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A banner with an image of the Provo Historic Courthouse and the text Historic Provo.

Oral History of Anna Jean Backus


WINN: Today is September 7, 1999. This is Jennifer Winn. I'm here with Anna Jean Backus. Anna, what are your earliest memories of Provo?

BACKUS: My very earliest was my backyard when I was three years old. I remember Provo very well from my childhood. I remember going to the park on Sixth West and about Sixth North. We knew that as North Park. We had a swimming pool, not the one they have now. They had another swimming pool up there. We used to go up there all the time swimming.

In the winter time they dammed off two large ice skating rinks at North Park. It was where the Eldred Center is now. They maintained those and we went skating in the park. They played the music. It was a lot of fun. They always played music for the skating parties. It was a fun time.

I always walked down south of town, before the viaduct was there on University Avenue. We'd walk down to the pastures. There were ponds on the pasture and we ice skated there.

My younger brother who is fifteen months younger than I am, we at times walked down to Provo Lake. We didn't do much swimming in it because it was dirty. But we did go down. We had club parties in the early days. We'd fill the cart with carp. They were in the shallow muddy waters and the really poor people back then ate a lot of carp.

WINN: Could you describe for me the Provo of your youth? What were the parameters of the city?

BACKUS: The shopping center in downtown Provo didn't extend much more than it does now. It's just that some of the stores have been replaced and refurbished. My early remembrance, where Nu Skin is, was where the train depot was. That's where the Orem Line came through there. It turned down First South over to University. Then it went south. I travelled on it as far as Springville. I used to go over there to Park Roche.

WINN: What was the ride like? Was it bumpy or smooth?

BACKUS: They called it leaping lizards. It wasn't really smooth. That was my name for it. They used to bring things in. I remember one time there was a car they brought in that had a small whale or a shark in it. I was young, and I don't remember. I don't even remember if it was alive. I think it was. I think they had it in a big tank in water.

The fun thing I remember was when the circus came to town, and they had the circus parade. They would get off the train and the box cars down on Sixth South, and then they'd come up Third West and on up to North Park. That's where they'd set up the big top. We'd go and watch the parade. The elephants led the parade, then there were the wagons that had the cages with the lions, and there were clowns and circus music. I can remember it coming down Fifth West and turning up Center Street. It probably came back from North Park that way. It may have come to town by car and truck, and it may have been they were coming on down through town.

The fairgrounds used to be south on University Avenue, below the tracks. There was a big fairgrounds and every fall there would be a county fair.

WINN: What would they have at the county fair?

BACKUS: They had a building there that in recent years they used as the town garage. That building is torn down. Back during the time of the fair that was where they had the produce exhibits for different counties, much like you see at a state fair. They were just beautiful. They had flower shows. There was always a carnival. They had a place that was kind of like a bandstand. It was all the way around. It was caged, and they had dog shows and lion shows. It was always free because it was in the open. We would just sit and watch. That was where they had the carnival and the merry-go-round. That was fun.

The carnival used to be down near Pioneer Park at times. They always had side shows. For me it was most fun when we had it up on Center Street just east of University Avenue in the middle of the street there. They just blocked that whole block off, and the carnival was there. It was fun for us kids to go to the carnival. We loved it.

One of my fondest remembrances, too, is the big Woolworth's store that was on University Avenue and First North and Center Street. That's where I got my first job at the Woolworth's. They always had the lunch counter where you could get a sandwich. Then they moved across the street.

I remember the ground before the Kresses building was built. It is the building directly west of Nu Skin. Before the Kress building was built it was a big vacant lot. There was always said to be quick sand in there, so we never ventured to walk across that lot.

Right next door to it going south was the old Herald office. I've seen pictures of different buildings that were the Herald office. But I haven't seen any pictures that show the one I remember, because it wasn't a two story building. It was a low building, and out back they had a fenced in area where they threw their scrap paper. That's where we used to go and get a big roll so we had something to scribble and draw on.

Lots of things were over there. The drug stores were on almost every corner on the north side of the street. They were always on the west corner with the exception of Walgreens. On the other corners on University was the bank and the Farmer's and Merchant's Bank on Third West on that corner. Across the street was the drug store. They had an ice cream parlor with tables and chairs. We liked to go there and get a malt.

WINN: How often would you do that?

BACKUS: Not very often because money was scarce. I remember my cousin used to come down from Salt Lake, and we'd raid our cellar. We'd go down there looking for cream bottles. We didn't find any milk bottles, but we could find cream bottles. We didn't buy cream much, but Mom kept the bottles. We could turn them in for some money. We did get in trouble for that.

We had a neighborhood store on Third West just north of Third South. I can remember robbing my brother's Indian head penny and taking it down to that neighborhood grocery store and buying candy. I got in big trouble for that one. Really big trouble. In fact, he's never forgotten it. They are treasured.

I had two older brothers, one that was seven years older and one that was five years older. They used to at that time go down to the lake and hunt for arrow heads. They had an arrow head collection, too. That was wonderful.

Then there was show boats that they had on the Provo River down by the lake. We could go down there. The school took us on an excursion. One time I was able to go on an excursion. I must have been in junior high; I don't really remember. Out on the lake is what they called Bird Island. It's just a flat island out there. That's where the seagulls have all of their nests. We would go on the boat out there, and we got off on to the island, and we were able to walk around. On the showboat we'd dance, and we took our lunch. It was fun. They used to hold dances on the show boat for adults that went. I can remember my dad and mom went to the showboat on the lake to dance.

There was the Utahna Dance Hall on First West and First South. We went there for years and years. There are some things that are still here, like the tabernacle. I always remember the large trees that were on the corner.

WINN: Did they use the tabernacle more then for different activities?

BACKUS: They always used it for concerts. I think it was a lot like now. We weren't able to attend a lot. I can't remember a lot.

I remember the Elks Club that was on First South and First West on the northwest corner. Every Christmas they'd collect on the porch, and they'd open the doors, and they'd give you toys and a bag of candy and an orange for the poor children. We always felt like we were intruding because we didn't know we were poor. We never did take the big presents. We just always took some little thing.

Provo High School was there where the new city building and the library is. The old Provo High School was a wonderful place.

WINN: Did they tear it out?

BACKUS: They tore it all down. It got far too small. It wasn't big enough. They had to use two buildings. They had the central building and then a separate building that was a shop building and the biology and a separate building for the chemistry. The central building was for kindergarten. When they first started having kindergarten, they used the central building downstairs.

WINN: Were you born after the Depression?

BACKUS: I was born before the Depression. I remember they had commodities for the poor people. I can remember they had oranges and things like potatoes and flour.

WINN: Was that from the state or from the ward?

BACKUS:I think it was government supplied. When I was nine years old, my father wasn't home. Sometimes we got things from the bishop. That's not like how it is now. During the war you had to have the books to buy sugar. We had to stand in a big long line to get those. Now if you got a run in your pantyhose, you couldn't just throw them away and get another pair. Most of us had mended hose. We didn't have a pair of hose that didn't have a mend in them. We'd just sew them up and try to get as far as you could.

WINN: Did you see many people or your friends in the same situation?

BACKUS: A lot of people were in the same situation. Our home was a little farm house. It was one of the earliest homes in Provo. We had pot bellied stoves and a coal range to cook on. We had a water reservoir in the corner of the kitchen and a basin in the kitchen and a sink in the kitchen. We had a pantry. There weren't any built-ins other than the pantry. We didn't have any cupboards. In the corner of the house there was a door. Every room except the middle bedroom had an outside door.

WINN: How far were the roads paved in Provo?

BACKUS: I can't tell you exactly because I was just a young kid. I'm quite sure that Center Street and University Avenue were paved. I can remember on Fifth West them putting in the ditches and cementing some of the ditches, but not all the way down. The ditches on Fifth West were cemented down to Center Street. From Center Street down that was a big open ditch in front of the park. They were wide ditches. I always called them a wide ditch because we used to try to jump those. They weren't just little narrow ditches on the side. They carried irrigation water.

From the Pioneer Park down, I can't tell you how far that was open. I know down past Fourth South; past that it was always dirt. It had moss and fish, and I can remember watching the kingfisher scoop down to get the minnows. It was fun to watch that open ditch. It was sad when they closed that over. At Pioneer Park in the middle of the block, there was a bridge that went across from the park to the road across the ditch. They had a bridge. They finally decided that was dangerous to cross the ditch. They got in the way of the cars.

I remember when they put the cement road on Third South. I can remember the machines. I was just a little kid when they did that. I remember in front of our house was a dirt road when I was very young. We had the irrigation ditch outside too.

WINN: Was it messy in your house or did it not get in there?

BACKUS: I don't remember that part.

WINN: Probably your Mom would.

BACKUS: My mom would.  I remember our driveways weren't cemented. Mr. Thomas that owned the greenhouse had a cemented driveway. Not too many people in those days had backyards. They had trees. In the early times, not too many had them. We never did have a large backyard. We had the old granary and barn house. That's where we would go.

I can remember when they finally put the ditches in front of our house with the cement driveway to the sidewalk. On Third West all of the driveways were sloping into the ditch. We used to put dams in those ditches when the irrigation was in the ditch. We'd put dams in and slide down that cement. We played in the water. The farmers came up really angry that their water wasn't coming down the ditch.

We had maple trees along Third West that are still there. We used to climb those. We had our own special tree. We'd climb and stand up there and yodel. One day my younger brother was climbing on one of the smaller branches. It broke and he came down with the branch standing on that limb. He was pretty pale. It really startled him. He was okay.

Whenever the neighbor children came to play, they came to our back door and they would yodel. We always knew by their call who it was. Sometimes especially my brother's friends when they came they would just call out the name. My brother was called Chuck, but they called him Homer. They would stand out there, "Homer!" We didn't knock on doors. We just called. It was an interesting part of my childhood because they don't ever do that anymore. They just call on the phone and ask if they're home. Then you come over.

We didn't have a telephone for a long time. We didn't have a refrigerator. Our front porch was our refrigerator. It was on the north. It was a large porch, and Mom would weather burlap. She would soak burlap and set our milk against the wall of the house and wrap the burlap around the milk. It kept it cool.

Mom raised chickens. They would kill chickens. I didn't kill them. My brothers did that. I would go to the neighbors. The neighbor took the hen by the neck and swung the body around and killed it. Actually the chicken flew off from the neck, but she was still holding the hen. I can remember the reflexes, the chicken jumping around the yard with the blood spurting. That was interesting.

WINN: What do you recall of the Roberts Hotel?

BACKUS: The Roberts Hotel was a fun place because friends of ours lived there. Their parents were the owners. I can remember going in the lobby and the chairs were there. I can remember the expert spitter hitting the spittoon. I can remember going down the wide hall, and there was the dining room doors. The white tablecloths had centerpieces. I can remember going to the apartment of our friends. We didn't spend much time there. I remember the courtyard of the Hotel Roberts. There is a fountain there now. The fountain used to have a fish that came up that the water squirted out of. The arbor that is there now was there, but it always bloomed in the spring.

We used to go out the back door, and that's where there were a lot of box elder trees growing. There was kind of a drop off from two levels out there. The big boys hung a big heavy rope. Someone climbed up a big tree and hung a big heavy rope. The big boys would swing back and forth on that swing and yodel. They were Tarzan. My younger brother and I were too young, and we weren't allowed to do that. We thought that was really neat.

I remember the old Beesley's that was on First South between University Avenue and First West. We watched them chip the stone and make the headstones for the graves. We used to go to the Utahna Dance Hall. Around the corner from there on University was what they called the Dollhouse. They had wonderful ice cream cones. We would have a double cone. We'd get those once in a while. Across the street from there was an A&W. They had ice cream floats. It's all been torn down. All of the homes are gone down there.

There wasn't a red light district, but I remember when my mother and I used to walk down to the fairgrounds and past the mansion that is still down there. There was a two story brick house that had a porch on it. My mom pointed out there was a red light on the front porch and when it was on, that meant that the men could come visit the ladies of the night. I was too young to really know what she was talking about.

Across the street from that was the Crane Hospital. It was a maternity hospital where women went to have their babies. Sometimes they called it the white house. We weren't born there. My brother and I were born at home.

WINN: Did the building of the freeway change any of the area of Provo or where people traveled from?

BACKUS: I went as far as downtown Provo. I remember when they built the overpass on Center Street. That meant you didn't have to wait for the trains. There was the Franklin School. They called it the poor kids because they lived across the tracks. They were almost always late because they had to wait for trains. That viaduct helped that. That was all farm land, and there were houses here and there. It didn't affect the downtown part. I don't remember about the viaduct on University Avenue, but that helped too because you didn't have to wait.

I have fond memories of the train station. I loved that. I often, here where I live, I can hear the train whistles with my window open. We lived on First South, and the tracks were on Sixth South. We were close enough that the hobos and the tramps, what we called them, knew they could come to Mom's house and get a meal. I remember them often coming to our house. Sometimes they would sharpen our knives. One would sharpen our lawn mower. We would always give them something to eat. They seemed to know where to go where they could get a handout. Mom was brought up that way. She was brought up south of Cedar City. There were always people coming by there that she would feed. She was brought up that way. It was a common occurrence to feed all those men.

When I was in the second grade I was coming up from Franklin, and there were kids coming up from the tracks. They said, "Don't go down there." One of the hobos had slipped between the cars, and it had severed his leg. Being a kid, we of course went down there. They told us not to go down there, but we did. All I can remember was the blood. When I got home for lunch that day, Mom had fried sausage and potatoes for dinner, and for a long, long time I couldn't eat sausage. It was a bad memory.

Just west of Third West was a bakery. Mom always made our bread. But behind the store they had places where they threw their boxes. When we were kids we'd always look for the right size and type of box. They used them as trays for their doughnuts and baked goods. If we were lucky enough to find the right kind of box, they'd give us a doughnut.

There was a boy who was a little older than I was, whose name was Billy Long. He would come and yodel for his. He'd usually get a Bismarck or a chocolate eclair. He was just a little fellow, but he could yodel beautifully.

The next door was where the photo shop was. If you had a dime you could go there. They still have them now, but they're different from what they were then. You'd snap your own picture.

There was one school that was torn down. I think it was Joaquin.

WINN: Where was it located?

BACKUS: It was in the northeast part of town. There was a fun fire escape. That was what was fun going to school was the circular fire escape. Down at the Franklin in the fifth grade, my school room was where everyone had to come through to go down the fire escape. It was fun to have the practice drills. We had to line up to go down the fire escape.

When school was out and we couldn't get in the school, the only time you could go down it was during fire drills. We'd climb up as far as we could from the bottom and slide down. They were slippery and circular. There was really a fun one up at the old Joaquin. I don't remember the one up at the Maeser.

The Maeser School is pretty much like it was then. I walked there. For some reason we had to go up there in third grade. I went to Central in kindergarten and first grade at Franklin. I went to Maeser for third and back down to Franklin.

We played jacks out on the side walk or jumped rope. The girls had big heavy ropes, and we'd jump rope. We were all good at it. We could all jump. Some of the girls could do the double rope. They were good. Salt and Pepper was really, really fast.

Dixon Junior High has changed quite a bit. It's larger. I haven't been down there for a long time. I suppose some parts of it are the same. We would go up to Dixon. We always had time to dance. Downstairs in the Franklin, they taught us to waltz and dance.

They used to always hand out these iodine tablets, so we'd get iodine in our diet. The generations before us had goiter, which was a lack of iodine. My mother said she had a goiter. My Grandmother had a goiter. My father had a goiter. I remember them passing out the iodine tablets.

We had the benches and the ink wells and bottles and pens. We had to sit, and we always had the writing period where we practiced. I can remember scribbling circles so we could get the movement of our arms and help with our writing. We had spelling bees. We had recess like they have now.

I remember going to school at the Franklin. I can remember my brother and I waiting for the side walk plow to come along. It was a horse drawn plow, and the plow was a wooden beam. The man was behind. We'd walk behind so we didn't have to walk in the deep snow. He'd go around the streets of Provo plowing the sidewalks for the school children.

WINN: Did you ever have any interactions with the state hospital?

BACKUS: We used to walk there. The building is not there that was there originally. It was a tall white building. It was on the foothills east of town. For several blocks before you got to the state hospital, they had islands with grass in the middle of the road. As kids we used to go up there and wave at the inmates. They'd hold their hands out between the bars and wave at us. One time one of the inmates told us where there was a bag of peaches by one of the trees. We got it, but we were such little kids, and they were heavy. We threw the bag over our shoulder, and by the time we got home, they were all smashed. It was the state hospital; we always called it the insane asylum.

WINN: Were you scared of it?

BACKUS: Not really.

WINN: Did it have any effect on the community in anyway?

BACKUS: No. It was a place for the insane. That is what we called mental patients then.

I remember the park. It's still there, but it's different. There was a park there east on Center Street. It was several blocks from the mortuary. There was a junk yard at that park; that was way before my time. The junk yard was south of the state hospital on the hillside. It would have been about Fourth South and right up on the foothills. That's where the junkyard was. It was there for years and years.

WINN: They are building up there now.

BACKUS: They have lots of cockroaches. The only reason I know that is our daughter moved into an apartment up there. She only stayed one day.

WINN: Did you meet your husband in Provo?

BACKUS: I met my husband on VJ day. That's the day World War II ended with Japan. I was with my girlfriend, and he was with his boyfriend, and it turned out that one of his boyfriends and one of my girlfriends were cousins. They introduced us. They had a big street dance on VJ day right in downtown Provo on University Avenue. We had a good day.

WINN: Were all the schools out for that celebration?


WINN: What kind of activities did you do for dates?

BACKUS: They had a hamburger joint on First East and First North. We used to go there. We went driving around and went to movies. It was common in those days to go to the movies on Sundays. We'd go to the matinee.

It wasn't on dates, but I can remember the ballgames. We always walked up there. We never had a car. We walked everyplace. I could walk to the campus from our place on First South and Third West in fifteen minutes. I could walk. I never ran, but I could walk fast. We always walked. We were good walkers. The old stadium up there was different from it is now. That was a fun place. We would go to the ballgames.

Going to the movies was fun. My mom and I used to go a lot. Next door to the old Academy was the new real nice show house. We'd go to the candy store. She used to run a candy store down by the old Provo House on Center Street between Third West and Fourth West on the north side of the street.

On Saturdays at the Uintah show house between University and First East on Center Street, they had drawings. Those boys will remember those things better than I do. I can remember they won bags of groceries, and kids could win a bike.

WINN: Were your children engaged in some of the similar activities as you did?

BACKUS: The thing that they did that they were able to enjoy was Cook's Ice Cream Parlor that was on Center Street between Fifth West and Fourth West on the north side of the street. Lots of my girlfriends worked there. When our kids were young, we always went there on Sunday and bought an ice cream cone. Then we'd drive down to the lake. That's when you didn't have to have a pass to drive there.  We'd watch the birds. Things were different in those days. We didn't have shows on TV. We'd go for ice cream at our house.

WINN: You've shared so much. Thank you. You have such a wonderful memory. I really appreciate it. Anna, could you tell me about the millrace?

BACKUS: I remember the millrace quite well because it was just a block from our house. It ran on Second West and originated from the river. In the early days, I think it was open on each side of Center Street, but that's not in my recollection. It was open stream on Second South and Second West. It had growth along the side of it, willows and so forth. I remember my older brothers catching muskrats. They used to trap them along that river. They stretched them on hangers. I remember the smell of those muskrats and how clear the water was. There was a little rail that we'd lean over where it came out, and we'd look down into there. It was so clear. We'd watch the fish and suckers and trout. There was a lot.

Up above town, it was open going north. It ran kind of along the railroad tracks where the Heber Creeper line ran. I remember that train coming along and then up north of town, closer to the river; there was what they called the rock crusher. I don't know much about the rock crusher, except there was a pond up there, and that's where the boys and men in town liked to go skinny dipping.

I did follow my brother and our neighbor one day along the track, and they kept telling me to go home. I was just little, but I idolized my older brother, and I wanted to follow him. They finally started taking rocks at me, not hitting me. They wanted me to go home. I just cried and wanted to go with my brother, so I tagged along behind them.

When we finally got up near the rock crusher, they told me not to come any further. I kept following them because I was so determined. I heard a lot of splashes. There was one man, who I thought was an old man, but he was probably a young man. But because I was so young, I thought he was old. He was sitting as tight as he could with his legs together and hunched over to cover his bare body. Then I knew why I wasn't to follow my brother there. I'll always remember that. I learned a lesson that you sometimes don't go where you're not supposed to go. That was a fun remembrance.

When we were little kids, we'd hear the train whistle. We'd run just as fast as our little legs could carry us up to the corner so we could wave at the conductor. He always tooted the whistle. That was a really big part of our childhood.

WINN: Did you ever go get candy from Startups?

BACKUS: No, we didn't. I remember our neighbors across the street because they were related to the Startups. A woman lived there that was a Startup that I used to watch. Everyday she'd walk down to the Startup Candy Factory, and she was a chocolate dipper. The children across the street always got clear toy candy reindeers. Somehow when we were little, maybe from the Elks Club, we got clear toys because I do remember the clear toys.

My brother once in a while would bring hard tack home. I go down there now and buy candy. I remember the Ambrosias. They still have those. They still have the same molds. The original Startup Candy Company was across the street from us, and the building is still there, but it's not being used for that now. It was on Center Street on First West on the east side of the street. Even the house that they lived in was just around the corner.

WINN: Thank you.

Interviewee: Anna Jean Backus

Interviewer: Jennifer Winn

Date: September 7, 1999

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