An interview with Homer Piper


Material Information

An interview with Homer Piper
Physical Description:
53 minutes
Homer Piper
Samuel Proctor Oral History Program
Publication Date:


Subjects / Keywords:
Panama Canal


General Note:
Interviewed by Diana Dombrowski

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Source Institution:
University of Florida
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All applicable rights reserved by the source institution and holding location.
Resource Identifier:
PCM 046 Homer Piper 7-8-2011
PCM 046
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The Foundation for The Gator Nation An Equal Opportunity Institution Samuel Proctor Oral History Program College of Liberal Arts and Sciences Program Director : Dr. Paul Ortiz Office Manager : Tamarra Jenkins Technology Coordinator : Deborah Hendrix 241 Pugh Hall PO Box 115215 Gainesville, FL 32611 352 392 7168 Phone 352 846 1983 Fax The Samuel Proctor Oral History Program (SPOHP) was founded by Dr. Samuel Proctor at the University of Florida in 1967. Its original projects were collections centered around Florida history with the purpose of preserving eyewitness accounts of economic, social, political, religious and intellectual life in Florida and the South In the 45 years since its inception, SPOHP has collected over 5,000 interviews in its archives. Transcribed interviews are available through SPOHP for use by research scholars, students, journalists, and other interested groups. Material is frequently used for theses, dissertations, articles, books, documentaries, museum displays, and a variety of other public uses. As standard oral history practice dictates, SPOHP recommends that researchers refer to both the transcript and audio of an interview when c onducting their work. A selection of interviews are available online here through the UF Digital Collections and the UF Smathers Library system. Oral history interview transcripts available on the UF Digital Collections may be in draft or final format. SP OHP transcribers create interview transcripts by listen ing to the original oral history interview recording and typing a verbatim document of it. The transcript is written with careful attention to reflect original grammar and word choice of each interview ee; subjective or editorial changes are not made to their speech. The draft trans cript can also later undergo a later final edit to ensure accuracy in spelling and format I nterviewees can also provide their own spelling corrections SPOHP transcribers ref er to the Merriam program specific transcribing style guide, accessible For more information about SPOHP, visit or call the Samuel Proctor Oral History Program office at 352 392 7168. October 2013


PCM 046 Interviewee: Homer Piper Interviewer: Diana Dombrowski Date: July 8, 2011 D: Panama Canal Conferenc e here with Mr. Piper. Could you tell us your full name, please? P: My full name is Homer W. Piper. D: Okay, alr ight. What was it you were telling me about you and your brother? P: Yeah, well, my brother and I of course, he was eight years older than me, see? Then there were two other brothers born in Panama. He was born in the United States. When I was conceived, then my mother went to the United Stat es for me to be born. D: Really? From Panama? P: Yeah. D: Oh, wow. Okay. P: rth, the doctors and my dad. So she had women trouble. D : Oh, I see.


PCM 046; Piper; Page 2 P: Okay, so D: P: for men. D: Oh, okay. So they had housing for single men. P: Right. D: Oh, I see. Okay. Just checking. [Laughter] Okay. P: And they had hou ses for married people So, my father was not married at the in Cristbal on that date in 1910. So then, he came back to the United States in 1911 to marry my mother, who was Ella S. Piper. My dad was Frank L. Piper. My mother was Ella S. Piper. Then after that, they came back down to the Panama Canal because they h ad to find a place to live and everything else like that. They lived in Crist bal the first Cristbal. There was two, new Crist bal. It was the old Cristbal and they lived in let me see here n knew where it was myself until I found out there. My mother and fa ther lived at Coln Beach. Then my brother was the first born, so then my mother went back to the United States so he was born.


PCM 046; Piper; Page 3 D: I heard you had to pass through Ellis Island? P: Yes. You D: This is great. Oh, my gosh. P: ers. Glenn, that would be n through. We just shortened it here, but this is all about when they left, the dates, the manifest number, and everything like that. D: This is really comprehensive. P: [Laughter] D: Yeah, this is great. P: going to Ellis Island. Evidently, the Canal Zone people had made arrangements that these are American c D: Like immigrants, yeah. P: So then what they did, they decided that we would stay on the boat. There would be a quarantine man come in the boat and look at all of our passports and all of


PCM 046; Piper; Page 4 our signatures, verifying who we were, and then we docked. I was born in 1923, I bring me back down there until after 1924. well, first I should tell you this. When my mother and father got married and they went down there, there are pictures of my mother and father going in the local canoes that they had down the Chagres River. The C hagres River is what furnish es all the water for the Panama Canal. Here they are, and they were going to the mouth of the Her s my dad here; h wooden dugouts you know, cut down a tree and hollow it out and then they D: Okay. P: Then, this is where we lived in Ridge Road. This is the administration building, and directly across from the administration building was Wood Road It was part of a peninsula that came out off the mountain. At first, that was a cemetery. T hen when they decided D: Is that your rabbit? [Laughter]


PCM 046; Piper; Page 5 P: Yeah. I had to have a ra bbit. And our houses were wood, screened in, and the the point of th we could go out and we could overlook see it way back there. The built a lot of things. He built a fishing boat without riggers on it for deep sea fishing. D: Whoa. I heard the fishing was great in Panama. P: ey would go to and catch take care of that part. D: Are you donating the copies of these photos? P: No, I just D: You just brought them. Okay. P : Yeah I just brought them. D: Okay.


PCM 046; Piper; Page 6 P: For my nephew. [Laughter] But anyhow, here. This is where we lived, except this happens to be Corozal Cemetery. They moved building, and this is Ridge Road. They moved this cemetery from he re, rebuilt it up again, and they put this cemetery over here in Corozal and called it the Corozal Cemetery. This is all landfill; this is a swamp t they were building this at the same time they were building the locks. And i t was all there. But, as I in the single bachelor quarters on Second Street and Cristbal. D: would you mind if I just took a picture? P: Oh, no. You can take these anywhere you want and get copies made. D: Okay. Sorry to interrupt. P: Yeah, no, you can have Okay. So then anyhow, and you can see this is the was still in the United States. This is the street that I lived on. What do you think of it? Frank. D: And he sent that to her? P: more pict ures of the same thing. He said, th is picture you can see the hotel


PCM 046; Piper; Page 7 s. To me it was looking up from Coln. what I said, it was Coln Beach. D: Yeah. P: Well, here he just wrote Coln because Coln Beach was a lmost in the same area as Cristbal w as. They were all on the same island piece of land, I should say. Then there again, this is the street he lived on. What do you think of it? These were the bachelor quarters. These were all men. They cou ld be all women, too. B that says, t his is where I stayed in the evenings. I am now a member well, my house is right in back of this building. This was a Y.M.C.A. You see the what do you call those? Where you have a nice D: Gazebo? P: o. What do you do with a gazebo? You play music in it outside, see? But these are bachelor quarters. Okay. So where I had my meals. That might be a duplicate of what it was. This is the I.C.C.


PCM 046; Piper; Page 8 Hotel in Cristbal Canal Zone. Now t is 1910. This is the street that I live on; what do you think of it? This is still 1910. e inf ormation that you can read. I was able to put here. When she was still alive, she wrote this and sent it to Quinn for a certificate. After living in Coln and after that th en, th ey went to Corozal. In Corozal, this they had to live in Corozal. My dad took the railroad from Corozal, which is right up by that set of locks there, to work every day. e quote here it says that th e Gramlick s, they were there. T hat t he Pipers and the fun we had together when we lived in Cemetery Ridge. They had two cemeteries: one in Corozal, but they moved this to Corozal, see? But in the old days it was called Cemetery Ridge. Then it was moved and houses were put there. But this is some of the statements and re cords that I have and everything else like that. Then, as I said, this is the boat he that we lived in. Like this, this was our backyard here and over here, so we had a great big backyard all the way like that Then, of course, this is Pearl Island from the boat. As I said, this was going down the Chagres River to the mouth of the


PCM 046; Piper; Page 9 river in their what did they call those? them. D: Canoes? P: Canoes. Yeah, a typ that about my family. And then we lived on Ridge Road which is in Balboa Heigh ts, and here is the Ridge Road G ang. This is a list of the children that lived some of them; there were more, but this is only of that. Here is a diagram here: this is the administration building that you saw in those pictures, and then from the administration the road went up like that. It divided; there was a tree here. The road c ontinued like that. But Ridge Road was here and these were the houses that were on Ridge Road. D: Okay. So you lived in one of those? P: Where all those other pictures that you saw. Okay. Then the road continued back up, and when you got up here, that was houses along here; there were some houses along here. But if you stayed on the road, then hill again. This is Gorgas, down tow ards Gorgas Hospital wher e the Army hospital was. A nyhow, those are the things that I have that tell how I lived there and everything else that


PCM 046; Piper; Page 10 Florida at the university, when they get all the stuff moved down there, I need to something that [19]24 was it Anyhow, that was my life then, was when I was born after here. Went down there, and we live d on, as I said, Ridge Road. I lived there until World War II, when I left there and came to the United States to join the service, the Air Force. Living down there and doing things, we had a lot of things we could do. We had a this but one thing we did was this administration building here, it was concrete all the way around. In the summertime when it was not raining or anything else like that, we would skate around it. In the back was the post office of this administration buil ding. And o f This is on top of a great big h here with a piece of land there, the skates. They were metal. So, we wore the concr there until they refurbished it. But we skated here every weekend during the summer months, whi ch was not the rainy months, which lasts only three months. Anything else that I did, we had an area further down here in Balboa where we had a kindergarten. So we went to kindergarten there. They had a little place for water for you to paddle in and walk


PCM 046; Piper; Page 11 gymnasium or something like that, but we called it the play shed. It was big enough. It had a nice floor in it where they played basketball a nd volleyball under cover. Then we had field places where they play ed baseball, softball and hardball. Then a little further up we had the clubhouse where you had a bowling alley and where you had a movie theater, where you had a restaurant and things like that. It was called a clubhouse. We would go there and swim. One of the men that ran the pool where you could swim, he made a habit of getting all the young ladies that just had children and maybe a year or two old bring the children to the pool, teach us how to swim. So he would teach us how to swim while the women we nt across the street to the commissary to buy their groceries and things like that, see ? Another thing that we did was when I was in high school, and in the seventh and eighth grade, I played in the band. I learned to play an instrument and march and everything like that for the game. We had a great big field that had a stadium, see? We played there. On Fourth of July, an A rmy base there. After my mother and father, who lived there, then it became an army base. and th ey had a great big field where they played the Army band So earn how to play the instrument and when to come in and when to get out of playing the music. Then on Fourth of July we had a great big parade and everything else, so there was the entertainment for the July Fourth deal. They


PCM 046; Piper; Page 12 had the Army. Now o ne of the other things is, is those people that played in the band, a l ot of them formed regular dance bands because we had four socia l places where you danced. Well they needed music for dance so there was always some people from our orchestra and b and at the schools and there was alway s older men that played in the Army ban d. There would be two, thr ee or four of those in the band too because we played the band But the A rmy had bands; that was their job, see? D: [Laughter] Yeah. P: Besides fighting. So then anyhow, we had a lot of deals like that. We had to go into -the line. Fourth of July Avenue was the difference between the Republic of Panama and the Canal Zone. The social stuff like that was there, because you see, we were on government property. The government has golf courses and it you dance and everything else like get all dressed up nice. The people in the Canal Zone helped build those places for s ocial reasons, okay? T hen that was other things. Then I would walk from Balboa Heights over to Ancon, and that was starting to go down this road here, which was where the Gorgas Hospital w as. and play with some of my friends the re. I could also play with some of my friends in Balboa, which was down here from where I lived


PCM 046; Piper; Page 13 up here. See I had two places I could go with friends and play cops and robbers and all the stuff like that when I was young. D: Cool that sounds fun. That soun ds like a great place to grow up. P: And the other thing is that we were ca pable of going into the interior to the beaches. The beaches were on Panama, very dirty so there was always somebody that was old enough to drive a car we always carried a machete with us because you usually had to walk through a ed a machete with drink while swimming in salt water. So s omebody who was strong enough would climb up one of the palm trees, get the coconut, cut the coconuts down, and then w he machete to open the coconut and get the water out of the coconut s So we never carried water with us at all when we went into what we called the interior, would be the Republic of Panama. There was things like that, then we had a beach that was closer to where we lived where we could get on the ferryboat and go across the canal and walk a little mile or two. There was another little one over her e. We could do that o urselves, w or you to


PCM 046; Piper; Page 14 change your clothes and y ou had to bring a towel and everything else like that. pop or anyth ing like that at that beach. So those were the activities. And at Christmas time, we were always collecting all the Christmas trees so we could have a great big fire. D: Yeah, I heard about those. P: Yeah, a fire down here where the play shed was and the baseball fie lds, which were over here. Then and take them away. So movies and s wimming and this other stuff at the play shed. If your father or your mother belonged to the Shriners and my dad belonged to Masons and my mother belonged to the O.E.S, Eastern Star that was another social outlet for the older mothers and fathe rs. They were just like you would have here, Shriners. Masons is the same thing as Shriners. D: Oh, yeah. Okay. P: or as I said, they would have their social meetings and everything else like that. T he n they would usually


PCM 046; Piper; Page 15 have that. We had the Order of DeMolay, which is our social outlet, the children, high school age. The other organization we had were the Boy Scouts, the Cub once a month or so or som cout meeting or a Cub Scout meeting. My brother was eig ht years older than me so th erefore he was older and he climbed the ladder faster. He was a Sea Scout; we had a Sea Scout. As I said, Camp Fire Girls, everything else like that for the girls. Those except church activities. We had quite a f ew churches there and because the people that lived there were so many diff erent Protestant denominations. Because enough for t he different denominations. So then they had formed an organizati on that was called the Union Church of the Canal Zone. D: P: Well if you live in a farm area in the United States, your farmer is here, your one might be a different Protestant here. Well they want to get together in a church, so they build one church. Usually the Catholic Church was all separate. So then that was fine, but the Catholic Church in the United States, the farmers, they built next to the Protestant churches because then the church would be in


PCM 046; Piper; Page 16 the same area for both Catholics and Protestants. Well this w as the Union Church, which was all of the m, and this is an article about it. These are some of that, but my dad r high school, and then there ag ain, when you get into these, you get into where you have different people. Like West Indian, they helped build the canal. The Chinese helped build the canal. All those like that helped build the c anal. The French Martinique natives helped to build the canal. And in these, like in Balboa, we had right next to us we were here, right here wa s La Boca. They were part of our at the white man did, if you want to go by color. So they had their own high school, they had their own grade school, their teachers were all from the federal government, educated. It was the same way with us except here it would be white. But if there wa s enough people that were Chinese and living in an area, they would have the same thing. They would have a grade school, they would have a kindergarten. We may separate it, but they all had the same facilities that like that Because w hat happened was, is some of the colo red people, like in Balboa, in La Boca, some of them were highly educated now that they


PCM 046; Piper; Page 17 came to our high school. So you got used to having those nationality differences in our school. The white people in the Canal Zone that were there were colorblind. We all were together, you see? And it would be the same thing in church. It w ould be the same thing. There were some colored people that were in this was a white church, a Protestant church. But if they were Protestant and there was only a small maybe six or seven or eight they could come here if ter what color they were. D: P: So anyhow, that was the way it was set up. We were, as I said, not conscious of along with s the way they were set up. The group would be here. They wo uld have their own commissary, t hey w ould have their own clubhouse, t the same kind of food that the white man did. D: Hmm. Yeah. Yeah. They had their own culture. P: They were Jamaican, they were West Indian, the y were French people, natives. So t hey had everything separate. But when I came to high school, ten chances to one people. Those that were continuing education and going into the


PCM 046; Piper; Page 18 the Panamanians. They only went as high as the eighth grade in their system. Well if Panamanian, they came from Spain. Okay. D: If they could pay tuition. P: If they were high enough in the education themselves. I graduated with a lot of those fellas and the girls. That was the way it was; it was set up that way. But anyhow, as I sai ou go out into the area of the c anal where the people had to repair the canal and everything else, the A rmy was right there. It was the same way: the ch ildren of the army people, they would have up to seventh grade. Seventh grade, they got on the train, came into Balboa to the seventh grade. They joined us, and they graduated from high school, but they were army personnel. D: Yeah. There were a lot of different people there. P: Yeah. Now th e only thing is that the Army has this P.X. system, and so therefore lots of times they had the permission that they could come into where the white man was, even though they were white. But the A rmy had a P.X. system lots of times it was cheaper to buy it to the army base. All o ur governors were A rmy people, and head of the divisions in our working fields in the Panama Canal usually had a head man from the Army Engineers.


PCM 046; Piper; Page 19 But it was the white group who actually did all the work. These were engineers and they were always in the Army. They were moved around. And so t way it is. D: P: We did not have any now we had trouble with the Panamanians, but they were what you call the lower class Pan amanians. I mean, there was always riots but D: Yeah, in the Zone. P: Because most of the presidents of the Republic of Panama, they were highly educated people from Spain that came over from Spain back in the early centuries of history, like from Columbus time and all. I mean, they were highly educated people. They came from Portugal, they came from Italy. Some of them settled there. But their educational system only went as far as eighth grade But if they were smart enough that they could take seventh and eighth grade in high school, then they came in with us. Same way with the A rmy. You had the civilia ns, which were us, you had the A rmy, and then you had the local people, Panamanians. As I said, we also had the Chinese, we also had the Jamaicans, and they were all in the group. They never interchanged at all because the


PCM 046; Piper; Page 2 0 separated within the town. But they had the same thing, as I said before. They had their ow n movie hall, they had their restaurant, they had their own swimming enough people, then they were able to come in and join the white man [Laughter] if you want to make it sounds like th at. So as I said, we were colorblind. [Laughter] We grew up that way. D: Well, thank you for telling me your story. P: Well museum and everything els e like it all down at the Miami. T Because out of our newspaper. [END OF INTERVIEW] Transcribed by: Jessica Taylor, December 2, 2013 Audit Edited by: Liz Gray, Janu ary 22, 2014