Jesse James

06/20/05

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When I was a boy I lived in the village of Dover, Florida from age 6 to 12. Dover is 16 miles east of the city of Tampa and 6 miles west of Plant City, on what was then, State Road 23 and is now 574. About a mile northeast of the intersection of Route 23 and Gallagher road, in an old farmhouse, with a small orange grove, lived a single father and 4 sons.

The father, named Jesse James, claimed that he was the cousin of the outlaw. He was probably middle aged at the time, the 1930s, but to me as a boy, he seemed ancient. One of his most often repeated statements was "I know Jesse is still alive back in them there hills. Heíll come out one day." He was a very talkative person and on occasion would come to our house and not leave Ďtil every subject known to man had been discussed.

I donít remember about the sons, but Jesse never washed his clothes, and I canít recall ever hearing about him taking a bath, and I spent a lot of time there. Of course, the old farmhouse was similar to my own living quarters, had no running water, no bath, no electricity, no gas and certainly no phone. Water came from a hand operated pitcher pump in the back yard and what little light there was came from kerosene lamps. Jesse would just wear his clothes ítil they became unbearable, even for him, then he would buy a new set, change, and simply throw the old ones away.

The 4 sons were Jesse, the oldest, maybe 20 or better, Harvey, the next, in his late teens, Jack, the third, around 12, and the last one, Frank, 8 or 9. My brother, Mason, two years my senior, and I went to school with Jack and Frank. Jack was in Masonís class in school and they were best buddies. Frank was a year or two younger than I but we were good buddies and had a lot of fun times together.

Mason and I worked for Jesse, the elder, hoeing weeds in the orange grove or harvesting vegetables alongside his sons. We worked on off-school days and during vacation, which at that school was during the winter so that the kids could help with the strawberry picking. Plant City, at that time, was called "the strawberry capital of the world" and around Dover, only 6 miles away, berries were a major crop. Depending on the job and the circumstances, we were paid 2 or 3 cents per quart for picking the berries. The berries were picked every other day and sometimes the "pickinís were slim." If we made 30 or 40 cents a day we thought we were doing good.

When we were doing jobs that couldnít be paid by the piece we worked 10 hours a day and were paid a nickel an hour. Old Jesse had the honor of being the first person to ever fire me from a job. One day when I was about 10 we were to hoe the orange grove. I was issued a brand new hoe that morning. It worked fine Ďtil about 2 in the afternoon the handle broke completely in two. Here I have to defend my position and say that the handle had a slash grain in it and was destined to fall apart eventually, but I was the one using the hoe so it was my fault. Jesse was there within a few feet of me when it happened. He reached in his pocket, pulled out some change and handed it to me, and said "here, Ralph, we donít need you around here any more." Well, he unknowingly did me a big favor. First I learned that, a person can get fired by an unreasoning employer for something that is not his fault. Second, getting fired is not the end of the world, the next job you get may be a better one. And third, Iíve had so many laughs telling that story for near 70 years now that I wouldnít trade that firing if I could. I donít mean to imply here that all people who get fired are innocent victims, far from it. Iíve had to fire a few people during my active years and I certainly felt it was justified every time.

As it turned out I worked for Jesse again some time later, I donít remember how it happened, but I guess it was because of my friendship with Jack and Frank. That was in April of 1938 and I had turned 13 years old 5 months before. My family now lived in Tampa and I was Temporarily staying at the Jamesí house and working for them.

But my subject, which was "a relative of Jesse James, the outlaw" has completely deserted me and now I must chase it down again. There was something mysterious about Jesse and his 4 sons. He did tell my dad that his wife, the mother of his sons, had died in a hurricane in south Florida in 1927 but he was even vague about that. The story of his wifeís death and his being a cousin of the outlaw was the only background we ever got on his past. This led to some wild speculation but never to any solid conclusions.

Once Jesse had a disagreement with another man, we never learned what it was about. The man stabbed Jesse in the back with a knife. Jesse said the doctor said a fraction of an inch more to one side of the wound would have killed him. The next day Frank showed me the bloody shirt with the knife hole in it that his dad had been wearing. As I remember, there was no law involved and the man was never called to account. After a couple of days I donít remember any of the James family ever talking about it again.

In 1939 I was working in a little grocery store on Nebraska Ave. in Tampa called Tomís market, when Jesse came in there selling vegetables. The words exchanged between the two of them are unprintable but the story was that at some earlier time Jesse had sold Tom some dried peas that had been soaked and sold to Tom as fresh. Tom, a total grouch to begin with, was not happy.

He was also very cheap. I was 14 then, worked 64 hours a week,

furnished my own bicycle to deliver groceries with, and was paid the grand sum of $8 per week. In fairness to Tom though, that was the most money I had ever made in my life. But all thatís another story.

After that I lost all contact with the Jamesí. I did hear later through a mutual acquaintance that Jesse, the oldest son, had married, and Jack had died of some sickness when he was in his teens.

Today, May 2001, I guess Frank, the youngest, would be close to 75 years old, if he is still with us. I doubt if either of the older brothers are still alive, but it is possible.

None of us were ever sure that old Jesseís claim of being a cousin to the outlaw was true. On the other hand, no one has proven otherwise so the same question has followed us through the years-------WAS HE?

 

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