“I like to have people tell me stories,” Isaac Martinez said as we left Karen’s Cafe. “When I see a homeless man, I tell him, ‘I’ll give you $5, but you have to tell me a story.’ ”
Isaac, who grew up on Ogden’s west side, wanted me to tell him stories, too, but I bought lunch and listened instead.
When a guy tells you he saw a cow that got off the hook and ran around a west Ogden slaughterhouse after they cut off its skin because they didn’t kill it first, you don’t interrupt.
He swears that happened.
“Talk about nightmare, but that was very common,” he said.
Those were good old days, the 1960s, before OSHA. “These guys (in the slaughterhouse) would get hurt very bad” because the floor was covered in gore, and worse.
Historians obsess about 25th Street, but the rest of the city was hardly a Sunday school parade.
Ogden was a rough town, west Ogden even worse. The packing plants and slaughterhouses were right next to the homes of the people who worked in them.
Isaac now lives in Bountiful. He’s collecting the stories of west Ogden as a personal project.
He sees 1969 as a pivotal year in the city’s history. That was the year of the Golden Spike Centennial and the moon landing.
“We were headed to the moon, the railroad was dead and up the road we were celebrating the Golden Spike,” he said.
“And right down the road they were developing Armageddon,” the ICBMs at what is now ATK Space Systems that would deliver the nuclear missiles of World War III.
Isaac watched all this from west Ogden. He lived on the wrong side of the tracks and knew it. The point was driven home when the Ogden School District shut down his neighborhood school, Hopkins School. Isaac got bused to Ben Lomond High, where the city’s rich kids went.
“Suddenly, guys who saw three families sharing one car would see a kid in high school with a new Corvette,” he said. “We started understanding, how it is we’re poor.”
Isaac’s experiences are unique, even for someone raised in west Ogden. He is Mexican, a Jehovah’s Witness living in a Catholic, Mexican, Dutch and Italian neighborhood. He didn’t even get along with the Catholic Mexicans.
But life, he said, “was the most beautiful thing in the world. We had access to the Weber River, we called it the woods, and that’s where all the hobos lived. As I’ve grown up, I’ve started to appreciate that the woods were a kind of Galápagos Island,” cut off from the rest of the world by the railroad, the river and west Ogden itself.
The woods now are Fort Buenaventura, a county park, but back then the kids would hop on trains and toss coal to hobos camped in the woods.
“In exchange, the hobos would go to the dump and find cool toys, (and) bring them to us,” he said.
They found other stuff in the dump, too.
Back then, he said, the city animal control officer carried a steel bar. Dogs that were euthanized were dumped in the landfill in west Ogden, but the dogs weren’t always dead.
That’s what the steel bar was for.
“Sometimes there were puppies still alive. We’d beg him to not kill those puppies,” he said.
“And that’s how we got our dogs.”