By M. Scott Morris/NEMS Daily Journal
More than 70 years ago, downtown Tupelo was Jacque Prather’s playground.
He played games with his friends, and he visited with hobos at their camp by the railroad tracks not far from South Spring Street.
“I used to go down there at night with the hobos. They always treated me nice,” Prather, 79, said. “My mom didn’t know I was there. She was working. She thought I was at the picture show.”
He was a free-range kid, but could roam only so far. Even as a boy, Prather was a working man. That was by necessity.
On the Sunday morning when Prather was born at 811 Jackson St., his father was sitting in the county jail for bootlegging.
“A lot of people did that then,” Prather said.
The sheriff let the man out to see his son, but that was about the only interest the father showed toward his son. The man took himself out of the picture early on, leaving Opal Wayne Blackwell Prather with the responsibility for raising two boys. She worked at a restaurant for $1 a day.
Prather was 8 years old when he got his first job working for a Tom’s candy and nut distributor. He was on the clock for a few hours every day after school.
“I swept the warehouse and helped load and unload the trucks,” he said.
He made 15 cents a day, plus benefits an 8-year-old could appreciate.
“I got all the peanuts and candy I wanted. It was mostly stale, out-of-date,” he said. “You were supposed to dump it out and send the wrappers back. They let me have all I wanted of that. I carried it home. My brother ate, too.”
Fortunes rose and fell for the Prathers in those days. Opal Prather eventually opened her own restaurant, which brought more stability to the family, and more work. The boys found ways to contribute to the family and to afford luxuries like movie tickets.
“We had paper routes, my brother and me,” Prather said.
They sold what became the Daily Journal, as well as a pair of competing newspapers that won’t be named here. Prather’s goal was to sell 25 a day, and he made 2 cents a paper. He smiles about that 2 cents now.
During World War II, troop trains came through Tupelo. They were a boon to the newspaper business, even when Prather gave his product away for free.
“They always had letters. They wanted to get the mail off, but they couldn’t leave the train,” Prather said.
He took their letters and money for stamps and gave newspapers in return.
“The leftover money from the stamps more than paid for the papers,” he said.
On the move
His list of odd jobs continued to grow. He delivered telegrams, and sometimes got as much as a nickel apiece for his troubles.
The Lyric Theatre hired him on as an usher for a time, and he worked as a caddy at Tupelo Country Club, when the greens were made from black cinders left over from the trains that went through town.
“The caddy had to drag a pipe across it to make it smooth,” he said.
He also was a carhop at Dudie’s Diner, the popular eatery near Crosstown, but most of his restaurant work took place at one of his mother’s cafés. She never had more than one at a time, but she owned different downtown eateries over the years. Her son was ready labor.
“I never did study. I had to absorb what I learned in class,” he said. “After football practice or track, I’d be at the restaurant, getting it ready for the next day.”
The school system allowed him time off during the day to work the lunch rush.
He padded his pay with the sketchy venture of operating a rented slot machine at the restaurant.
“It had a big sign that said ‘For Novelty Only,’” he said, “but people who knew could get it to pay out. People who didn’t know, well, I got that.”
It was a different time.
“Back then, the police didn’t enforce things like that,” he said with a shrug.
Young Jacque Prather had a drive to make money, something that almost always came in handy, but never more so than when he was 15 years old and heard his mother crying.
“She was behind with payments to the bank for the house, the car and the café,” he said. “All were on one loan.”
Her payments were a little less than $50 a month, and she was about to lose all she had.
“I had saved some money over the years that she knew nothing about,” he said.
The day after he found his mother crying, Prather made her cry again. This time, they were tears of a different sort because he gave her all he had, $137.52.
“She broke down and cried as this would almost get her caught up with the payments,” he said.
During his childhood and teenage years, Prather worked when many others his age got to play. Those days might not have been as carefree as they were for some, but they certainly had their compensations.
“That’s the way it was then,” he said.