Oral History Interview with
Boyhood friend of Harry S. Truman and Bess Wallace Truman and a longtime close friend of the family; prominent Independence, MO druggist for many years; and, subsequently, an employee of the Federal Housing Administration and then of the Savings Bond Division, U.S. Treasury Department, in Missouri.
August 8, 1963, | August 21, 1963 and | March 3, 1964
by James R. Fuchs
[Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
This is a transcript of a tape-recorded interview conducted for the Harry S. Truman Library. A draft of this transcript was edited by the interviewee but only minor emendations were made; therefore, the reader should remember that this is essentially a transcript of the spoken, rather than the written word.
Numbers appearing in square brackets (ex. ) within the transcript indicate the pagination in the original, hardcopy version of the oral history interview.
This oral history transcript may be read, quoted from, cited, and reproduced for purposes of research. It may not be published in full except by permission of the Harry S. Truman Library.
Opened March, 1965
Harry S. Truman Library
[Top of the Page | Notices and Restrictions | Interview Transcript | List of Subjects Discussed]
Oral History Interview with
August 8, 1963
by James R. Fuchs
FUCHS: Mr. Peters, how did you become acquainted with Harry Truman?
PETERS: Our first acquaintance was in the Noland School, which was known as the Southside at that time, in Independence, Missouri. At that time there were only two schools in Independence, the Southside, or what later became the Noland School and the Northside, later the Ott School. He and I were seatmates in the first grade. In those days two children sat together in an old bench with a dividing board that ran down the center. Possibly six or eight benches were fastened together with a child on either side of each bench. Miss Myra Ewing was our teacher whom we loved very much. You have in
your collection a picture of this first grade class arranged on the stairs. In this picture Mr. Truman is on the front row while I am four or five rows back. The year that Mr. Truman and I attended that school, he lived on South Crysler Avenue. I remember that they were boring for a cistern or a well on the Truman property. Instead of water they struck natural gas. They cased it in, and for a number of years the Trumans furnished gas to their neighbors without charge. It was, I believe, the only natural gas in Independence at that time. When the Westside or Columbian School was completed Mr. Truman, living in that district, was transferred to it. If my memory is correct, he and I were together in the Noland School for only one year or perhaps a year and a half, although it has been so long I am not sure.
FUCHS: You don’t recall being in the second grade with him?
PETERS: I don’t recall being in the second grade at all with him. He was a boy who skipped grades. I wasn’t; I played a little bit but he was always studious. I admired this in him. In fact, I suppose I envied him because I wasn’t studious; but we got along well together.
FUCHS: You sat in the same seat together?
PETERS: Same seat, yes. Although these seats were an improvement over earlier ones, they were still pretty crude. There was a desk attached to the back of the seat in front with a shelf under the desk for books.
I believe it was in his second year at Noland that Mr. Truman had diphtheria. I remember this because it was my first knowledge of diphtheria antitoxin, which they gave him.
In those days they gave antitoxin in small doses of from one hundred to two hundred and fifty units. Today fifteen hundred units are given as a preventive, even as much as twenty thousand units. Small doses, it was found, retarded the disease, but when the effect of the antitoxin ran out the disease came back with a stronger or more vicious attack.
While Mr. Truman was ill with diphtheria the Columbian School was completed, and he came back to that school. After that our lives separated for many years, but I always had a very very special spot in my heart for him.
When he got into politics the first thing I did was to tell him that I would do anything I could for
him when he ran for eastern judge.
Later, while he was Vice President, I was riding with him in his car to Kansas City on one of his trips home when he asked me if I knew who gave him his first political appointment. I said I supposed I had known but that I had forgotten. He said, "Your uncle, Judge R.D. Mize, who was eastern judge. He appointed me road overseer for Washington township." So that is another family connection we have had with him. My uncle admired him very much, especially his independence. My uncle was a very independent man, not afraid to tell anybody if he thought they were wrong, and always willing to back up what he felt. He felt that Harry Truman was cut off the same bolt of cloth.
FUCHS: Were you born in Independence?
PETERS: Yes, I was born at 209 South Main Street right across from the city hall where my grandmother lived. The original house bordered on the sidewalk, because in those days the streets were not paved. When they built the large house in which I was born, the two story house, it was built back of the original one. The cistern for
water for the old house was in front of the new house. Over it was a big marble slab with holes punched all around to let in air. In the kitchen we had one of those old-fashioned hand pumps to bring in water. There was no basement under the old house or under the new house until many years later when a basement was dug and a furnace and electricity installed. Because there was no basement, in the wintertime the pump would freeze at night if we didn't take precautions. After saving out some water, we would take the handle of the pump and push it up. This would let the suction off so that the water would run back into the cistern where it would not freeze. Then in the morning we would put some water in the top to prime the pump. The handle would have to be juggled up and down to get the suction started. I was almost grown before we had running water in the house, but I never remember having coal oil lamps in that house; we had gas lights until later when we had electricity.
FUCHS: Was the gas piped into you by a city system?
PETERS: Yes. I don't remember the name of the company, but it was owned by two men whose names were Wait and Wert,
or some similar names. I remember the W. and W.
FUCHS: Where there gas wells close there?
PETERS: No, it was manufactured gas. We did not have natural gas until many years afterwards.
FUCHS: You say, John Anderson Truman, Mr. Truman's father, furnished some gas for the neighbors. About how many would that have been?
PETERS: Of course there weren't so very many around there then, probably four or five. It wasn't thickly populated there.
FUCHS: Did he have to drill another well to get his water?
PETERS: Of course, as a youngster, the gas impressed me, but water wells were quite ordinary. I had never heard of a gas well before in my life. And a lot of people older than I was thought it was a very wonderful thing to have a natural gas well right there in town. I just don't remember about the water well.
FUCHS: Did you used to go over to his house to play?
PETERS: Yes, I’d go over there and play and he’d come over to my house to play. Of course, it was quite a distance and we didn’t do it very often. Usually he would come to my house after school because I lived closer to the school than he did. Then they moved to Waldo, but I am confused about when they moved to Waldo and when they went to the country.
FUCHS: They moved to Waldo in 1896.
PETERS: Was that from Crysler Avenue?
FUCHS: From Crysler.
PETERS: And how long did they stay on Waldo?
FUCHS: They stayed there until they went to Kansas City, although the story is that they lived for a few months, I believe in 1903, at 903 North Liberty.
PETERS: I had no contact with them when they went to Kansas City and I’d forgotten that. We went different ways then.
FUCHS: Do you remember whether he was in high school or...
PETERS: No, I don’t remember that.
FUCHS: Did you use to see him in the Clinton drugstore?
PETERS: No, I never went in the drugstore to see him there. I just don’t know how long he worked there.
FUCHS: I think it was a short time. According to his Memoirs, his father suggested that he quit and study a little more, because it was pretty hard to work in the morning and again in the evening.
PETERS: I don’t know whether he lived on Waldo or whether he lived on Crysler when he worked in the drugstore, but I think he lived on Waldo. I don’t believe he was quite old enough when he lived on Crysler to work in the drugstore.
FUCHS: Well, I’m rather interested because if he left Crysler in 1896, he would have just been twelve and he says in his Memoirs that he was fourteen when he worked in the drugstore. One biographer says that he was eleven when he worked in the drugstore. I’ve been interested in the point of whether he was in high school or in grade school.
PETERS: I do not know this. My uncle owned a store and I
used to go in when I was quite small and sell chewing gum or cigars or something like that, but I lived only a block or so from his store and I had more or less grown up in it. Working as Mr. Truman did would probably take someone older.
FUCHS: The Clinton store where he worked was where Goldman’s Jewelry Store is now?
PETERS: Originally, the Clinton store was on the south side of the square right next door to where the First National Bank is now, or maybe the second door from there. Years later they moved to the corner where the jewelry store is.
FUCHS: In other words, on the north side across Main west of Katz Drug.
PETERS: Yes, on the corner there, the northwest corner.
FUCHS: Would it have been there when Mr. Truman worked there?
PETERS: I think it was because when it was on the south side of the square I was quite small and I’m sure he would have been too small to work then.
FUCHS: What year were you born?
FUCHS: Then you're very close to Mr. Truman in age.
PETERS: Yes. I was born September 24, 1885, and he was born May 8, 1884. He was 79 last May and I’ll be 78 this September.
FUCHS: Then you would have been just seven years old when you began school?
PETERS: Yes, I was seven years old.
FUCHS: Mr. Truman was eight years old, then, nearly eight and a half.
PETERS: Why he was in the same room I was, as smart as he was, I don't know. He was always smart but he didn't try to impress people with his smartness. He enjoyed studying and learning.
FUCHS: When you would go over to his home, what games did you play, do you recall?
PETERS: My goodness, I don't remember. Kids don't play the same games now that we did then.
FUCHS: I asked because the story is that he, because of
his eyeglasses, didn't play shinny and some of the rougher games.
PETERS: No, he didn’t. It was very unusual for children to wear glasses then. Kids had a tendency to make fun of people who wore glasses. They’d call him four-eyes. But it didn’t seem to bother him to be called that.
FUCHS: Did you have bicycles to ride after school?
PETERS: In later years I had a bicycle.
FUCHS: Do you remember Mr. Truman riding one? I never heard that he did.
PETERS: No. But we had what were called velocipedes; they call them tricycles now. It was a three-wheeled affair. You couldn’t ride it on the street but had to stay on the sidewalk. And because they had no gears you couldn’t ride far on them. I particularly remember riding it on the sidewalk in front of our house. The sidewalk was made of those octagon flagstones. At the foot of the hill was a board crossing with the long boards laid parallel. Between the boards was a space and it seemed that every time I went down the hill I got the front wheel
of my velocipede caught in the space. It would go over and I would hit my head. I had two knots on my head until I was grown.
FUCHS: Was Bess Wallace in that first grade class?
PETERS: No. She lived on the other side of town and went to Ott School. But her mother, Mrs. Wallace, and my mother were school girls together. They graduated together at the old Woodland College. They were very close friends. She is just a little older than I am. I hope she will not mind my telling this, and I don’t think she will. Her mother brought her to see me when I was just a newborn baby. She was my first caller. So I’ve known her always. Later I sometimes took her to dances, and I always thought she was a very, very fine, wonderful person. I still think so. I don’t think anybody has ever graced the White House with any more dignity than she has.
FUCHS: When did you renew your acquaintance with her?
PETERS: On the Woodland College property (where Bryant School is now) there was a pond where we used to skate in winter. She lived close, on Delaware Street, and…
she was there a lot.
FUCHS: This was when you were in grade school?
PETERS: Yes. I don't remember just how old we were. Then, as I said, I have taken her to parties. We were always very good friends.
FUCHS: You were an early beau of hers.
PETERS: Well, I wouldn’t say I was her beau, but I’ve taken her to dances. In those days there was a 3-story building on the south side of the square where Penney’s is now (the Mercier building). On the third floor there was a big ballroom where Miss Dunlap ran a dancing school. We went to the dancing school and had dances there. Sometimes some of us boys would hire an orchestra. We had a time raising the money but we managed to now and then. The girls would bring their dancing slippers in a slipper bag and then put them on after they got there. They wouldn’t walk in them, because usually we walked to the dance. If we felt right flush and the weather was bad, we’d hire an enclosed cab for a dollar and a half both ways. It was hard to raise the dollar and a half so we didn’t do that very often. I don’t remember
Harry ever going to these dances. He must have lived out in Grandview then.
FUCHS: What years would that have been, when you were going to dances? Were you out of high school then?
PETERS: I don’t remember.
FUCHS: Did you go to Ott High for a year or so?
PETERS: No. When I completed the school at Southside School, which was probably sixth or seventh grade, the high school was right across from the Memorial building; it later burned. I had a bad case of pneumonia and when I recovered, it seemed that everyone I knew was going to work for the railroad and making money. I decided I wanted to be a railroad man. A man named Haldeman who lived here in t