Oral History 1
February 18, 1987
The Early years
Alton S. Foster
Born February 28, 1917
Good evening and welcome to Oral History. I'm Thury Foster (grandson) and I'll be hosting tonight's episode. Tonight, we will probe into the early years of one such member of the older generation, Alton Scott Foster. This interview is being conducted in his home on February 18, 1987 of our great leader Ronald Reagan. Let us begin.
What do you remember about your grandparents?
Well, on my mother’s side, I remember my grandpa's name was William Almarine Elliott and we called him Bill, grandpa Bill. When I first remember him it was in 1923 or 1924 and he had a long gray beard and he used to drink coffee and smack his lips and stroke that beard. He was real fond of that. And my grandmother, she used to send me out to get a little branch off of a bush, she called it a twig and she'd chew the bark off the end of it and then wet it and make it limber and then she'd dip that in her snuff jar and take that snuff and put it in her mouth. And that's pretty much what I remember.
Where were your grandparents from?
They were from Texas and New Mexico. They both had an estate in other words a yearly or monthly payment from their parents, I guess, that had plantations and my grandfather, I don't think ever worked that I know of. I think he may of had some cattle and did a little cattle ranching in New Mexico. They pretty much lived off of the income received from those plantations.
Were they financially well off?
No, they just had a moderate income.
What were their primary goals in life?
I never knew that they really had any.
What did you most admire about your Grandparents?
Well, they were fun loving people; they never seemed to have much worry about anything. That's about all I remember of them.
What do you remember about your parents?
Very little about my Dad, Hugh Ernest Foster because he and my mother divorced when we were really young kids. I might have been three or four years of age. And I remember him coming to visit us once in awhile. Then in later years, as I grew up, I remember he was a, his profession was a barber, and we went to see him one time when he lived in California and I was about sixteen or seventeen years old at the time. That's pretty much all I remember of him. He had a barbershop in Wilmington, California and he used to like to raise birds, talking birds like parrots and he trained dogs and he liked to dance. He showed me trophies he'd won from dancing and it would fill a complete wall with shelves. He was really a good ballroom dancer. And my mother, we lived with her most of our life until I was probably nineteen years of age. She married four other times after my father and there was only one man in that group that I remember very much about and his name was Frank Pascoe and he was a good stepfather.
What do you remember about your mother, Mabel Mavis Elliott Foster?
Well, she was a hard worker and since she was left to provide for us three kids, my two sisters, and myself she worked quite a lot. We saw her, of course, late at night when she came home. She'd fix breakfast for us in the morning and that's about the only time I saw her.
What did she do for a living?
She worked for a dry cleaning place, she was a tailor, and she did alterations and tailoring work.
How many brothers and sisters did you have?
I had two sisters.
Here is a photo of Maxine, Ilene & myself about 1970.
Where were you born?
My Sister Ilene & myself in Clovis, New Mexico
I was born in Clovis, New Mexico and we left there when I was about four and a half years old.
I can remember being downtown one time when the soldiers were brought into town on great big trucks with those brass colored radiators and hard tires and I remember those soldiers jumping off those trucks when they’d see their families and they were still in their uniforms and later I was naturally told by my family, my mother, that was when the soldiers came home from World War I.
Then I remember in Clovis, New Mexico in the middle of town, right in the middle of one of the intersections there was a statue of a deer.
Also I remember my sister Ilene that was my older sister and I playing out in the yard when it started to rain and then hailed and we ran up on the porch. It was a corner porch about ten feet square. It hailed so hard that the hail piled up on that porch and the hail looked to me to be the size of small oranges. It really stacked up and I can remember it now, it looked like somebody had taken a shovel and thrown it up on the porch.
Then another time, that house burned and I remember standing out in the yard and looking back and seeing the orange flames engulf that whole house.
Was that the house that you lived in?
We lived in it, as I was told, my father had a dairy and he and my mother operated that dairy and it was the house they lived in at the dairy that burned.
Was that your real father?
Yes, that was my blood father.
How long did you live in Clovis, New Mexico?
Oh, about four or five years.
And then where did you move from there?
We moved to, Globe, Arizona and stayed with my mothers half sister.
What do you remember about Globe, Arizona?
Well, I went to school there, I started school there and we stayed there until I finished grammar school, eighth grade in other words. Then in 1932, when I graduated we went to Phoenix, Arizona, my mother and step father, Frank Pascoe moved there and I went to high school for four years. I graduated from Phoenix Union High School in 1936.
Did you travel much?
No, I, in conjunction with going to school I worked for Safeway Stores meat market all four years so I didn't have much time to travel. We went to California occasionally, in fact I can remember when the roads were dirt roads from Phoenix to California and over near Yuma where there still is a lot of sand dunes, for a road bed they had two by twelve planks on each side so the cars wheels could ride up on the wooden track and when another car would come one of them would have to pull off into the sand so the other could get by and then it would stop to make sure the other one didn't get stuck. Then later, of course, they improved the road. Then water, back in those days, was a real problem along the way from Phoenix to San Diego and if you did need water and stopped at a service station, you had to pay for the water.
How much did it cost?
I don't remember. people used to carry desert water bags, they were real heavy canvas bags and they would fill those full of water and then the canvas would get wet and swell and hold most of the water and people used to carry those on their cars for their desert travel.
So, most of the transportation you did was in a car?
Do you ever remember the horse and buggy, were those around?
Oh yes, I can remember a lot of people used those. When we moved to Globe, we lived with my mothers half sister whose name was Clara Miller, they had a little acreage out of town and they had a buggy and a horse and they used to ride it a lot. They didn't take it to town. They would use it for entertainment, I guess.
While I was living there in that home with Clara Miller and her husband, Willis Miller, I remember Indians within the area, you could see them sitting on peaks watching our house and our cattle and orchards and all.
Shotgun was always loaded and Aunt Clara was always ready.
One time my aunt sent me down to the well to get some water for her and when I got down there an Indian was hiding there behind the building. I screamed and Clara came out of the door with a shotgun and started shooting at him. She said they were always stealing things from them. They'd steal a chicken or a pig or pick the fruit so there was Indian camps within two or three miles of our place.
Did you have any more conflicts with the Indians?
No, that's about the only thing I remember about it. It was quite common to see Indians sitting around on the rocks going from Globe to Superior, Arizona. You could see them sitting on the rocks watching the cars as they went by.
What kind of trains did they have around Globe and Arizona at that time?
They were steam locomotives and in fact we rode a train from Clovis. New Mexico to Globe and I remember looking out the window and a cinder flew up and hit me in the eye and I remember I had a sore eye for a long time after that. The cinder was from the tracks that was on the railroad ties to used to help hold them in place. It was dangerous to look out the window while riding a train, as I found out.
Was that the only time you rode on a train?
Yeah, that was the only time. I remember when we were in school, it was grammar school, the forth grade and they let the school out and took all us kids out and down to the depot and they told us the President of the United States was coming through and he did, his name was Calvin Coolidge. I got to see him and some other dignitaries standing on the back platform of the train and he stopped and waived to all of us and we waived back to him. The reason he was there was to dedicate Coolidge Dam just outside of Globe. That could have been, they were either there to dedicate the site or the dam, and that could have been about 1925.
Do you remember your first experience with an airplane?
Well, lets see. I remember one time a couple of high school friends of mine were riding on Van Buren Street in Phoenix in a Model A Ford and an airplane crashed right there on the highway and we saw it crash and we saw these, I think it was about four people, inside the plane, we could see them and one fellow was waving his hat at us and we attempted to run up to plane and it exploded and the whole plane caught on fire. Then I remember they used to have a plane land out at Sky Harbor and it was a tri-motor, a Ford Tri-motor Plane that had metal sides and it looked like corrugated iron things you see today on the roof sheds. I remember seeing on the sides it said "United States Air Mail". That was probably one of the first planes to carry mail to Phoenix.
That was at Sky Harbor here in Phoenix?
Yes, and in those days Sky Harbor which is on 24th Street was way out in the country from Phoenix. We lived on 14th Street and Pierce which is about four blocks north of Van Buren and 16th Street was out in the country. It was just desert and dirt roads and desert. And 24th Street was even further out in the desert. Its a long time ago. That must have been when we saw that plane crash it must have been about 1932 or 1933.
When you were about fifteen years old?
What did you and your friends do for entertainment?
Well, we used to play hockey. In those days there were a lot of touring cars that had soft tops like a convertible, no windows, just a soft top. To hold the top in place they used bows made of a hardwood and we used to go to the wrecking yards or wherever we could find them and make hockey sticks out of them and then we'd play hockey with a tin can, or a milk can and after you hit it a few times it was smashed up enough to make a good puck but they were dangerous if you ever got hit with one of those it could lay you away. We used to play a lot of that particularly at noon in grade school. Then in high school we used to play softball, that was the big sport. And we used to make coasters like a wagon, in the mines they used a wheelbarrows that had a metal wheel, a flat metal wheel, we used to take those and put them on our coasters and use them for our back wheels and then we would take tricycle wheels, you know, from little three wheel tricycles that kids have, we would take two of those wheels and put them on the front because they were lighter and then we would go down the hills. They really could get up some speed, the only dangerous thing was when you sat down between two of those big metal wheels with you sitting on a wooden plank right over the axle and slid off the plank into either of these wheels as it turned would really get too you. So it was dangerous to slide around, as it would take a slice out of your side.
Do you remember the first theater in Globe or if Globe ever had a theater?
Yes, Globe had a theater and it was called the Globe Theater and my Uncle, Willis Miller and Aunt Clara used to take my younger sister and I to the theater and we saw Rin Tin Tin, a movie that was a police dog named Rin Tin Tin. And I invariably would go to sleep after a short time in the movie and one night they had a raffle, you keep the stub of your ticket and they would put the other part of the ticket in ajar and then have somebody draw it and they would win something. One night my Aunt Clara woke me up and said, " Hey, you won the stove." So I won a wood cooking stove and that's what I remember about the theater. Then usually if you went to a matinee in that theater, Uncle Fat, we called him Uncle Fat, his name was Willis but we called him Uncle Fat, when he would take us to the show on Saturday afternoon he would always buy us a nickel ice cream cone, and that was a real treat!
What music was popular at this time?
The Charleston, I remember in front of the Court House in Globe, in the evenings sometimes we would go in there and they'd have the street blocked off and they would be dancing the Charleston which was very popular in those days.
When do you remember the first radio?
We had a. radio in Globe made by Atwater Kent and it had a picture of a dog on it and had a megaphone on it, it was like a horn, the small end was on a vase and then the horn got larger and that was the sound system. And, then 1 remember they had a phonograph about two feet square and it stood about three and a half feet high and it had a phonograph turntable up at the top and you cranked it on the side and then put your record on it.
And this is where you listened to the Charleston?
No, the Charleston was an outdoor event right on the street, they would block off the street and dance to the music. But yeah, you could hear music but it was mostly on a phonograph. Then, what else could I remember about, oh, on radio we used to listen to Amos and Andy, my step dad, Frank Pascoe used to just love to hear Amos and Andy.
Did the family listen to the radio together?
Yeah, mostly, I remember Amos and Andy used to come on just about the time we were supposed to be going to bed. We'd always manage to hear part of it and then they would run us off to bed.
How did your family celebrate the traditional holidays? For example; Christmas?
Well it was very similar, I guess to most other customs, they had the Christmas tree and the presents, we used to open the presents on Christmas Eve and it was kind of a case where the families would get together on Christmas day and just have a family reunion.
Do you remember the Fourth of July in Globe or in Phoenix?
Yes, I remember it in my younger years in Globe. You could buy firecrackers anywhere. They would set up venders along the roads and in town and sell firecrackers and I remember the greatest sport we had was too take a little pork and bean can and put one of these firecrackers on the ground and light it and put this can over it and when it exploded it would blow the can up into the air. But, every Fourth of July you would always have several of your friends have some fingers blown off or would burn some away because of the firecrackers. I can't remember when but while I was growing up they finally banned the sale of firecrackers.
Because of the danger it caused to small kids?
Can you describe what your elementary school looked like?
Yes, it was on Hill Street in Globe and I remember a few of the classrooms. This building, I've seen later after we've been away from Globe after many years, is kind of a rectangular shape, in other words on one end its longer than on the other side. In- side of this school building there was this regular gymnasium where we played basketball and then right up above there was a track, and oval track, that went around the circumference of the building and it was up about ten or fifteen feet higher than the floor so as you ran around the track you could look down and see the gymnasium down below.
Was this a one-room schoolhouse?
No, it was six grades from one to sixth grades and they all met there so there must of been eight or ten classrooms.
What did your high school in Phoenix look like?
Well, it was fairly modern in those days; we had separate buildings like they do today, arts. sciences, foreign languages, math and they had a vocational training building and they had a cafeteria, it was quite a modem high school that was Phoenix Union High School.
What kind of activities did they have at Phoenix Union High School?
Well, they had a good sports program, basketball, football and track. I participated on the track program, in fact I held the record in high jump at Phoenix Union High School for my senior year by jumping six foot one inch high. That's quite a difference in what they are doing today. Back then, if you could high jump six feet you were really doing something.
What other athletics did you participate in?
Oh, I did a little track work, not much. I ran the hurdles. I did some long jumping, broad jumping I guess they call it. And, I played a little basketball.
Did you run the 300 intermediate or 110 high hurdles?
You know, I don't know, they were low hurdles and I have no idea what the distance was.
Do you remember any of the dances that were held at high school?
No, except for prom dance. That's the only one I can remember.
Did any of the teachers in the high school make an impression on you that helped you in your life?
Yes, I had a geometry teacher, first name was Betty, can't remember her last name, she told me I was an "A" student but that I would never get me an "A" because I was lazy. She said I didn't study and it was easy for me and I could do all of my homework in my one class at school and I never did study so she taught me you had to develop what talent you've got and not get by staying dormant in your education but you have to strive to do better.
What kind of student were you?
Oh, just average, I was particularly good in math, math, spelling and English came easy for me. Some of the science was difficult and chemistry was the one I had the most trouble with. But I was an average student.
Do you remember what kind of textbooks you used in high school or in grammar school?
Oh, not for sure, I can't remember any of them.
In elementary school did they use the McGuffy Readers?
All I remember in comparison in the way my children were taught to read and spell was that we learned to break a word down so that we could recite it. In other words we knew how to recite the sound of the syllables. Instead of word association we were taught to phonetically break a word down so we could pronounce it. Then it became easier to spell.
What do you most remember about your high school and your experiences there?
I particularly enjoyed the lunch program. For twenty cents we could buy our lunch at the school and they always had food that was very good and it was warm, I really enjoyed that.
I enjoyed school.
I liked Spanish and math particularly and biology.
I didn't like history too well or geography. I guess math was my long suit.
Oh, the other thing I remember about high school days was the assembly that we had. They always seemed to have a good program. I remember one time they had a little play for our assembly and one of these actors had a white palm beach coat on and another one of the actors had a little gun that had a little cork in it and he was supposed to shoot the fellow with the white coat on and before hand somebody had taken the cork off and stuffed it with a cranberry. The lines of the play were to say, "Oh, I'm shot" and when this other kid shot him and the cranberry juice came out on his white suit it looked like blood and he said, "Oh, my God, I am shot". Oh, I remember that so plain.
Talking about radio's in my high school years, um, I got a kit from somebody that showed how to make a radio and I took an oatmeal box and the way we made it was to take a copper wire that was covered with shellac and we would wind that copper wire around that oatmeal box and then up at the top we would scrape all the shellac off and then we would take a little piece of metal with a sharp point so you could run it across from wire to wire and then there was a cat whisker on a crystal like a piece of rock, can't remember, and go down to the radio station KOY and buy all of these parts, anyway the whisker would work on the rock and you could select different radio frequencies through your earphones. There were only about three or four stations that you could pick up. I finally perfected those things so that I could hear the radio and that was about 1932 or 1933.
So you could listen to the local KOY station?
There was KOY and KTAR and they were the only local radio stations in Phoenix. We could also pick up another radio station or two but I don't know where they were from. The only two radio stations at the time were KOY and KTAR.
What did downtown Phoenix look like compared to today?
Well, it was small naturally. Very small, there was a streetcar in those days and there was the typical stores, Woolworth and Newberry’s, Diamonds Department Store and Goldwaters I don't know if there was a Sears Store or not. Later on, there was. It was a very busy place downtown and a lot of nice hotels, the Louvers Hotel and the Westward Ho and in those days Central Avenue ran for several miles uptown but there was very little population up there at all. Maybe for six or eight blocks and that was the end of it.
What was the Salt River like at that time?
Oh, about like it is now. Only, I can remember years ago, gosh there was a canal that ran down the middle of Phoenix, what was its name, but the Salt River had sand, rocks, mesquite trees and brush along it. Hardly, any difference than now.
There wasn't any problem with flooding?
No, not really, where Hayden Flour Mill I now is where the old Casa Vieja or Monti's Steak House, that's where Carl Hayden, the former Senator for so many years lived. His father and mother lived there and they ran a ferry that ferried people across the river, now that goes back to the early nineteen hundreds because when they built the Roosevelt Dam and blocked the river and there ceased to be water in the river. Previous to that there was a stream of water that ran through there that was too deep to cross without the ferry. That's why Carl Hayden's family started that ferry business there. When I came to Phoenix, the bridge was already built there and Roosevelt Dam was completed, I don't know when, but it must been at the turn of the century.
What kind of hobbies did you have?
I used to build model airplanes when I was a kid and we would have a contest and they had little engines that would run for twenty seconds and then they would shut off and then you'd time it from the time they would take off until it landed and the idea was to build it so that it would take off and spiral an get as much altitude and get a thermal and then carry it up and you could watch it for a long time.
These were small gasoline engines?
Yes, and you used to start those little engines with your finger by putting it on the prop and turning it quickly. They were good little engines, anyway, I had one and we used to fly these from Sky Harbor just to show you what little traffic they had at that time. The Sky Harbor officials gave us permission to go out there on the runways and let these little planes take off from there. It didn't bother traffic because they only had one or two flights a day. Anyway, I had this one plane that was up for one hour and forty-five minutes and finally we just couldn't see it anymore and it just completely disappeared. So, I won the contest by staying up the longest. About six months later a rancher, looked me up, I had my name on the fuselage of the plane, and he brought that back to me and the cattle had chewed the tail and wings off of it. You know they like to chew on things like that; it was made of balsa wood and tissue paper covering, really flimsy. Anyway, the fuselage and motor was still there and he brought that back to me. After all that time! He found it up near Cave Creek over twenty miles away. There was no telling how long that plane had stayed up in the air. Shortly after that somebody came out with a control where you could control these airplanes and I never had the money to buy the equipment but there were several in this club who started flying these planes and they called them drone planes. They could actually control them from the control box, they could take off, make it turn, slow down, speed up the engine and that sort of thing. And the government contacted somebody that was experimenting with these airplanes and they increased that program to the point where they used that for military applications. They would make these drone planes and put a bomb on it and then control them to take off with no manpower in the plane and run that plane into an area and drop the bomb to do the damage. In fact, down at Fort Wachuca now in Sierra Vista, AZ they have these drone planes that they used to use at the Fort in a museum. And this was an outcropping of the airplane experience I had.
Do you remember when ASU was first being developed?
Yes, it wasn't called ASU then, Arizona Normal School I believe it was called and then about 1945 or 1950 it became Arizona State College and then it started enlarging. All of the old buildings were replaced with new buildings.
Of all your childhood experiences what do you remember that is most striking that you remember today?
Oh, gosh, there were a lot of things. I remember my Uncle Fat on this little ranch that he had outside of Globe where we lived, that he raised hogs and to supplement their feed he would go into town and go to the restaurants and pick up the garbage and make into big garbage cans called "slop" and bring it back and feed it to the hogs. And he had a Model T Truck and he would drive into town and take me occasionally.
One day we were coming back from one of these runs and we stopped along side the road and we relieved ourselves. There were a lot of caves alongside this particular spot and he said he heard something and we listened and heard a woman crying. We went into one of these caves and this woman had been raped and she gave the name of the man who had done it, a black man, by the name of "Nigger Ward". We got her back to the truck and that's all I remember of it at that point. But whether Uncle Fat took her to a hospital or not I don't remember that but anyway. I was probably seven or eight years of age at the time and my Uncle went to the, course after they caught this "Nigger Ward", they took him to Florence Prison and hung him there and my Uncle Fat went down to see it and I remember him telling me that was the worst mistake he'd ever made in his life was to go down and see that man hung, even though he knew the man was guilty the hanging he could not justify in his own mind was too severe.
I liked the life that we lived out at the place with my Uncle Fat because we had lots of vegetables to eat and fruits in season. Eventually, after my Aunt and Uncle had died the property was sold and became a lime quarry for the mines.
Well if you were to sum up all your childhood experiences what would you pass on to future generations that you have learned?
You should learn to make do with what you have. And, comparing some of those early years with what we have today it makes you think in one sense that gee, you missed all that, but really we didn't know any difference and playing hockey with that old tin can that was just as much fun as playing with any sophisticated equipment today. The urban life was good. You either worked or you didn't eat and that's a little bit removed from what it is today. In other words, we had chores to do, feeding the stock, hoeing the weeds, bringing in the crops, picking peaches and helping my Aunt kill the hogs and skinning them and all that stuff. It was primitive but it was a way of life.
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