This interview was conducted by Robert Buchmann on November 12, 2007 in San Antonio, TX. as part of Palo Alto College’s History 1302 – Fall 2007 class.
Glorianna Birdsong was born on December 22nd, 1934 in San Antonio, Texas. The youngest of Kermit and Paula Schlueter’s two children. She was raised in the greater San Antonio area, including Fredricksburg, Cave Creek and San Antonio itself. She graduated high school in 1952 and went to work for Southwestern Bell. At the age of 19, she married Jay D. Davis and moved to northern California, where she gained employment at Pacific Bell. She lived in California for three years and during that time gave birth to two children, Michael and Debbie Davis. In 1957 she and her husband moved back to San Antonio, shortly thereafter she gave birth to her third child, Cheryl Davis.
Over the next few years she gave birth to two more children, Rebecca and Brenda Davis. Then, in 1972 Gloria and Jay Davis divorced, after which she reentered to workforce and bought her own home. In 1978, she married Henry Birdsong, she remained married to him for seven years, but in 1985 they divorced. Shortly afterwards she began her twenty-one year career at Mission Pharmacal. Over the next two decades she continued her career and helped raise her grandchildren, becoming the cornerstone for both her own family and her extended family. In 2007 she retired, but she continues to help teach and raise her children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Gloria’s life is rich in history and detail and could very well be the subject and an excellent complete biography, but I’m afraid for the purpose of this interview I was forced to try and limit it to her early life in the San Antonio area.
What were you earliest childhood memories?
Earliest childhood memories… Well let me see, growing up in San Antonio, growing up with my family. It was a quiet family, um, we weren’t doing a lot of things, one of the memories was going back up to Fredericksburg to see family up there, to see grandparents, out in the country. Also being in San Antonio starting school, starting first grade. One point we moved back up to Fredericksburg, so the difference between going to a city school and a one room school house.
That must have been a pretty big difference.
Yeah, I was the only one in my class. We had eight grades, in one room, and the teachers desk was up front, the blackboard was on the wall and in the middle a stove to keep us warm in the winter time. Students that misbehaved got the whip, the boys in the older grades sometimes frequently got that. We an outhouse that had granddaddy long-legs and black widow spiders in it. Some of the students rode their horses to school. I personally was in a carpool where the parents took turns picking up the children and taking them to school, I lived about five miles from the school. In third grade, I think it was, we moved back to San Antonio, and I was here for a while, till I was in sixth grade. At sixth grade, we had a polio epidemic, and they closed the schools, all over San Antonio. And so then we went back to Fredericksburg, back to the one room school house, and I was there for… I guess about a year, cause we came back and I was then in middle-school. At that time we called it junior high, and I was there, in the one house that we moved into, the junior high school years and high school, Brackenridge high school. Road the bus to get to high school, it was an across town trip, and transferred buses. Those were city buses we used, there were no school buses at this point. I graduated from high school in 1952, so all this was in the mid to late forties, and early fifties up till 1952.
Do you have any memories of World War Two?
I remember where we lived when World War Two started, even the street I lived on. There was an announcement on the radio… No TV’s back then, so it was announced on the radio. The women were not out working as much in those days, so they talked across the fence. And my mother went and was talking to the neighbor that was next to us and they were talking across the fence, and they were all excited and upset. I remember that, and that was when Pearl Harbor was bombed, in 1941, and that started World War Two. And it was after that, also, that we went back up to Fredericksburg. And I remember during World War Two there was a rationing of gas, there was a rationing of sugar and flower, and on the farm they would get these huge, I don’t know if it was twenty-five pound or fifty pound bags of sugar and flour that was stored in the back closet. And often times, what those bags were made out of was a fabric that would later be taken and be sewn into dresses for the children, and I had some of those dresses, made out of flour sack fabric. And they would be in prints or checks or plaids or whatever, it wasn’t just plain white, there were different prints that they would have, and we’d take those and make clothing out of them. I remember that, and that was during World War Two. And they rationed gas at that time too, there was a limit to the amount of gas that you could get. I can’t remember the price but it was very very cheap compared to what we have now.
So what were the difference you noticed between life in Fredericksburg and San Antonio?
In Fredericksburg it was a slow paced life for sure, we grew a lot of our own food with a garden on our land. Occasional trips were made into town for things, there was a lot less traffic. We went to church while in San Antonio and not at all in Fredericksburg. There was a church in that area, which surprisingly I have become acquainted with that church now in later years with my oldest daughter Debbie and the person that she married. His parent are from that same area were my grandparents used to live, and we went to the church with my daughter Debbie’s in-laws that my grandparents had gone to many years earlier when I was a child, which is kind of a deja vu feeling. It was a farming community, lots of farmers there, they watched the sky to see what the weather was doing, they were always concerned about their crops, and was it going to rain so the crops would grow, was it not going to rain so they could get the crops in. My grandfather also kept bees, and so he would gather the honey from the bees, and we would eat the wax comb, I remember that. On the farm one of my favorite memories is when my grandfather had apple trees, and when the apple season came in they went out and gathered the apples, and they always smelled really good. During butchering time, they’d butcher their own cows and pigs and they’d cut it up and it was during the cold time of year. They made sausage with that and it was very good, we didn’t do any of those things in the city, we went to the store to buy whatever we needed. Also in the country the ladies would get together and make quilts, that did not happen in town. I remember shopping at the old Sears and Roebuck store in San Antonio, you’d go there for either clothing or shoes or whatever, in the country, you might order from the catalog.
What are some of your memories about the Sears catalog?
Usually you could go to the Sears store in Central Park and get a catalog. I don’t know if that’s available anymore. My mother, she’s now ninety-six, when she was sixteen years old she ordered a ring out of the Sears and Roebuck catalog that she is still wearing, it’s got a ruby-like stone and it’s a beautiful setting that it’s in. But she ordered that from the Sears and Roebuck catalog when she was sixteen years old, and they really didn’t go into town much in that day. That was on the farm and the way you got things was to order them through the Sears and Roebuck catalog. But when we lived in San Antonio, we drove to the store. Living in the country we’d go to the store very occasionally and order a lot of things from the catalog.
So what did you do for fun back then?
For fun? Umm, mostly it would be seeing family, and playing with my cats. I had more cats in Fredericksburg than I did in San Antonio, my dad wouldn’t let us have animals in the city because he felt that a dog needed a lot of room to run and roam, and you couldn’t do that in the city. I had an accidental cat I think, in the city that’s all I had but in the country I had more than one. Actually I had four of them that were allowed to stay. Mostly I played by myself, there weren’t many children to play with in the country, I didn’t have much there. On the farm there was one girl that lived the next farm over, and we saw each other on the rare occasion. I mostly just played by myself with my cats or my dolls, or I’d go down to the creek and play, I liked to do that. In San Antonio, there were sidewalks available and I got a pair of skates. I also played ball, in the street, and there wasn’t that much traffic so we were pretty safe. And in one area that lived you could go to the corner and walk down about two blocks and climb the fence and there was a pasture area there and that’s where we were allowed to go out and play. I think we had more toys to keep us busy when we lived in San Antonio, and out in the country you’d have to play with just whatever was there, such as climbing trees. And come to think of it there were no trees to climb where we lived in San Antonio, which I liked to do out in the country. I think children today do a lot more things and life is geared a lot more toward children having fun now than it was at that point. When I was growing up life was geared more toward the adults and what the adults had to do to survive and make enough money to pay the bills. The fun thing in my family I enjoyed was the music, my dad was a musician, he played clarinet and saxophone. So there was some music in the house, and whenever he had what today would be called gigs the whole family would go. We went to celebrations at a place called Luckenbach, and they would have set up these Saturday night dances or when there was a wedding, they would have the wedding reception there. And the whole family came, even to the night dances. There were no babysitters, so you took the whole family and when they were very young at the dance hall there was an area that was a stage area and on either side of the stage area there were small rooms which would be full of quilts that had been thrown down with the thought that the babies and small children would go to sleep there at night while the parents went and danced and had a party. And as the children got bigger, they were allowed to get up and during intermission we’d get to play on the dance floor, which by then was slick because they’d put this kind of powdery stuff on there to make these hardwood floors slick for dancing. Well they were also slick for little kids that liked to run and slide on them, and so we did that. And then as we got a little bit older we learned to dance, that’s kind of the progression that it went in. How we ever slept next to the band playing I have no idea. But they had the quilts there, that’s what they brought, that’s what the people had. They made their own quilts, they’d bring their quilts, they’d put the babies down on the floor in there and there were no babysitters, so the whole family came. In addition at the dance hall off to the side is where you could buy soft drinks, that was always a treat because we never had soft drinks in our house, that was just not done. They also cooked hamburgers there, and they always smelled really great. They used to have barbeque pits there, which after school closing at the end of the school year they would a party, a celebration with a barbeque outside and have a dance that evening, and again the whole family always came. At the school in San Antonio it really was a lot quieter than it was out in the hill country. I just remember getting my report card and going home, there weren’t that many programs. When I was in sixth grade is the year they had the polio, and we didn’t do our sixth grade party because that was the year they shut the schools down, and so we were promoted to the next grade. I don’t even remember how we got our report cards, there was no kind of celebration or anything because there was a polio epidemic and everything was closed down.
You have previously mentioned to me a fire that happened in your childhood, would you like to go into detail about that?
Yeah, we lived in a duplex… I’m trying to remember what year this would have been, I was going to elementary school, second or third grade maybe, we lived in a duplex and my parents, not knowing any better, put in a kerosene stove, which we later found out was illegal, and the reason being is because they can catch fire very easily. And I remember coming home from school, I would ride my bike to school and then back home and there was a hill that I would come down. And even while I was in the classroom we saw “oh, there’s a fire out there, something’s burning” we saw the smoke, from the schoolhouse. And as I was coming home, I came down that hill I could see the smoke, I could see people getting excited about it. I turned on a street and the closer I got people started telling me “you house is burning!” I thought “Naa” but the closer I got I realized it was our house that was burning. The fire department was out there, we had a neighbor two doors down that was a fireman, and needless to say he was surprised that we had a kerosene stove. We didn’t know, I don’t know how my parents did this, they moved it in, hooked it up and nobody noticed. But it did catch fire, what wasn’t burned mostly had a lot of smoke damage. I remember after that we moved back up to Fredericksburg and I remember a lot of the smoke damaged items being around and how badly they smelled. I remember a dining room table and a buffet table… The tables were refinished, so they were used again, but a lot of the stuff was gone because it had either been burnt, or it had smoke damage so bad that it wasn’t any good anymore. And it was a time for my parents of starting over again, with the loss that they had, moving out of the duplex and back to the farm, it was my grandfathers farm. Which, basically, you know, it was free rent, we were there long enough for them to get back on their feet. Actually my dad would have liked to have stayed there, but the farm wasn’t big enough to truly support two families, so in time my dad got a job in San Antonio, and for a while he was commuting back and forth until they found a house an moved back to San Antonio.
What was your first job?
My first job? Well my first job was really after I graduated high school, before that what I did to make a little money as a teenager was babysitting. Beyond that it was getting a job after I graduated from high school, and that was with Southwestern Bell, and I worked for them until I got married, after I got married we moved to California and I transferred to Pacific Bell. It was the same phone system so I could transfer directly from Southwestern Bell to Pacific Bell. I worked there until my first pregnancy, when I was due then I quit work.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Just that it is interesting at this point in life to look back and see the changes that have happened. The way people live, what they want in material things, how that’s increased and changed so much. How communications has changed so much, I remember when we lived up on the farm we had the old neighborhood telephone. Whoever you wanted to call you turned it like eight rings or six rings to get the person that you wanted. And your neighbors could also hear how many rings you were ringing, and if they thought it was something interesting they’d get on the line and listen in *laughs*. The first gossip line I guess, I don’t know, but they would do that. And also going from no refrigerator, we had what you call evaporative coolers. It was a metal thing that you would put a wet cloth around it, it had shelves inside it and you would put you food on those, and you would put water on the cloth and that would help cool it, that’s the most that we had as far as cooling was concerned. Later they got electricity and a real refrigerator, that was a big deal. Ways of communicating is really the biggest change I guess, because I remember how, when my grandfather was out working in the fields and it was time for lunch my grandmother used to tie a dish towel up high on a tree or something, and he’d see the dish towel and know it was time to come home for lunch. And that was the way they communicated, today we have cell phones you know, it’s kind of different. It’s kind of amusing to look back and think I lived that part of life, that time period.
In the process of making this oral history project I have learned a great deal about both life in the San Antonio area and the early life of Gloria Birdsong. I have learned that life in the San Antonio area was much more difficult in the forties and fifties than I had imagined, and that Ms. Birdsong persevered through much trial and difficulty in her early life. While oral history may not give us an exact picture of a setting in history, I feel it provides an understanding of the circumstances and feelings of a time and place that no other technique could produce. I am glad to have had the chance to preserve this portion of Gloria Birdsong’s early life in this project, and I hope someday to do additional interviews with her.
- Gloria Birdsong was born on December 22nd, 1934 to Kermit and Paula Schlueter in San Antonio, Texas.
- Began elementary school in 1940.
- Home was badly damaged by fire, forcing her family to move to Fredericksburg, 1941.
- Returned to San Antonio with her family in 1943.
- Polio epidemic strikes San Antonio children, schools are closed. Gloria’s family moves back to Fredericksburg, 1946.
- Graduated from Brackenridge High School in 1952, went to work for Southwestern Bell.
- Married to Jay D. Davis in 1953, moved to California with him, transfered to Pacific Bell.
- 1954-1956 gives birth to Michael and Debbie Davis.
- Returned to San Antonio with her husband and children in 1957, gives birth to Cheryl Davis.
- 1958-1967, gives birth to Rebecca and Brenda Davis.
- Gloria and Jay D. Davis divorced in 1972, Gloria returns to work at Southwestern Bell.
- Married to Henry Birdsong in 1978.
- Gloria Birdsong and Henry Birdsong divorced in 1985, Gloria begins career at Mission Pharmacal.
- Retired from Mission Pharmacal in 2007.
- Interviewed by Robert Buchmann on November 12th, 2007.
- Perry-Castañeda Library
Map Collection. Geographical and historical maps of continents, countries, counties, cities; maps relating to history and current news events. University of Texas Libraries.
- Small Town Texas Projects. Palo Alto College students Marissa Komatz & Reuben Ramirez project on the town of Fredericksburg, Texas This Small Town Project was completed in the Fall semester of 2002 as a requirement for Assistant Professor of Robert Hines’s History 1302 class.
- Time Magazine Article on the polio outbreak in San Antonio, published June 03, 1946.
- Photograph of Gloria Birdsong at the age of 16 provided by Gloria Birdsong and her granddaughter Emily Kusenberger from their private photo collection.