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Opened March, 1963
Oral History Interview with
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 the Kansas City Southern and Harry, I think, went on the farm, and he made a farm hand until the war. I think he stayed there until the war came on, I'm not right sure, but he was clear over in the west part of the county and I was in the east.
FUCHS: Well, he did go to Kansas City for a number of years.
CHILES: Well, I understood he went up there and took a short pre-law course but never graduated.
FUCHS: That was later, that was when he was a county judge. But what I was wondering -- for a few months in 1902 he moved from Waldo and lived at 903 N. Liberty. Do you recall anything in connection with that?
CHILES: No, I was gone after 1901. I didn't see or hear of Harry until he started to run for county judge. I heard of him when he got to be, I believe, captain of the company.
FUCHS: You don't recall anything about his military days?
CHILES: I lost contact with him. I stayed on the farm and when I came back I got a political job. I still farmed and had a political job.
FUCHS: What job was that?
CHILES: I was the county deputy in charge of the Independence office of county clerk.
FUCHS: You were deputy county clerk?
CHILES: Yes, they started that in 1919. When I first came up here they had the square all decorated up around the courthouse. Decorated with flags and the soldiers were coming home from World War I. Everyday there would be a new company or something come in, and they kept the decorations up for a year. Some big celebration concerning the homecoming of the soldiers would happen nearly everyday. The reason was there was just a few at a time. There would be a company come in here or somebody come in there, or some dignitary would come in. I was noticing this morning in the Forty Year column of the Kansas City Star, or Times, rather, all those dignitaries -- General Pershing, Clemenceau.
Well, anyhow, there was five heroes of the World War I up there and I was in Kansas City and saw them. I didn't meet them, but I saw them and the parade. They had a gigantic big parade and I saw them.
FUCHS: That was in 1921, I believe. They are rededicating that now, you know, the Liberty Memorial.
CHILES: They are going to rededicate that memorial up there. That was about the time they built it, I believe.
FUCHS: Was that what these generals were in town for at that time, for that dedication?
CHILES: Yes, that's right, and Woodrow Wilson made a speech. Not at that particular time, not at the time they had the parade, but he came back and made his speech and I went up and heard that at the mall of the memorial.
FUCHS: Do you recall anything of Mr. Truman in the haberdashery in Kansas City about that time?
CHILES: No sir, I don't know a thing in the world about that. I lived in the country and was wearing mostly jeans then.
FUCHS: Now in 1919 you did come back to Independence, is that right? You lived here?
CHILES: I moved back here off the farm -- back here on White Oak.
FUCHS: Well, he had the haberdashery from 1919 to 1922.
CHILES: Well, I came back, and several times at the courthouse I met Bess. She and I were discussing, or I congratulated her on her marriage, and we discussed it anyway. I knew Bess a long time before I knew Harry.
FUCHS: Do you have some remembrances of her as a child?
CHILES: Yes, they lived over on Delaware and I passed their house going to the Ott School. Of course, in the neighborhood I knew Bess and I knew George and Frank, but I didn't know Fred. Fred was the younger one. I knew George and Bess and Frank. George was a little fellow and Frank, of course, was younger than I was and so was Bess.
FUCHS: They were living farther north on Delaware at that time, right?
CHILES: Oh yeah, they lived over just below Waldo. They lived
right next to the Paxtons. The Paxtons were all boys. They were about equal in number and they would get in a big row, the Paxton boys and the Wallace boys, then they'd send Bess in there to settle it. They were all afraid of her; she didn't fool around with them.
FUCHS: She was a little tomboyish?
CHILES: Well, you might say that she was a tomboy; she turned out to be the most gracious lady I ever met. And her mother is symbolic of the old Southern ladies that I have been drilled in all my life. She was the nicest -- she had the kind of Southern brogue. In my word she was a typical Southern lady -- just as kind and spoke in kind of a soft voice.
I knew Bessie's father, Dave Wallace, real well, and he kind of sponsored me. He was working in Kansas City and I guess he knew everybody in Jackson County. He was the most popular man I ever knew. He had a job up there with some railroad company -- no, he had a Federal job. I went to Kansas City Southern; I told him I wanted a job, and he said he'd find one for me. I had been working for the Kansas City
Southern about a week when he called me and said, "I've got a job for you or a prospect and I want you to go down there and see." I went up to see him in the Federal building and told him what I had. He said, "Listen, you keep that job, it's better than I could get you." But he told me to go down; there was a railroad job in a freight yard down in the west bottoms, about where the stockyards are -- I think, the Union Pacific. I went down there to talk to them. He said, "I'd advise you to keep it but you go down and talk to those people." I stayed with the Kansas City Southern.
FUCHS: What was Mr. Wallace's job? Do you remember?
CHILES: No, I don't know. It was some Government job, but I don't know what. He had a job up there in -- down there at 8th and Grand -- the Federal building. He had a great job and a great big office -- very imposing office and desk -- but I don't know what his title was.
FUCHS: About what year was that?
CHILES: Well, that was the latter part of 1901, probably.
I graduated in May 1901. Sometime along in that fall I went to work up there. And he advised me to keep it but said, "Go down and talk to these people and make up your own mind." I went down and I stayed with Kansas City Southern. Oh, I wasn't cut out to be a railroad man -- my health -- I had always lived outdoors and staying inside didn't suit me, so I quit. I think I worked there until about 1906. I quit and went to the farm, went to farming.
FUCHS: Do you have any other recollections of Mr. Wallace?
CHILES: Well, he was the promising young man of the county. He led all the parades and at that time every time you turned around they had a parade of some kind, especially on the 4th of July. And Dave Wallace led all those parades. He had a big riding horse, a black horse, and he'd ride him and lead those parades. He was just a general -- oh, I don't know what you would call it. He knew how to handle all those things and he was very popular. Everybody liked him and he knew everybody. He kind of managed these parades and always led the parades. I guess he was the most
popular man in the county at that time.
FUCHS: Do you remember anything in particular about Mrs. Truman's mother in that period?
CHILES: Well, she was just a housewife, and I didn't know them until they moved to the white house -- the Gates place. I knew them too, but I wasn't here and didn't know much about their moving. But when I came back, Bess was living up there and she met Harry the last time there. They knew each other in school of course, and then, of course, the story has been told many a time about her returning a plate to his cousin over there.
FUCHS: What was the story?
CHILES: Well, it has been told many a time. Harry's cousin, the Nolands, lived across the street from the Wallaces and the Gates; and it seems the Gates had sent the Nolands over some cookies or something and Harry came along, he was visiting (from the farm) his first cousins, Ruth, Ethel and Nellie Noland. There was three girls; I knew them very well. They lived there and they had Harry take this
dish back over, and I believe they returned some cookies or something. It was always the custom if someone sent you a cake you would send them back a pie. Anyway, Harry took that plate back over there and he met Bess all over again and from then on, why...
FUCHS: This was after he was out of high school then? After he was back on the farm?
CHILES: Oh yes, it was quite a while. Oh, a good many years after that; I don't know just what it was. It was after that several years and they met.
FUCHS: Do you remember him being particularly fond of her while they were in grade school and high school?
CHILES: Well no, it was just a mix-up. I don't know.
FUCHS: You don't have any recollection of that?
CHILES: No, I don't have any recollection of that, of anything special. I saw them there. I saw them all there. They didn't have parties then like they have now. They would have one once in a while. Now they have class parties,
you know, and class picnics. They didn't have them then, they just went ahead....
FUCHS: You don't recall him carrying her books home from school or anything like that?
CHILES: No. I don't.
FUCHS: Do you remember her dating anyone?
CHILES: Oh, she had the normal lot of dates like anybody else, but I don't think she was serious about anybody.
FUCHS: You don't think she was more serious with Harry than with anyone else?
CHILES: No, I don't think so, as far as I can remember. Of course, when a party would come along some boy or acquaintance would ask her to go and she went; but, as I remember, she didn't have any special -- in those days they didn't go steady like now.
FUCHS: Then later on they did meet through this cookie deal?
CHILES: His cousins lived across the road and they met that way, that is they renewed their acquaintance. And from then on there was the courtship. Just when they got married I don't remember -- it was all history; I don't know.
FUCHS: They got married in June 1919 when he came back from the service, after he got his discharge.
CHILES: Well, that's when I met Bess in the courthouse. They had just gotten married a little time before that.
FUCHS: Then you continued in this job as Jackson County clerk?
CHILES: Yes, I stayed there in that one job, I think, thirty-five years. In that one job, first I was just an ordinary clerk; well, I never was anything but an ordinary clerk as far as that's concerned. I did get to be chief deputy and I stayed in charge of the office. I think I got chief deputy after about four years and then I stayed chief deputy under four county clerks. At that time, and even now Jackson County has two courthouses. The county court, which the county clerk is a clerk to, met on alternate months in
Kansas City and Independence. When it met in Independence, I was county clerk as far as everything was concerned. I did the duties. I waited on the court and at that time I presented the bills (they have an auditor who does that now); but at that time I presented the bills and did all the things that were necessary for a county clerk to do.
FUCHS: You were in a particularly good position then to observe the county court, the judges and Mr. Truman from day to day, weren't you? You must have seen a great deal of him then?
CHILES: Now when Harry commenced to run for county judge, why I thought, "That fellow, I've known him ever since I was in high school -- thick-glassed boy -- I don't think he'll ever make it."
FUCHS: How did it come to your attention? Through the newspaper or some of the...?
CHILES: No, these things you know when you are in the courthouse. The courthouse lives on rumors. Of course I heard the first rumor and Vivian, I believe Vivian, came up to talk to me and wanted to know if I would be for him. I
said, "Now Vivian, you know how politics are, you are a 'Goat' and I'm a 'Rabbit.' If the Rabbits are for Harry I'll be for Harry, but if the Rabbits are not then you know I can't be." And Harry went as a -- I'll explain -- Goats were Pendergast and the Rabbits were Shannon. That was the nicknames. They were called the Goats and the Rabbits. I told him, "Now I'd be glad to," and we got together and Harry agreed that the only difference between electing him and Bob Hood -- I believe it was run against him in the primaries -- would be that he'd have a job or Bob Hood would have a job, and he needed it. Well, I said I'd do anything I could but I had to protect my own job and "If the Rabbits are for you I'll be for you." Well, the Rabbits were for him and after the primary (of course we had another fight in the primary) but after the primary we were 100 per cent for him; we elected him.
He agreed to divide the patronage (the old saying in them days was "fifty-fifty") he'd match job for job with the different offices. But when he got to be judge, he
was doing what the Goats told him and I was doing what the Rabbits told me, because I wasn't concerned in it at all. But then when he got in there Tom Pendergast had a brother, Mike, and Mike was a militant sort of a fellow. He wanted to "kill" everybody who didn't agree with him and he wanted to "kill" all the Rabbits and he did -- he made Harry fire every Rabbit in the courthouse. They just looked around and looked for them and fired them. Harry didn't want to do it, but he agreed to do what his side agreed on. And Mike was out handling it here, so that made us sore -- made the Rabbits all sore -- and when he came up for re-election, well the Rabbits resented it. At that time there weren't very many Republicans, but we had enough Republicans and we beat him.
FUCHS: You supported the Republican candidate in that election?
CHILES: I supported and worked for Henry Rummel, an unknown, a nice old fellow. He was a harness-maker and a merchant here, nice fellow, didn't have anything against him, or anything in particular for him, but he was running against
Harry. We elected Rummel and I hated it because I was in the same precinct as Harry (the same precinct here) and Harry lost in the precinct. So the next morning after election, I was as ashamed of it as I could be, but I stuck to my job (they would have fired me if I hadn't of stayed with them, of course) I saw Harry coming and I said, "Well, I didn't want to see him this morning."
So I crossed over the street and then, just down from the square, he saw me and called me over there, stuck out his hand and said, "Now I want you to understand there's no hard feelings."
I said, "Harry, yesterday was the hardest day I've ever had of any kind, let alone in politics -- many more of that and I'm going to quit. I had to go out and fight you yesterday and I hated to do it, and I'm ashamed of it now, but I did it."
He said, "Don't worry about it, there's no hard feelings. You did what your gang told you and I did what my gang told me." He said, "There's no hard feelings," and shook hands and said, "Now let's forget all about it."
Well, we did forget about it, we had four years of wild politics, strenuous at least, and then when we got together again they ran Harry for presiding judge and
every Rabbit voted for Harry for presiding judge in the primary. And Harry was elected twice as presiding judge and he led the ticket every time. His name was almost magic for vote-getting -- he just got all the votes there was.
FUCHS: Why did the Rabbits support him when he came back and ran again in 1926 for presiding judge?
CHILES: They made up and they taught him his lesson, I guess -- they thought they did.
FUCHS: Well actually, in 1923 when he first went into office, Mike Pendergast, as I understand it from your story, violated the principle of fifty-fifty and had the Rabbits who were to get fifty per cent of...
CHILES: Yes, yes, he did. Harry didn't deny that he agreed to, but they wouldn't let him. They would have annihilated him in politics if that's what their organization decided. His brother Tom was the big boss in Kansas City and he backed Mike. They turned Mike over this part of the county, the eastern -- they are divided in eastern and
western. Kansas City was the western district and all out east in Jackson County was the eastern district. Well, Mike handled the eastern district and that's what he decided best and Tom backed him up, and Harry had to do what he said.
FUCHS: Now, how did some of you Rabbits manage to survive in that first term of Mr. Truman as eastern judge?
CHILES: Well, he didn't have anything to do with my job. I worked for the county clerk and all the county court could fire was the immediate appointees of the county court itself. You see, he had nothing to do with recorders, the engineers, etc.
FUCHS: The county recorder was elected and the county clerk was elected?
CHILES: Elected to office. They had nothing to do with the election more than the county court had to do with their own and he just could fire those people. Of course that was the big job because they had road men and road overseers at that time a great organization was the road overseers. The county was divided up, I think, in about forty districts
and they had a road overseers district over that (they appointed a man who could handle his district not only for the road but for the votes) and they fired all the Rabbit road overseers and hired Goats.
FUCHS: Now, the county clerk, who was your superior, was an elected officer -- was he a Rabbit?
CHILES: Yes, oh yes.
FUCHS: How did he happen to get elected when the Goats seem to have been pretty powerful and swung the election, at least for the county judges?
CHILES: Well, that was the agreement. The only fight they had was the county court, and at that time they beat both the western and the eastern judge. They didn't just want to pick on Harry, they wanted to pick on the eastern judge. And at that time the presiding judge didn't come up, and then after they got over their hot spell they all got together again. Tom and Joe (Shannon) always got together and talked it over and they were unanimous in their division of Kansas City -- dividing the candidates up.