Oklahoma Baptist Homes for Children

James Browning

stories from the book
by James V. Browning

Those Were the Days

Ralph Spencer

My brother, Kenneth, and I were born in Oklahoma City. We lived in a small white frame house on the east side of town. Our mother got custody of us when our parents divorced. I was 6 years old and Ken was 4. At times, our mother would leave us alone all day while she went out. Our paternal grandmother and an aunt took the case to court, claiming we were not getting proper care. In the midst of the depression, our father was unable to care for us himself, so the judge sent us to the Baptist Orphans Home in October of 1933.

When we arrived at the Home, Betty Bishop was there to help us change into our play clothes. Some of the older girls helped the housemother take care of the small children. Children up to about age 9 lived on the third and fourth floors of the old North building. I recall one bitterly cold winter day when we all huddled in the housemother’s room with an electric heater, trying to keep warm.

Jenny Howard, the superintendent’s daughter, would take a small group of us, including some older girls, around the state to help raise money for the Home. One of the girls, Lucy Mae Thrasher, would write new words of familiar songs. The group would sing those songs as part of the fund-raising program.

In the Home’s truck, Dan Curb went throughout the state collecting food for the children and hay for the cattle. Most of the food was canned items; a lot of it home-canned. In the summer, it was a real treat when the truck came in full of watermelons. The farm animals consisted of about 35 dairy cattle, a dozen or so hogs, two plow horses (the tractor came later), a lot of chickens and a few dogs and cats. Some of the sows were gentle; you could pick up their pink piglets and hold them without alarming their mama. The Home was a working farm with a lot of buildings. There was a hay barn, a dairy barn, a slaughterhouse, a smoke house, a milk house, a central dining room with a chapel upstairs, a laundry building, a workshop, a pump house (before we got city water), sugar cane mill (horse-powered), and a large playhouse that had been a church tabernacle that was donated to the Home. In bad weather, it gave us a place to play inside. If there were no adults present, some of the older boys would climb around in the roof trusses just for the challenge.

There were two separate dormitories for the older boys and girls. They had two floors and a full basement, housing about 50 children in each dormitory. A large bell stood on the porch of the boys’ building. One of the older boys had the job of ringing the bell at the designated times: 6:00 a.m. for a wake-up call; 15 minutes before each meal and again at meal time and at church service time.

The children in the dormitories had assigned jobs that would change once a month. In the dormitories, there were bathrooms to clean and wood floors to clean and wax. Everyone made his own bed. In the dining room, there were tables to clear and reset, dishes to wash and dry, and a floor to clean and wax. This usually was done in less than 30 minutes, except when the floor had to be waxed. Boys working in the kitchen churned the butter, brought in the milk from the milk house, peeled potatoes, carried the food scraps to the hogs and did other odd jobs. Kitchen girls helped the cooks with the cooking and baking. There were usually biscuits at breakfast, fresh cornbread at lunch and homemade bread at dinner time. It took a lot of bread to feed 150 kids.

Up in the barn area, there were cows to milk, calves to feed, barns to clean, feed to grind and hay to put away. When a truckload of hay came in, all the older boys helped to get it put up in the barn—a sticky job in the summer. Another summer job was taking care of the garden with its corn, tomatoes, beans, turnips, etc. Summertime was barefoot-time for the younger children. We were real “tenderfoots” at the beginning of summer, but pretty tough by the end. Goat head “stickers” and cockle burrs were a problem.

The laundry had two large industrial-size wash tubs, an industrial wringer, two steam presses, a large dryer and about a dozen ironing boards. There were plenty of shirts and tops to be ironed by the older girls who worked in the laundry. Trousers requiring pressing were done on the steam presses. Weather permitting, boys hung out clothes on the clotheslines by the wheelbarrow-load. Sometimes in the winter, the clothes would get freeze-dried.

A lot of our toys were homemade. There were kites made with orange-crate sticks, ribbon (for tails) and string from the graveyard dump nearby, newsprint for the paper and flour paste. Scooters were made of a single separated skate and a few boards. There always seemed to be slingshots around. Rubber bands were cut out of inner tubes; forks from a tree or sawed out of a board and an old shoe tongue for a pouch. Sometimes there were a few David-type slings made from leather thongs. It took a lot of practice to get any accuracy. Most times there were two or three bicycles and plenty of marbles. Using old automobile tires, we had a game similar to dodge ball. With two parallel lines about 100 feet apart, whoever was “it” stood between the lines with his tire. The object of the game was to roll your tire from one line to the other without getting your tire knocked down by “its” tire. One day the decision came down, the tires had to go. A bonfire of about 50 tires created a column of black smoke that could be seen for miles.

South of the Home was a creek that fed the Belle Isle lake. That became our “swimmin’ hole.” Guys would go swimming there, sometimes with permission, sometimes without. We had some homemade canoes made from corrugated iron roofing. They were marginally stable and it was easy to get dumped. During a really cold winter, the creek would freeze over and give us a place to ice skate. There were a few pair of ice skates (clamp-ons), but most of us skated in our boots or shoes.

Church services were held twice on Sunday in the chapel. Later, four of the city churches had buses take us to their services on Sunday. This included Sunday School and B.Y.P.U. Those churches were First Baptist, Immanuel, Trinity and Olivet. I met my future wife, Ramona, the third daughter of the Winslow family, at Olivet. General assemblies for the Home usually were held in the chapel. On Christmas Eve, everyone went to the chapel where a Christmas tree had been put up. Toys were given out at that time, toys from relatives, donors and “societies.” Each child had a “society” (sponsor). The “societies” provided clothes for their children as well as gifts at Christmas and birthdays.

Schooling was at University Heights Public School at 63rd and Western for elementary and junior high students. Kindergarten kids rode the Home bus while the rest of us walked the mile to school. High-school students rode the bus to Britton. One very cold day, Eugene Ray gave his gloves to Jimmie Grindstaff as she was walking to school. She was crying because her hands hurt so much from the cold. School lunch for us was usually a sandwich and a piece of fruit. Peanut butter and jelly was my favorite. Made up by the kitchen crew, the lunches were carried to school on the bus in a big metal box and handed out at lunch time. High-school students had individual brown bag lunches. Troop 57 of the Boy Scouts met in the school basement once a month. Roscoe Evans, the school superintendent, was the Scout leader, assisted by Mr. Ghormley, the math and shop teacher. Most of the boys from the Home joined the Boy Scouts when they were old enough. It was good training and a good energy outlet. Going to Scout camp was a lot of fun, including the “snipe” hunts.

After the old North building was condemned for structural problems, the farm animals were moved to a farm north of Britton. About six of the older boys accompanied an adult couple to take care of the farm. Shortly after that, construction began on some new buildings (cottages) to house the small children. Later on, more buildings were added to replace the aging dormitories.

My brother and I left the home in 1943 to live with our mother. Being taken away from my mother years before was a traumatic event for a 6-year-old. Looking back now, I can see that it was best for us to be put in the Home. The Lord was watching over us even though we did not understand it at the time.

After leaving the Home, I graduated from Central High School. Volunteering for the draft, I started out in an army infantry division and then switched to the paratroops. After the army came the University of Oklahoma, where I graduated with an engineering degree. Working for General Electric for 42 years, I became a professional engineer with 26 patents. I retired in 1993.

My wife, Ramona, and I celebrated our 48th anniversary in 1997. We have two boys, a girl and six grandchildren. My hobbies are photography and participating in the Senior Olympics (track). Currently, I am serving as chairman of the deacons, teacher and vocal soloist in a local Baptist church.

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