Autobiography (Early Years) of Cecil Syme James (1900-1988) - written in 1979
Contributor: dayle Created: 1 year ago Updated: 1 year ago
I was born on March 14, 1900, to Thomas Alma James and Margaret Johnstone Syme in Rock Springs, Wyoming. A brother Thomas Irvin and a sister Viola Margaret preceded me, and a brother Edwin Ernest and a sister Leah Elizabeth followed me. My mother’s family came from Scotland where her father worked in the coal mines.
My father was born in Salt Lake City, Utah and his family came from Wales. My father came to Rock Springs in 1885. He came to work for the Union Pacific Coal Co. to help build the houses that were destroyed in the Chinese Riot. During this period, the Coal Co. had imported a number of Chinese to work in the coal mines. Some of the pit bosses started giving many of the Chinese better rooms in the mines than the white miners as they were getting a kick back from the Chinese on payday. When the white miners found out what was happening they formed a mob and chased the Chinese out of town and killed fifteen, and burned most of their houses. The United States had to make reparations to China for the dead Chinese. They also sent a troop of soldiers into Rock Spring to subdue the riot and see that there were no future uprisings. The Government built some barracks in Rock Springs to house the soldiers. After the soldiers left Rock Springs, the Union Pacific took over the barracks and converted them into homes for their employees. My father moved into one of these houses, and I was the first child born in the barracks on March 14, 1900.
My mother came to Rock Spring with her folks who came from Scotland. She was eleven years of age when she came to this country. Her family joined the Church in Scotland where her father and some of her brothers were coal miners. After they joined the Church they wanted to come to the U.S., but they were poor and there was a large family, so they started to save what little money they could, and when they had enough money, they sent a couple of the family to this country. When they came here they worked in the mines in Wyoming and sent money back to help other members of the family immigrate until all the family members were able to immigrate.
My first recollection of anything was when we lived in one of the company houses on D St. This is now Broadway. I remember quite a few people who lived on this street as most of them had children my age and we played a lot together. There were the Griffiths, Firmages, Dyetts, Rennies, Beveridges, and several others whose names I do not recall. My father was outside foreman for the U.P. Coal Co., and he had a buckboard he rode around in. A Chinaman brought the horse-drawn vehicle to him in the morning and took it back to the stables in the evening. I remember my father taking me with him to visit some of the mines. I remember on one occasion Viola was playing with a candle and lit and passed it through one of the windows. While passing it through, it caught the curtains on fire. My mother grabbed the curtains and rushed outside with them. I do not remember if she got burned. I remember going to school for the first time. It was in a basement room of the old rock school. I was quite scared and wanted to go home.
When I was between five and six years of age my father bought some farmland in Idaho. He bought a team of horses and a wagon, and he and Irvin drove it to Idaho with a lot of the family’s belongings. He built a small house on the farm and my mother took the rest of the family and went by train to Idaho. This was the first time I had been on a train. My father didn’t stay too long on the farm but came back to work for the U.P. Coal Co. again. I believe he was not cut out to be a farmer. I remember we had two horses, a cow and a number of chickens, and mother and Irvin planted a garden. I went to school in Kimberly, which was three or four miles from our farm. Mother or Irvin drove us to school in a buggy. We also went to church in Kimberly. Our house was small and quite crowded. I remember some men came and grabbed a lot of sagebrush and stacked it in piles. We enjoyed watching it burn. We were going into Twin Falls to a circus. Twin Falls was six miles from our farm. Something came up that we were not able to go to the circus, which disappointed us at the time, but later we found out that a lion got loose during the performance and mauled several people. I do not remember if any were killed.
We stayed on the farm for about two years, and my mother told my father that he had to live on the farm or else move the family back to Rock Springs so the decision was made to move back to Rock Springs. Dad sold the farm in Idaho, and we all became residences of Rock Springs again. We moved into a two–story house on 9th St., which is in the northeast end of town. I started school again in a little schoolhouse about a half block from our house. I believe I was in the second grade at this time. The kids who were in the neighborhood were a rather rough bunch and they would not permit me to play with them and some days I had to run home from school to avoid getting beaten up by them. I do not remember just how long we lived in the #4 area. We moved from there to D St. into another Company house. This home was later moved to the Belmont Addition. While we were living in this house I continued school in the old rock schoolhouse. This school was less then a block from our house.
Grandfather Syme lived with us for some time. He was quite stern and was always telling my mother that she should give me a good strapping. I remember getting quite a few lickings from my mother and I guess that I deserved most of them. While going to school in the old rock building, I started to make new friends and many of these remained friends all through grade school and also through high school. While we were living at this location, Dad quit the U.P. Coal Co. and went into the lumber business with Victor Smith. They called it the Smith–James Lumber Co. and several years later it was changed to the Superior Lumber Co. At this time, Dad started building a new home that was located at 423 “C” St. The lumber yard was right behind the home. The home was finished in 1911, and we were very glad to move into it. My sister Leah was born in this house. I spent quite a lot of time around the lumber yard after school. We had horses that were used on the delivery wagon, and the driver used to let me ride one of the horses after work to water them at the city watering trough. Arthur Smith, who was a son of Victor Smith, rode the other horse and we became quite good at riding horses. We rode bare back all the time.
While living at #4 I remember seeing the first transcontinental auto race come through Rock Springs. As I recall this took several days, and quite a few of the cars had to be pulled into Rock Springs with horses. There were no paved roads in those days and the dirt roads were in very bad shape—especially after a rain—and automobiles had a very bad time. I remember there were only a couple of cars in Rock Springs at this time. I believe they were owned by a couple of doctors. They were built like a one–seat buggy and had a curved stick that acted for a steering wheel and had a one–cylinder motor on the back, and they chugged along at between five and ten miles per hour. I believe it was in 1912 that Dad bought a bicycle to ride around his jobs. It was a very fine bicycle, and I believe that I rode it more than Dad. In those days we treasured a bicycle as much as kids today treasure driving the family car.
After we moved into the new home on C St., Grandfather James lived with us one summer, and he helped me build some chicken coups and rabbit pens. For several years I raised chickens and rabbits and I had several types of each. I used to exchange rabbits with other kids around town, so I had a mixture of different breeds. The rabbits and chickens took up quite a bit of my time and probably kept me from getting into mischief that is always around. I also had a dog. I believe every family had a dog. In those days many people also had a cow. The family next door to us had a cow, and we got our milk from them. I believe it cost around twenty–five cents a gallon.
We had a good group of kids in the neighborhood, and we had good times playing outside after school and in the evenings. We were all supposed to be in by 9 or 9:30 at night. We used a wood and coal stove for cooking, and it was my job to get the coal and wood in so that Dad could start the fire in the morning. Dad always got up early in the mornings, and sometimes I would forget to get the coal and wood in the night. When this happened, Dad woke me up in the morning and made me go out and get the coal and wood and start the fire. This wasn’t bad in the summer, but in the winter it was cold in the mornings. I continued going to school in the old rock building until 1914 when a new high school building was finished, so I started my first year of high school in the new building. I enjoyed high school very much. Although our classes were small, we had a good group of kids, and we got along very well together.
In 1917 we had our first basketball team in the Rock Springs High School. We didn’t have a coach. The principal of the school acted as coach but he didn’t know any more about the game. We only had five players on the team so we had no substitutes. The first game we played was with Kemmerer, and we lost the game 85 to15, but we gradually improved and won a game once in a while. During my senior year we developed a pretty good team. We had a real coach and we won about seventy–five percent of our games. We were permitted to go to the state tournament in Laramie and won third place, which we thought was very good. .
During my high school days we had a lot of parties, socials and picnics. There was very little commercial entertainment; however, we attended a picture show once a week. We could go to a picture show for ten cents, which was sometimes hard to come by. All of the big circuses stopped off in Rock Springs. They pitched their tents in the area that is now occupied by the Wardell Court. We would go down town about 5:30 in the morning to see the circus trains come in and unload all the wagons—horses and other animals. At noon they would have a parade through the town. You could hear the steam calliope all over town. Along with other kids we would get a job carrying water for the elephants, and we found out that they drank a lot of water. For carrying water, we would get a free ticket to the circus.
We used this same ground to play baseball on. We had a team on the south side of town and there was a team on the north side of town, so we always had a lot of rivalry. During these days I would go out south sage chicken hunting. We would rent a team and buggy from the livery stable and go out to Willow Springs which was fifteen miles south of town. The limit in those days was twenty–four chickens, and it wasn’t very hard to get the limit. While in high school we had quite close contact with all teachers, as the classes were small. When I graduated in 1918, we had twenty–six in our graduating class, which was the biggest graduating class up to that time. During these years two other boys and myself trapped coyotes. We did our trapping four miles southeast of town in an area known as Little Bitter Creek. We also hunted rabbits in this area about two Saturdays a month. We would get at least one coyote a week--sometimes two or three. We would get $5.00 bounty per coyote and from $5.00 to $10.00 for the hide. One day we caught a large eagle in one of our traps. We managed to get it into a gunnysack and bring it into town. I built a cage for it in our back yard, and kids from all over town came to see it. When fall came I turned it loose and it flew away.
In the spring of 1917 I went to Salt Lake and drove out a new truck for the lumber yard. It had solid rubber tires all around, and it took four days from Salt Lake to Rock Springs. We had all dirt roads then, and in the spring of the year when the roads were thawing out, there were plenty of mud holes to get stuck in. One night I got within two miles of Lyman and got stuck in a mud hole, so I left the truck there and walked into Lyman. The next morning I had to get a team of horses to pull the truck out. In 1916 my father bought our first car. It was a Maxwell four–door open car. There were no sedans in those days. We thought this Maxwell was about the finest car there was. I believe it cost $675. When dad drove it home, he drove it into the new garage he had built, and when he got into the garage, he stepped onto the gas instead of the brake and pushed the front end of the garage out. I soon learned to drive and felt that Dad was very generous in letting me use the car. When the family went anywhere in the car, I did all the driving. In those days we got about 2000 miles on a set of tires, and it seemed like we were always fixing flat tires.
In 1917 Dad took the family in the car for three weeks through Idaho and part of Colorado. Dad had bought a couple of lots—I believe it was in Pingree Idaho--and they were holding a drawing as to where the lots would be located, and he wanted to be there at the drawing. The first night we stayed in Diamondville, where one of Mother’s sisters lived. Then the next night we stayed at Soda Springs and drove to Pingree the next day. We stayed there two or three days and traveled to Logan, Utah, where Mother’s brother, Uncle George, lived. I believe we stayed in Logan three days before continuing to Salt Lake. Dad had a brother and two sisters in Salt Lake, so we spent several days there—then we went south from Salt Lake into part of Colorado. Between Craig, Colorado and Baggs, Wyoming we got off the right road and had to spend the night out in the wilderness. Some spent the night in the car, and some of us slept on the ground. During the night I got bit by a wood tick, and shortly after we arrived home, I came down with tick fever, also known as Rocky Mountain spotted fever. I was in bed for three weeks and lost twenty-seven pounds.
In those days very little was known about this fever, and there were no shots to control it as there are today. Nine people died during the year, and I was very fortunate to get over it. I remember four doctors held a consultation in our home, and they said there was nothing they could do but what our family doctor was already doing. About the third week of my sickness there was a Stake Conference in Rock Springs, and after conference Dad brought Brother Easton, who was the Stake Patriarch, over to our house and had him administer to me. I didn’t know much about administering to the sick at that time, but my parents had a lot of faith, and after the administration, I started to improve very fast and was soon on my feet again--although quite weak. I rapidly gained back my strength and my lost pounds built up again. This was the only serious sickness I have had in my life, and outside of a cold once in a while, I have been free of sickness all my life, and this I am very grateful for.
As I look back over my early life and up to the time I graduated from high school, I have a lot of pleasant memories, and although all of my friends during those years were not members of the church, they were all good kids. We were not bothered with kids smoking or drinking as it was very uncommon, and as to drugs, they were unheard of. Those days after graduating from high school in 1918, I joined the navy along with Robert Maxwell who was a very good friend of mine. The First World War was on at this time, and we felt it was the right thing to do. We went to Salt Lake to enlist, and from there we were sent to what was then known as Goat Island. It was an island in San Francisco Bay, and there was a naval training station there. One section of the Bay Bridge rested on the island, and I am not sure the name it has now. We were on this island for a couple of months and did a lot of marching and drilling. We also did quite a lot of sailing on the bay. We had shore leave on Wednesday afternoons and Saturdays and went into San Francisco. We attended picture shows some and spent quite a bit of time at Golden Gate State Park. After completing Basic Training we had a week’s furlough, and Robert Maxwell and I returned home to spend this week.
After going back to the base, I was transferred to Mare Island and was assigned to a destroyer that was being built there. Before this ship was finished, about 150 of us were told to pack our bags and be ready to leave for New York. Arriving in New York, we were assigned to the Leviathon, which was a troopship. My friend Robert Maxwell became sick in New York and was left behind in the hospital. The Leviathon had been a German luxury liner before the war and, along with several other passenger ships that were in New York when war was declared, was converted into a troop-carrying ship. The Leviathon was the largest ship afloat at over ninety feet wide at the main deck. It burned coal as did most ships and had thirty-six boilers to generate the steam to turn its four huge propellers, which, if I remember, were seventeen feet in diameter. It was a very fast ship for its size, and we crossed the Atlantic in less than four days. It carried 13,500 soldiers at a crossing, and there were over 3000 sailors on the crew. It sailed between New York and Brest, France. After several crossings, the Armistice was signed, and about 100 of us were told to pack our bags, that we were leaving the ship in Brest. We didn’t know at the time where we were going, but we would get additional pay that amounted to a raise from thirty-six dollars to fifty dollars per month. If sailors were given a raise of that amount today, they would all go on strike, but to us it was a lot of money. We got on a train in Brest and traveled through France and Italy overland. We stopped at various cities and ate our meals, as there were no diners on the trains. We stopped at Paris and several small towns in France, and in Italy we stopped at Milan, Florence, Naples and Venice.
At several stops the Red Cross passed out cigarettes. Several of us who didn’t smoke would take the cigarettes and trade them for fruit or sell the cigarettes to those who did smoke and buy fruit along the way. We stayed in Venice for a couple of days, then boarded a couple of destroyers and patrolled in the Mediterranean and Adriatic Seas for about a week. While patrolling in the Adriatic, we ran into a terrific storm. For a couple of days the ship rolled and pitched terrifically,and we wondered at times if we were going to make it. No one could go on deck, as they would be washed overboard immediately by the huge waves. There were only about five or six of us who did not get seasick during this storm. Even the captain got seasick, and he told us afterward that it was the first time he had been sick in twenty-five years.
We next landed in Spilato, Austria, and the 100 of us who boarded the destroyers in Venice left the ships and were put on an Austrian battleship that was anchored in the harbor. This ship had been taken over by the U.S. after the Armistice, and they were holding it until some settlement was made. We stayed on this ship for the next three months. We enjoyed our stay on this ship very much. There was very little to do except keep the ship fairly clean. We could go ashore three days a week, so on these days I met another sailor, and we chummed around together. On our shore leave, we found out about the ruins of an ancient city that was about four miles from the town, so we spent most of our time exploring the ruins of this old city. I wish now that I had a camera while in the Navy. I could have a lot of pictures of the places where I have been. This battleship was called the Zeranni. After a month on the ship I was assigned the job of postal clerk. Three days a week I would go ashore to the town and cross over to another side of the bay and was met by a boat from the Olympia, which was an American cruiser that was stationed there. I would get any mail or written correspondence for our ship and then walk across the town again and meet a small boat that took me back to the Zeranni. I enjoyed this job as at gave me a lot of free time. While on this ship in Austria we had the privilege of taking a sub chaser on weekends and cruising up and down the coast visiting other towns. We also spent one weekend going to Italy.
After spending three months in Austria, we left and went to Gibraltar for one week. This was very interesting as the Rock of Gibraltar is very heavily fortified. They have tunneled into the Rock and placed huge cannons in it. It is owned by England. Spain borders the Rock so we had the opportunity of visiting a couple of towns in Spain. After spending a week at Gibraltar a U.S. Coal Collier ship landed there, and we boarded it for our trip home. Before leaving for home, we crossed over to the northern coast of Africa. Here we landed at Tangier to pick up four American sailors who had drowned there. They put them in the freezer with the meat supply to preserve them until they reached the states. The cook on the ship refused to go into the freezer with these bodies in there, and someone else had to go in and get meat out of the freezer when the cook wanted it.
We were thirty days crossing from Gibraltar to the USA. We landed in Norfolk, VA. We stayed in Norfolk a couple of days, and from there I was sent to Denver, Colorado for discharge. I stayed in Denver for three days and received my discharge papers along with my final pay from the navy, which I believe amounted to around $197. This was the most money that I had ever had at one time, so I felt quite rich. They also allowed me enough money for my fare to Salt Lake where I enlisted, but instead of going to Salt Lake, I got off the train in Rock Springs, Wyoming. I was glad to be home again and the folks were glad to see me. The time I spent in the navy was a fine experience, and I saw a lot of places that I never would have seen otherwise.
Now that the navy was behind me I had to think about what I was going to do with my life from here on out. I started doing carpenter work, and if I remember correctly, carpenters were making $6.50 per day. After working as a carpenter for a year or so, Dad had a contract building the homes in Wardell Court for the Union Pacific Coal Co. I felt that I could make more money shingling than carpenters were making, so I told my Father that I would do the shingling on these houses. Shinglers were getting $2.25 per square at this time. After doing shingling for a couple of months I was averaging six squares a day, so I thought I was making good money. While I was in the navy Dad bought a Stephens Car. This was a much larger car than the Maxwell, and we enjoyed it very much. Dad wanted me to go to college but I felt I was making more money than some of the men I knew who had gone to college, so I didn’t see the necessity of going to college at this time. Bishop Young asked me several times if I would like to go on a mission, but I turned him down as I felt that I was not ready to go. During 1921, I was put in as ward clerk. After being in as ward clerk for six months, the Bishop asked me again if I would like to go on a mission. I wanted to get out of the ward clerk job, so I told him I would go. I never liked bookwork so going on a mission appealed to me. In December I received a call from President Grant to go to Australia. I was unfamiliar with Australia, so I had to do some research to find out just where it was. I was set apart as a missionary in Salt Lake City by George Albert Smith, one of the Twelve Apostles. I also met three other elders who were going to Australia with me--Elders Hall, Tolman, and Jackson.