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Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
Opened March, 1963
November 1, 1961
By J. R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Well, Mr. Chiles, we might as well go ahead now. When did you first...?
CHILES: Well, I knew Harry Truman, I'd judge, about 1895. He moved to the opposite corner of the block. He was on Waldo and I'm on White Oak and the alley ran between, and that was our town meeting grounds in between the two places. That's where we played, up and down that alley. We'd be playing cowboy or shinny or any game we played -- those are all pretty rough -- rougher than the games they play now -- and Harry would come by. I didn't get acquainted with
him right away -- his brother played with us, but he did not play much in those rough games because he wore double-strength glasses. He just couldn't get in that kind of a game. But he came by and talked to us and that's when I first saw him. Well, then he finished his grade school at Columbian School and I was in the Ott School district. When we graduated from grade school and went to high school we met and were in the same class. At that time the high school here in Independence consisted of two rooms on the second floor of the Ott School. The rest of the grade school -- the Ott Grade School -- was in the same building.
FUCHS: I see, there were just two floors in the building?
CHILES: I went two years there, and so did Harry. Two rooms in the Ott School were the high school. I believe they had about four teachers because I remember in particular Professor Palmer and Miss Tillie Brown. Professor Palmer was the principal and Miss Tillie Brown was the language or grammar teacher and I think Miss Hardin too -- later on
she was Mrs. Palmer. We went there for two years and then we all went up to the -- what they call, what is now -- the site of the Junior High School. They built a high school there and there is where Harry and I went to the second two years of our high school.
FUCHS: How did he happen to go to Columbian School when he lived so close to you and Columbian School was farther south?
CHILES: Well, before he moved over here he lived down in the Columbian district and moved during the term, so they let him go back over there, and he went to Columbian and I still went to Ott.
FUCHS: In other words he finished up where he started grade school? He was actually living in the Ott district up here?
CHILES: Yes, he moved to the Ott district but he went back over there.
Before he lived over here on Waldo, he lived down on Crysler. He lived down there quite a while. We were both boys out of the farm and I think we are both examples that you can take the boy out of the farm but you can't take the farm out of the boy.
FUCHS: When did you move to White Oak?
CHILES: I moved over here on White Oak when I was eight years old. I think in 1890.
FUCHS: You are junior to Mr. Truman, is that right? He is several years older than you, I believe?
CHILES: No, I always thought we were the same age. I accused him of fudging on his age but he didn't and he was two years younger than I.
FUCHS: He is two years younger than you?
CHILES: Almost to the day and our birthdays are both in May. Mine's the 25th and I think his is about the 10th. And I accused him of fudging but he was right. I guess he
was just smarter than I was, and anyway, we all went to school and we all graduated in 1901.
FUCHS: Do you have any specific memories of him in the neighborhood other than this?
CHILES: Well, I remember when we were playing there in the alley. He took an almost daily music lesson and he came by with a great big leather music folio or portfolio, or whatever you call it, under his arm. He would come by and watch us and maybe he would hit a lick or two in the shinny or try to throw a rope. We not only played cowboys, we really were cowboys. The Trumans, as I say, came off the farm and my father came off the farm, and we both had horses. Each one of us boys had a pony and we'd play real cowboys, and I am not fooling. We would rope each other and drag around. I remember one incident. When we'd practice we would ride down the alley as fast as we could and see if we could lariat a post, a fence post, and then if we caught it we would turn the rope loose and come on back. One time, some
way or the other my rope got caught around the saddle horn and when I roped the post, come to the end of the rope, there we both were, me and the saddle, and the horse went on. But I remember Harry used to come down there, but Harry didn't -- I don't remember ever seeing him on a horse. Now Vivian, his brother and younger, the same age as my younger brother, they were there and we used to go out and run horse races out on the River Road. There is a straight stretch of road -- that was about the time the Airline was built -- and there is almost a half a mile there. There was a few houses there and Alderson's house was out there, and from that house up to the Airline bridge was our race track. We had many a race up there; sometimes I'd win and sometimes they'd win.
FUCHS: The Airline bridge, now is that where...?
CHILES: The bridge is still there but the railroad has been abandoned. It was a shortcut from the Kansas City, Pittsburg, Gulf and the leader of the Kansas City Belt.
It was a switch track that ran out to Independence and they came in through here at Delaware Street and they had a trestle goes across from Delaware to College Street. Oh, it was about a half mile of trestle and some forty to fifty feet high. The old concrete abutment there where it ended on College Street is still there. Some of the-right-of-way is still there. They had a depot where the Montgomery Ward order office is now. They came in there and backed up and then they went backing for -- they carried a good deal of freight. What it was, was a switch track for the Kansas City Belt. But they carried passengers and when Sugar Creek opened up, a good many years later afterwards, that was the main freight line for Sugar Creek refinery. Besides the Santa Fe went through there, too. I rode the first train that backed into Sugar Creek, that came in there. They would go up to the main line and then back into Sugar Creek about a half a mile and carried passengers from Independence down there and then carried passengers to Kansas City. For years I worked for the Kansas City
Southern and I had a pass on it and went back and forth on that. They called it the Airline. I don't know why, but it was known as the Airline Railroad. It was a branch of the Kansas City Belt. First it was the Kansas City, Pittsburg, Gulf and then later on they changed the name to the Kansas City Southern, but they at that time owned the Kansas City Belt too.
FUCHS: And you and Vivian used to race horses out to that bridge?
CHILES: We used to race horses out there from the Alderson place into the Airline bridge on River Road. That was the finish line. Harry didn't do that much, those glasses bothered him, but he couldn't do without the glasses, so he just didn't.
FUCHS: You remember him as wearing glasses when he moved up here?
CHILES: Oh yes, he wore them all the time. Ever since I've known him he had thick glasses.
FUCHS: Did the boys ever seem to kid him, you know, because he didn't engage in...?
CHILES: Well, once in a while they would kid him but he was serious. They wanted to call him sissy, but they just didn't do it because they had a lot of respect for him. I remember one time we were playing, I think, another game that we played, Jesse James or robbers, and we were the Dalton brothers out in Kansas -- that's about the time they got killed -- and we were arguing about them. Harry came in -- we got the history mixed up ourselves -- but Harry came in and straightened it out, just who were the Dalton brothers and how many got killed. Things like that the boys had a lot of respect for; they didn't call him sissy. Nowadays they probably would.
FUCHS: Do you remember his parents?
CHILES: I knew both of them well, they lived over there. His father came to town -- as I say, you can't take the farm out of the boy -- so just more for something to do
than anything else, he took a horse and went out through the country. Everybody those days had a few cows and -- a little bit farther out this is big stock country -- he would buy cattle, one cow or two cows. One time in particular I remember, he came in with a calf across his saddle and the old mother cow following up. He didn't have to tie her, she just followed the calf. He had bought the cow and calf and come in. And he had a lot on the corner of Waldo that run back to the alley. Oh, it covered several lots wide and had a barn and he kept one to a dozen cattle in there all the time. He'd slick them up and if necessary he'd drive them to Kansas City and sell them to the stockyard. In those days we didn't have any trucks, of course, and the only way to get them there was to ship them on the train or drive them. So people within fifty miles of the stockyard didn't ever do anything but drive them. Mr. Truman would get two or three head and drive them right on down Fifth Street right into the stockyard. Now as a boy many times --
my uncle, my father and my brother were all stock feeders, cattle feeders -- I would go up there with them and I'd help drive (dozens of times), as many as three hundred cattle right out of the stockcars, down the street to Independence Avenue and on down, sometimes to Buckner, sometimes to pasture around Independence. We drove the stock because it was the only way you had to get them there. It would take more time to get them on the train car and off the car than it would to drive through, so they just drove them through.
FUCHS: Do you remember seeing Harry help in that?
CHILES: No, I don't think Harry ever helped. I think Vivian helped drive stock up to the city, but I don't think Harry ever did.
FUCHS: Where was he taking music lessons at that time? Do you recall?
CHILES: No, I don't. I don't know who his music teacher was. He went uptown. That's what we called it. We always called that uptown you know, and he went up there somewhere but I
don't know where.
FUCHS: Do you recall him in school? Any particular incidents?
CHILES: Well, no, he was more of a history student and I was just getting by; he was making a record. I don't remember much about him in school; only that he made all pretty good grades, and if I made passing I was lucky. I wouldn't study, they tried to get me to study. I guess that's the reason he got to be President and as far as I got was to be county treasurer.
FUCHS: Well, at that time the library was right in the main school building -- after they moved to the new high school at Pleasant and Maple, isn't that right?
CHILES: Well, at that time they had a very limited library. Oh, a few encyclopedias or something there. They didn't have room for them and then when they moved down there they designated one of the largest rooms. Before we left there after two years that room was filled with books. A little later on, after I got out of school, my daughters went to that school; they woke me up about two o'clock one morning and we saw it burn down and every book in it.
FUCHS: Do you recall seeing him reading in there?
CHILES: Yes, I have seen him in there many times, but to tell you the truth I didn't fool around the library very much.
FUCHS: Could they get in there and read on Saturdays or weekends?
CHILES: As I recall it they could, yes. I think, the main thing, they didn't do too much reading there and they took the books out. I saw Harry go home many a time with two or three books on weekends, and I guess by Monday he had them all read. The rest of us just read Jesse James, these little paperback book, Jesse James stories. We were reading those in the barn loft.
FUCHS: In the new high school, I believe you went to different rooms for different types of classes, is that right? At Ott you stayed in...?
CHILES: At Ott, I think, there finally got to be four rooms and they had four teachers besides Professor Palmer, and they continually recited, all the time. And I'd have a
homeroom and I'd sit there and listen to the other classes recite. They all recited, and whoever was in the homeroom they got over in a corner somewhere and listened to the others recite. I think four rooms is what they had, and they had a little cubbyhole there that they called the library. I don't think they had a hundred books. Harry patronized that more than anybody. He read more history than anybody. He was a great historian.
FUCHS: Yes, they always said he had a great deal of interest in history. Do you recall anything about graduation?
CHILES: Well, I know he was there and I was there. At that time we had forty-five in our class and we were actually worrying what the country was going to do with all that education. That was the largest class ever graduated. Harry was amongst them and so was I, and we thought that if they would have kept that up the country would be over-educated. I think this last time -- I don't know -- that they graduated 12 or 1500 this last graduation.
FUCHS: Quite a difference! So you kind of lost track of him after your graduation?
CHILES: Yes, after we graduated I went to work for t