RIVERBANK — Lucy Alcala spent part of her 1920s childhood living by the tracks, in a house fashioned out of a pair of boxcars.
Her father worked for the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railroad, which allowed its Mexican-born employees to use cars no longer needed on the line. They piped in drinking water, planted gardens outside and made decent homes out of the discarded property.
There were about a dozen boxcars put out for the workers to live in, said Alcala, now 94 and a prominent resident of the town, in a Tuesday morning talk at the Riverbank Historical Museum.
The event, part of the monthly Memories Day series, shined a light on the time, from about 1910 to 1950, when Riverbank was a major hub for railroad operations and maintenance. It also provided a glimpse into the home life of the families who lived in the old cars.
Alcala recalled how people grew corn, chilies and herbs for meals that at times included home-raised pork. The ladies often wore hats, high heels and gloves while out in public.
A lot of people called us indigents, but we werent indigents, Alcala said.
Boxcars houses were not unique to Riverbank, and these days, people can make homes out of the containers that are switched between trucks, trains and cargo ships.
But boxcars have special meaning in this town, where numerous freight and passenger trains still pass through each day and three of the main streets are named Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe.
The since-vanished homes were at the southwest intersection of the tracks and Patterson Road, close to a passenger depot and maintenance roundhouse that also are gone. The homes had kitchens and windows but no electricity. Outhouses and shower rooms provided for other needs.
We liked it because we could wander all over the fields, clear over to the ice plant (near the rail complex), Alcala said.
The family lived in the home for about five years, then moved to a conventional house nearby.
The talk was part of the Riverbank Historical Societys effort to showcase the Mexican strands in the citys history. Alcala has been working with daughter Yolanda Guider to chronicle families in the first wave, about 1900 to 1930.
Alcala was born in the Mexican state of Chihuahua to Ernest and Maria Angeles. She moved with them to Texas and later Kansas before they ended up in Riverbank in 1925. She would go on to be the first Riverbank girl of Mexican descent to graduate from Oakdale High School, before there was a Riverbank High.
Alcala worked at Riverbank Pharmacy and as a bilingual education aide, attendance clerk and truant officer at Riverbank High. She retired, then was an aide at California Avenue School for a few years.
Alcala has a long record of community service, including the Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, The Salvation Army, Riverbank Christian Food Sharing and the Historical Society. She was Riverbank Citizen of the Year in 2000.
Tuesdays talk drew a few dozen people, some of them with ties to the boxcar neighborhood of long ago. Riverbank native Georgia Jacobsen, who now lives in Salida, said her late mother, Lupe Ulloa, lived there as a girl in the 1920s.
Jacobsen also mentioned The Boxcar Children, a fictional series for young people that debuted in 1924 and tells the story of four orphans who create such a home.
My mother used to read it to me, she said.
Bee staff writer John Holland can be reached at email@example.com or (209) 578-2385.