Growing up in the Depot


 Rails to the Future:

Growing up in the Sanger Depot  


The true story of Arlene Phillips

and of Sanger

the way it was from 1943-1955.


I read the other day that the sale of watches has gone way down.  It seems that people just are not buying them anymore. After all, who needs a watch to tell time when you’ve got smart phones, digital cameras, computers, car dashboards, microwave ovens, TV sets, and I-Pods to tell you what the time is?

pocket watchThis is a real sign of the times. For many years in the past, a good watch was a prized possession. My father and the other railroad men of his generation – they were almost all men – had great respect for clocks and watches. Great respect.

Think about two trains traveling at 50 miles per hour. Now think about those two trains traveling at 50 miles per hour towards each other on the same track – due to someone’s poor timekeeping and scheduling. That’s why the railroads place such importance on timekeeping.

One of the requirements of being a railroad station agent, as my father, Walter Phillips, was, was owning a railroad-approved watch.  Railroad Watches were built for maximum accuracy. My dad owned an Elgin and he got it soon after we came to live in the Sanger Depot in 1942.

I remember him pulling it from his pocket, and checking the time as he wound it, then putting it back. I think he wound it every time he looked to see what time it was, so it never ran down, and he only had to set it when we switched to or from Daylight Saving Time or when we were traveling and passed to different time zones.

GeorgeWhen we moved into the Sanger Depot, I was five years old and my brother, George, was 14 I think and my other brother, Kenneth, was probably 13.

So that makes five of us Phillipses living in the depot. Those of you who have toured it know that it’s pretty small.

When we moved in, there was a living room, a dining room, one bedroom, one bathroom and a large kitchen.

It had been built in 1887 and was the oldest building in Sanger, although it didn’t really look it because the outside was painted about every five years or so, always in that kind of weird dark gold with brown trim. The interior walls were wood painted in a dirty cream color and the floors were bare, worn wood.  The only heat came from the coal stove in the kitchen, and that’s what my mother cooked on.

Kenny and George were assigned the one bedroom, my mom and dad turned the dining room into their bedroom, and I slept in the living room on a sofa that folded down into a bed.

We moved there from a three-bedroom house in Fresno. If that sounds like it must have been depressing – it wasn’t. I don’t think the word “depressing” was even in most people’s vocabularies in those days, unless it somehow had to do with the economy. After all, my parents and brothers had just come through the Great Depression.

Even in 1943, if you had a good job and a roof over your heads, you felt pretty lucky – especially if the rent was only $5 a month, which it was for the apartment above the depot.

And if you were my dad, you set forth making the best of it. He had been raised on his parents’ large cattle ranch in the Texas Panhandle, so he knew about hard work and about not complaining but just getting on with it.

If you were my dad, you turned the jarring sounds of the steam engine huffing and puffing and rattling and clanging only about three feet from your bedroom window – into a joke, usually having to do with someone’s snoring.  You made your “commute” of walking down the stairs and into your office – into an ideal, as though everyone should want to live five minutes from their job.

If you were my dad, you taught yourself all the skills you needed to know – to lower the ceilings, paper the walls, paint the trim, hang draperies, put down linoleum and carpet, install a furnace and cooler, hang new doors, put in new kitchen appliances and bathroom fixtures and add  new closets.  All of this while working 8 – 10 – 12 hours a day.

My dad was a quiet man who, as far as I remember, never complained. His philosophy seemed to be Walter_Phillips_depotthat a person should only complain about something if they were going to try to change it.

If you were my mom in those early days of living in the depot, you acted as though being able so easily to walk from where you lived to everywhere else in town was a real blessing. Even though she delivered telegrams and worked as the Railway Express clerk, my mother considered herself a housewife.  The kitchen in the depot was a big one, so that’s where we ate all of our meals, and all as a family.

We, like most people, ate a lot of meat and potatoes then, and nearly everything had to be made from scratch except bread. That began to change in the 50s. The first frozen food I remember was peas. It seemed for a long time that frozen peas was the only frozen vegetable there was.  To go with the peas, Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks had been invented, as had frozen French fries, which somehow never tasted quite like those at Stan’s Drive In in Fresno.

When we first moved here when I was six, I knew no one and the weekly trips my mother and I took to the library became my magic carpet away from loneliness.

We would walk through town, get our books, then walk home with a stop at the old Barr’s Pharmacy for a treat at their soda fountain, or go to another small drugstore where they made their own ice cream for what was called a “Walk-Away Sunday.”

My loneliness was short-lived, because through my father’s secretary, Dolly Saroyan, I met a little girl my age named Gladys Avakian, with whom I played nearly every day – but my love of books – and ice cream treats – has lasted my whole life long. As a matter of fact, when I grew up, I became a librarian, in Carmel.

Soon fall came and with it the beginning of school. School – Wilson School in my case – meant making more friends, learning about wonderful things, trying out new activities like playing trumpet and joining Brownies, and measuring myself against my peers.

Our life in the depot hummed along. During the war, we frequently sat around the radio listening to the news, which, as I remember it, was only about the war, and to President Roosevelt’s Fireside Chats and to Jack Benny or Edgar Bergen and Charley McCarthy.

It was automatic that when a train rattled by or stopped beside the depot with a lout hoot and much chugging, one of us would just reach over to the radio and turn up the volume without even thinking about it.

west union 2As I said, my mom took on the job of delivering telegrams. That was hard. Telegrams delivered during the Second World War nearly always held the most tragic news imaginable, about the death or injury of a son, husband, or occasionally, daughter. Mom only spoke once of being aware, as she clutched the dreaded telegram and walked up the sidewalk to someone’s front door, of the feeling of doom that must have been felt by those inside.

Even with the war going on, some things continued as usual. My father kept the fruit and other goods moving from the packing houses into the trains and then out into the wide world. He never talked much about his work, but whenever I went into his office downstairs, he, his secretary, Dolly, and his teletype operator were always busy, sometimes talking with the trainmen or on the special phone link to the Fresno train station, or at the telegraph key, sending messages by Morse code to the trains.

Fruit was the main item that was moved around by those trains, and we all know how fragile fruit is in the summer in Sanger, so it was crucial for my father to make sure that outside each of Sanger’s many packing houses were empty box cars that would be filled with packed boxes of grapes, peaches, apricots and other fruit. Of course, once each boxcar was full, it would have to be moved out of the way by a train engine, called the “switch” engine, to make room for another empty boxcar.

At the end of the day, usually after our dinner, my dad would “check the yard.” Sometimes I would help him with this nice chore, which involved driving to each packing house and walking around the tracks, making note of which cars had their doors sealed shut and therefore must be filled, so were ready to be moved out the next day.

I practiced my reading skills by shouting out to him the letters and numbers on the sides of each full boxcar: “Norfolk Southern – NS4768” or “Great Northern – GN3172.”

That night or early the next morning, those full boxcars would start their long journey to the cities and towns where the fruit would be unpacked and sold.

Through the years, we all got used to the noise and odor from the trains, my brothers and I learned to live without a yard to play in, and our family took advantage of what Sanger had to offer.


We read the Sanger Herald, Mom and I went to the two movie theaters in town to see every one of the westerns that my mother loved, we attended softball games in the summer and went to see the Sanger High Apaches in the winter, especially when my brother, Kenny, became the Drum Major for the band and my other brother, George, marched in the band. We shopped at Belle Quinn’s Dress Shop, Federated Department Store, and Rasco’s Dime Store. I took Red Cross swimming lessons at Minter’s Pool in the summer and my brothers and I were often taken to the river bottom where we filled buckets with wild blackberries that my mother turned into fantastic jam and pie.

My brothers were wonderful and made me feel very special. They were always ready and willing to help my dad with his remodeling efforts and my mother with the few household chores that she felt were not beneath the dignity of males.

George was quiet like my dad, and was often the one who baby-sat me when my folks went out.  I remember that after I was in bed, he would often play records and tell me stories to go with the pretty classical music.

Kenneth was very chatty and happy.  When John F. Kennedy was running for President and people started talking about his charisma, I knew exactly what they meant, because Kenneth had that same quality of making people love to be in his presence and making them feel better about themselves when they were with him.

Of course, there were some hazards to living in the depot. My mother was always warning us about being extra careful when we crossed the railroad tracks or playing in the warehouse. When I was six, I lost part of my finger due to an accident in the warehouse – totally my own fault.

Since there were two bars across the street, we saw a fair amount of low-lifes hanging around there, but as far as I remember, she never had to warn us about talking to them.

During the war we all got used to the rationing, the lack of bubble gum, the Fireside Chats, the stars in people’s windows denoting a member of their family in the War, the fear that someone we knew would be killed, the songs of the Andrews Sisters, and the constant presence of maps in the living room so we could follow the locations of the battles.

Then, suddenly, the siren that always blew in Sanger at noon went off jubilantly at a different hour. Car horns started honking. The war was over.

During the Second World War, trains and buses, all the modes of mass transport that we had then, were used for moving troops and war supplies. Gasoline and car tires were rationed. Civilians were discouraged from traveling. “Is This Trip Really Necessary?” was seen on many posters. Nearly all the trains that came through Sanger were used for freight, but I do remember twice when passenger trains came through.  They were full of men in uniforms.

When the war was over, it was time to start traveling again, and my parents and I often rode the train on our travels.  I think my dad and his family got free tickets on Southern Pacific trains and paid a reduced fare for Pullman berths and on other rail lines.

The first trip we took was to the Pacific Northwest, which seemed like a long, long ways away. We slept in Pullman berths, lulled by the clack, clack, clack of the wheels on the rails, and were awakened by the ding, ding, ding, ding – First Call To Breakfast!

In subsequent vacations, we rode the trains to Texas to visit relatives, to Yellowstone National Park, to Banff and Lake Louise, Canada, and, when I graduated from Sanger High, all the way back to New York and Washington D.C. We spent day after day on the train, eating exquisite food in the dining car, sleeping in the Pullman berths, and looking out the window at the vast beauty of our country as it slid by. Riding those wonderful passenger trains in their heyday was an adventure and an education all at once.

After the war, there was a lot more going on in Sanger, too. Summer band concerts in the park had, I believe, been curtailed during the war and now were resumed, much to our delight. We enjoyed the new community swimming pool, the Toyland Parade and downtown Christmas celebration, painting the downtown store windows with Halloween scenes, and other seasonal activities.

The first time I ever came to this building, the Woman’s Clubhouse, was to the joint birthday party for Sharon Magee and Roger Sterling.  We were all in fifth grade, but they went to Harding School and I went to Wilson, so I felt very honored to be invited.  It was a grand party, with, as I remember it, square dancing, which I thought was the greatest fun imaginable.


We had parties in the living quarters of the Depot, too. We celebrated birthdays, anniversaries and holidays in that big kitchen that my dad had for some reason decorated in white with bright red accents. Guests sometimes included my dad’s siblings from Southern California or family friends from Sanger and other nearby towns.

Wilson and Harding Schools funneled into Taft School in sixth grade, and that’s where I got well-acquainted with five girls that are still some of my best friends, Kathy Bier, Marlene Tipton, Sharon Magee, Marcia Conrad and Patsy Bentley. We called ourselves the Silly Six and the four of us that are left are still pretty silly.

Soon, my brothers graduated from Sanger High, then went to Reedley College, then each, first George and then Kenny, was drafted and sent to Korea. I was sorry to see them go, of course – but it did mean that I at last got my own bedroom.

When it was time for my friends and I to go to Sanger High, we felt – probably like most kids going into high school – that we took it by storm, joining all the clubs, marching in the always fabulous band, running for and getting elected to office, making boyfriends right and left, appearing in the school plays and musicals and attending every football and basketball game and cheering until we were hoarse.

In those days, teenagers usually didn’t own cars, so we walked all over town: to each other’s houses, to school, to the Methodist Church, to the swimming pool, to the city park for the band concerts, and here, to the Woman’s Clubhouse, where the Youth Center met.

During this time, the big old steam engines were being phased out and replaced by diesel engines, which still made a lot of noise outside our windows, and still smelled, but in a different way.  By 1957, all of the Southern Pacific steam locomotives had been replaced by diesel.

Further afield, our speech and drama teacher, the wonderful Mr. Brune, encouraged us to attend plays and musical events in Fresno where we saw such stars as Henry Fonda, John Hodiak and Lloyd Nolan in “The Cain Mutiny Court-martial”; Agnes Morehead, Tyrone Power and Raymond Massey in “John Brown’s Body”; Donald O’Conner in his own show, and Harry Belafonte, Marge and Gower Champion, and the Robert Shaw Chorale in “Three For Tonight.”

Pretty amazing. I’ve never met anyone, except a couple of people who grew up in New York, who had such a rich cultural life when they were young as did I, a girl from a little town in the San Joaquin Valley.

In 1955, I left Sanger to go to San Jose State College. I always came back for holidays and during the summer, but the feeling of the Depot as “home” began to ebb. It was a wonderful place to grow up.  But it was time to move on.

We think of Sanger as a little mark on a large map of California, and of course during my youth it was an even smaller mark.  But you know, there was something magical here: a feeling of safety, of tradition, of acceptance, acceptance even for a little girl growing up in the Southern Pacific Depot.