schools on the Mexia ISD campus are named after former educators and an ex-student of Fairoaks. A. B. McBay was one of my teachers at Fairoaks in 1944. Also, the current district judge Deborah Oakes Evans that serves here in the county courthouse is a descendent of the pioneer Oakes families of the Fairoaks-Donie area that settled there in the late 1800s. Not bad for a little country town and school. I have to say that I believe my generation has lived during one of the greatest periods in history. We have lived from the horse-and-buggy days of the 1930s to the days of space travel. What a ride for my eighty-three years.]
That’s about the—what I know of Fairoaks and the surrounding area. Now, after a lot of these people retired from these towns and cities, a lot of them moved back to Fairoaks and Farrar and Personville, particularly after Lake Limestone and lakes were built. [Harriman note: The Brazos River Authority decided to build a dam on the Navasota River near the Limestone-Leon County line. This was completed in 1978 and created Lake Limestone.] A lot of them moved back and their children and grandchildren—some of them live there now. But it’s been such a change. Do you have anything?
WILSON: Do you recall, Mr. Harriman, when Highway 39 was actually a railroad?
HARRIMAN: No. I’ve done some research on that. [Harriman rewrite: Records show it was abandoned in 1934, and the tracks were taken up later.] But it was built in 1906 as a railroad from Mexia to Navasota. Consequently, it’s a very straight highway. When they took it up, they made a highway out of it. [Harriman note: It was a very narrow road.] It had big gravel. It wasn’t pea gravel; it was large gravel. And for years [when] I [was] growing up—it wasn’t paved until 1946, after World War II, about the same time everybody got electricity in the thing(??). But growing up, we called it the old rock road because it was big rocks, and if you met a car you got a shower of rocks on your windshield. (both laugh) But that’s the history of that, best I know it. [Harriman note: Then in 1947–48 they built the brand new Highway 164 from Groesbeck to Buffalo. Then we had nice smooth highways to both Mexia and Groesbeck.]
WILSON: Well, I’m—I ask everybody the same question, and I’m going to ask you that question. Mr. Harriman, if you could give one piece of advice for the young people today, what would that advice be?
HARRIMAN: Well, that’s a toughie, but offhand I can’t really think of anything more important than education because in today’s age, it seems to me it’s more important than it’s ever been. And I used to have a simple saying. I used to tell the young people—I worked for one of the largest corporations in the world for thirty-eight years, AT&T [Harriman note: the old Bell System], and I worked with a lot of people and a lot of people worked for me. One of the things I used to tell them, simply: the more you know, the more you’re worth. It’s that simple. That’s still true today, and it may be more so in the future. I’ve got three grandchildren, triplet grandchildren, in college at this time— they’re seniors in college—so I’m trying to press upon them the importance of education. So that’s what I—that would have to be my answer to that.
WILSON: Well, that’s certainly good advice and we’ve heard it before. Again, I appreciate your contribution and your time on this project. We thank you very much, sir.
end of interview