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Jimmy Phillips and living in a tent at a labor camp

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi

When I was born in Bakersfield at Kern General Hospital in 1941, my mother was only 17 and my dad was only 15 years old. My folks were married at the time but they split up when I was a baby and we were living on Old Town Road, so my mother and I moved to Arvin to live with my grandparents, Martin and Tina Perry Bonds. My grandmother Tina was an Indian woman who spoke fluent Chickasaw and not much English. She spent most of the time raising me in my earliest years.

I still remember clinging to my grandmother's skirt and peeking out from behind her in 1945 on the day my mother came to get me to move into the Arvin Federal Labor Camp located on Weedpatch Highway near the town of Arvin. My mother had remarried a man named Atwood Risner, a farmhand with a son and daughter of his own who were slightly older than me.

We moved into a 10-foot by 12-foot tent, and all five of us slept in one bed that night. Here I was with a man and two kids who were strangers to me, and I didn't even know my mother that well because I'd been with my grandmother most of the time. It was tough for a little boy.

The tents themselves had a wooden floor and canvas sides, but no stove or heat of any kind. Families cooked outside with wood or coal oil (kerosene). Those tents were cold in the winter, Lordy I remember one time when the rain was four inches deep – it melted my mother's cardboard clothes closet.

The tents had no electricity other than a light socket hanging from the roof where occupants could screw in a light bulb. They rented for $9 a month.

After a couple of years in the camp, we were able to move from a tent into what were called "tin cabins," which were like 10' x 12' sheds with corrugated metal roofs. These rented for $12 a month and we leased two of them, one used more as a kitchen and the other to serve as a bedroom. In the kitchen was a coal oil stove set up on two orange crates. It was quite an improvement in living conditions for us. My folks worked hard, even us kids did, and our lives got better as the years went by.

One year there was an early frost that caused the cotton plants to lose their leaves, and it made cotton picking so much faster and easier. My stepfather had become a labor contractor, so he got a small share of what each of the workers he provided earned. He made enough money that fall that he was able to buy a home in Bakersfield and we moved into a real house in town.

Jimmy Phillips

Jimmy Phillips has been a barber for more than 50 years and is well-known and loved in Kern County and the Tehachapi area. He is also a very talented drummer and one of the pioneers of the Bakersfield Sound.