Where The Tigers Roamed Free: Growing Up in Mansfield, Texas

By Jason S. Sullivan, 07-30-21

This essay was written for the “This Is Us” campaign, a Mansfield History Project.


Summary – I was born in Arlington but grew up in Mansfield. I lived or worked in Mansfield for 37 years, from 1983-2020. I remember the town as a safe place to grow up, and later, as a nice place to work and live. Maybe that’s all that really matters.


Table of Contents

  • This Is Us | a Mansfield History Project
  • Nearly a lifetime in Mansfield
  • Riding bicycles, playing outside, and smelling pickles?
  • The big city next door
  • Schools
  • Jobs
  • Businesses back then
  • Youth isn’t always idyllic
  • Mansfield, Texas today
  • Old memories
  • A note from the author

This Is Us | a Mansfield History Project

In 2020, Mansfield, Texas, celebrated the 130th anniversary of the city’s incorporation. As COVID-19 postponed or canceled many of the festivities, the celebration continued into 2021. The Mansfield Historic Landmark Commission, Mansfield Public Library, and Mansfield Historical Museum and Heritage Center collaborated to sponsor “This Is Us.” It’s a community project seeking stories from former and current residents. The project is a reminder that historic preservation goes beyond places and events — it also involves everyday people and their stories.

Nearly a lifetime in Mansfield

I was born in Arlington in 1983. I grew up in Mansfield and lived there for 24 years. I then moved to Arlington but still spent another 13 years working in Mansfield. That’s 37 years living or working in Mansfield — it’s a long time, especially when you’re only 38 years old. I spent nearly my whole life so far in Mansfield — living, working, or both. I consider both Mansfield and Arlington to be my hometown, in a dual-citizenship kind of way.

Riding bicycles, playing outside, and smelling pickles?

For most of our time in Mansfield, my family lived near Walnut Creek and Debbie Lane, across from the tennis courts at the old high school. It was a quiet neighborhood and had many families with young kids. My parents still live there. The neighborhood still looks the same, although the trees stretch closer to the sky than they used to. We were middle class, although I never heard that term growing up.

Mansfield was a town where you could play in your front yard with the neighborhood kids and ride your bike until dark. That’s (mostly) all a kid needs, and it still gives me the fondest memories.

“Be back before dark!” my mom would call out as my brother and I peddled our bicycles down the driveway, off again on another adventure. We always made it back before dark, although sometimes we’d lose track of time — or went farther than we were supposed to — and had to race home to beat the sunset.

The greatest place to ride our bicycles was at the high school parking lot across the street from our house. It was often totally empty in the summer and became our own private adventure park. It was an endless parking lot where we could race our bicycles. There were also curbs, speedbumps, and stairs — all kinds of makeshift ramps for us to test our courage. We would ride in the maze of sidewalks and accessibility ramps and weave around and through the different buildings. It was where the tigers roamed free — or at least the tiger cubs — we wouldn’t be Mansfield Tigers until much later. Years after the bicycle adventures, my dad taught me to drive a car — well, a pickup truck, this is Texas — in that same parking lot.

The old high school parking lot is now a busy complex, with two schools, MISD police buildings, and a park. The parking lot is no longer as wide open as it once was; it’s partitioned into different sections. Kids today wouldn’t be able to race across the parking lot on their bikes like we used to!

We also rode our bikes in our neighborhood and in the “neighborhood above us.” One of our streets, Red Oak, had a hill that leads into a much larger neighborhood. Riding our bikes up the hill was worth it as we could pick up some speed going back down. Sometimes we’d do a few cycles up and down the hill before continuing on our way. We would snake through the neighborhood above us and eventually get to the soccer fields that were on Debbie Lane. That was also a fun place to ride, but not as much as the high school parking lot. (I suppose with that one, the journey was better than the destination.) The soccer fields are long gone, replaced with pavement and “progress.” There’s a hotel, restaurants, and a shopping center, but personally, I liked the soccer fields better. And, the “hill” that I thought was so arduous as a kid isn’t actually very steep at all, especially in a car. Either it’s not as “hilly” as it used to be, or it just felt intimidating when I was a kid. I think it’s the latter.

At home, we played sports in the front yard and driveway: basketball, football, soccer, and even street hockey. I wouldn’t call us athletic, though, far from it. Nonetheless, we practically lived outside during the summer.

I sometimes heard the train’s whistle at night from my bedroom as it came through town. That almost seems unbelievable because the closest tracks are by present-day Rose Park — more than two miles away. Mansfield was a smaller and quieter town back then, though, and I suppose the sound could have traveled that far if unobstructed. Maybe I imagined the whole thing or heard something else, but it’s such a vivid memory.

I later remember the aroma of pickles. I suppose it was the vinegar that would waft through town. You certainly knew when you were getting close to the pickle factory!

The big city next door

Growing up, Arlington was always the big city next door, and in a way, it still is. We would go there often, sometimes for basics like food, shopping, or entertainment. Neither of my parents worked in Mansfield; both worked in Arlington. I can’t imagine that there were too many job opportunities in Mansfield at that time.

The voyage to Arlington back then felt much longer. Cooper Street was the main route to get there, from where we lived, and I recall it being a rural two-lane road, with little to see from the backseat along the way. Going to Arlington was often an all-day excursion, and we would pack a cooler with drinks and snacks!

We went to Interlochen in Arlington to see the Christmas lights many times as a kid. I went begrudgingly, mainly because it was such a long drive to get there, but I always liked to see the lights. Back then, it felt like nearly every house participated, but that probably wasn’t the case.

Six Flags was always fun. I was surprised to learn that there were “tourists” there. Who are all these strange people at our park? I thought it was just for us. The Runaway Mine Train was my favorite ride back then, and it still is.

Schools

I attended J.L. Boren Elementary School and still remember the names of my teachers. The school is still there, although they tore it down recently and remodeled it. They were using portable buildings, or “portables,” back when I went there, so it was already getting too small for the demand.

I later went to Mary Orr Intermediate School (5th-6th), Worley Middle School (7th-8th), and graduated from Mansfield High School (9th-12th.) I graduated from high school 20 years ago. Where did the time go?

At that time, Mansfield High School had a North Campus and a South Campus. Students would drive (or uncoolly take the bus) between campuses, depending on where your classes were located. The South Campus is now Wester Middle School, while the North Campus is now Summit High School. When I graduated, there was only one — Mansfield High School, Go Tigers! — but today, there are five high schools and a few other alternative education options. (It feels funny to say, “Go Tigers!” I didn’t have much school spirit back then.)

One of my high school English teachers, Ms. Rob, had a profound impact on me. We read The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck in school that year. Ms. Rob — I think short for Robinson — brought the book to life with her passion and insight in our class discussions. She would read passages from the book with such emotion; it was like watching a prominent actress on stage in a dramatic play. We read other books that year, but The Grapes of Wrath became my favorite. It still is, and I think of her fondly when I re-read it. She was a vivacious woman, and her enthusiasm was contagious.

Jobs

I worked in Mansfield for about 20 years. My first job was at Dairy Queen, and yes, it’s still there. Nothing against Dairy Queen, but it was a terrible first job.

I then worked at the Winn-Dixie grocery store, which is now a 24 Hour Fitness. It’s intriguing to see what people buy at a grocery store. You see how we’re all basically the same and yet, vastly different. It was a nice place to work.

I most recently worked at Mouser Electronics, a worldwide distributor of electronic components. I consider it my first “real job.” I had roles in Sales Support, Customer Service, and Quality Assurance. It was a good place to work, but after nearly 15 years, it was time to move on. Mouser continues to grow and is one of the largest employers in Mansfield besides MISD.

Businesses back then

My family was habitual in the places we visited. Maybe it was because certain streets or parts of town had more to offer than others. If it wasn’t on or near Walnut Creek, Broad Street, or Main Street, we didn’t go there much. That was basically the area of town we stayed in. Where was the rest of Mansfield, and why didn’t we go to other parts of town? Today, growth is evident all over Mansfield, but I remember it being more clustered and spotty back then. Walnut Creek felt like the main artery of town, but that might be because it’s where we lived.

I can only think of a few businesses in Mansfield still around from when I grew up. It shows how much the town has changed over the years. I believe that McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Braum’s, and Dairy Queen were around back then. Cha Cha’s Mexican Restaurant opened in 1989. A new restaurant in town was exciting, and I must admit, a Mexican restaurant seemed exotic at the time. Even today, drive-by Cha Cha’s on a Friday or Saturday night, and their parking lot is packed!

The Antique Mall of Mansfield also opened in 1989. I went there often as a kid with my parents and grandparents, as well as other antique stores. My dad had a booth there for a short while but didn’t sell too much. (I think his prices were a tad higher than people wanted to pay.) Antique stores are similar to local history museums, in a way, and maybe that’s where my interest in the past started.

I’m sure other businesses survived, but I also believe that I was in Mansfield longer than most of its current people and places. That’s a strange thought. While not businesses, the Rock Gym, Geyer Field, and James McKnight Park were around back then.

Some businesses downtown have been there for years; however, much of the area has gone through a revitalization. I hope downtown continues to thrive, as it’s an integral part of the city’s past, present, and future. I like mom-and-pop stores or small businesses. I’d much rather go there than a chain store or large corporation.

Yet, I also recall other businesses that are long gone. There were places like Lee’s Grocery Store, Winn-Dixie, the video rental store (M-Movies, I think, with their five VHS tapes for $5), Ray’s Pharmacy, and Kow Bell Rodeo. Also, there were eateries like Pizza Inn, Rodeo City Café, The Fillin’ Station, and Beefer’s, to name a few.

We were at the Pizza Inn buffet religiously. Rodeo City Café was one of the first sit-down restaurants I remember going to. Does anyone else remember the chicken fried steak being so big that it would hang over the side of the plate? Although Rodeo City Café was near Kow Bell Rodeo, I don’t think we ever went to the rodeo. I guess we weren’t the rodeo type, although I often wonder what it was like there. Too late now. It’s long gone, and Summit High School stands in its place.

Walmart and Kroger were neighbors, and it wasn’t a Walmart Supercenter either. There was an Eckerd’s over there too. They were at 157 and 287, where the Lowe’s is now. There was a time when hardly anything was along 287, so that area has definitely grown.

It’s astonishing to look at Mansfield on Google Maps and see the number of businesses and housing developments in town. It wasn’t like that when I was growing up. Of course, we didn’t have Google Maps back then either.

Youth isn’t always idyllic

While this essay has been nostalgic and carefree so far, I also remember a few things that weren’t. I debated whether to include these, but it’s part of our history and my youth.

The first was the murder of Adrianne Jones, age 16, and a student at Mansfield High School. The second was the kidnapping and murder of Amber Hagerman, who was 9 years old and lived in Arlington. The two events were less than six weeks apart, December 1995 and January 1996, and received widespread media coverage. (Adrianne’s story was later made into a TV movie, while Amber’s story led to the Amber Alert notification system.) I was 12 years old at the time. It was hard to understand what happened, not only because of my young age. Mansfield and Arlington didn’t have much violent crime back then, and it was shocking that it happened so close to home.

I didn’t know either of them, but I went to school with one of Adrianne’s brothers. We hardly knew each other, though. Amber’s story actually had more of an impact on me because she was the same age as my younger brother. She was abducted while riding her bike, which my brother and I did all the time. What happened to Amber could have happened to either of us.

Both events affected me, but their family and friends obviously went through way more than I did. A few years later, though, a personal event had a much more significant impact on me.

In June 2000, right before our senior year at Mansfield High School, my best friend Scott Davis passed away at age 17. It was either complication from mono (mononucleosis) or the early stages of leukemia. Whichever it was, no one saw it coming. I was a pallbearer at his funeral. I only knew him for a few years, but his life — and especially his death — is something I still think of today.

Mansfield, Texas today

In 2014, Money Magazine ranked Mansfield as #17 on their list of “Best Places To Live” in the U.S. Today, Mansfield is a growing suburb in North Texas with more than 70,000 residents. It wasn’t always that way. When my parents moved here around 1980, the town had a population of 8,000 people. It was a small town and hard to find, even on a map.

When I go back to Mansfield, I like visiting the downtown area. I recently went to the Mansfield Historical Museum and Heritage Center and will definitely return soon. The Man House Museum recently opened, and I want to check it out. I shamefully have never been to Farr Best Theater and must rectify that soon. Nearby, Mansfield City Cemetery also offers a glimpse at local history, and I’d like to explore there some more too.

I still like visiting the Antique Mall of Mansfield, while La Gondola Italian Restaurant, a newer place in town, is where my wife and I go for special occasions.

The Mansfield that I grew up in looks much different from the one in 2021. Ralph Man, Julian Feild, and the area’s other early settlers couldn’t have imagined how it is today. I can relate. I don’t see Mansfield as a large suburb. It’s still the small town where I grew up — and it always will be.

Old memories

I tried to be accurate with this essay, yet focused more on memories than research. This is the way that I remember Mansfield. I was also a kid and probably more concerned with my world than the actual world going on around me.

To quote Tom Hanks in Forrest Gump — “You know, it’s funny what a young man recollects.” I don’t know if the things I remember about Mansfield help define it or distinguish it from any other small town. But, in reflecting, I see Mansfield as a safe place to grow up and later as a nice place to work and live. Maybe that’s all that really matters. Not only did I grow up in Mansfield, but I grew up with it as well. As such, memories become intertwined — a few things stand out, others blend together, while most fade away. That’s what happened with Mansfield and me.

I always thought I would leave Mansfield, and it would just be a footnote in my world travels. That hasn’t happened yet. I almost hate to admit it, but Mansfield is more important to me than I thought.


A note from the author

While I didn’t have an interest in local history growing up, I do now. I’m a member of the Arlington Historical Society and plan to join the Mansfield Historical Society soon. I also serve on Arlington’s Landmark Preservation Commission. I know firsthand that historic preservation can be challenging, as stories and information can get lost with time. You also have to deal with apathy and progress, which might even be the greater enemies.

Additionally, I don’t know that many people my age would take the time to write something like this. My experience adds to the historic preservation efforts of my generation. (Mrs. Petty, my fourth-grade teacher, would be proud to know that the writing skills she taught me paid off.) Besides, someone has to document these things. When you pass away, facts can usually be researched but often not personal stories or insights.

I thought about shortening this essay, but this is the first time I’ve written about growing up in Mansfield. It might be the only time I do this — although I enjoyed it — so I wanted to go as deep as I could while the memories were still rattling around in there somewhere. I’ve wanted to write about Mansfield, and the “This Is Us” campaign was a just cause to finally do it. And, I’ve considered writing a local history book about Mansfield, so this essay could be a decent introduction to that project.

To whoever reads this — if anyone ever does — I hope you got as much out of reading it as I did writing it. Who knows, maybe this will end up in a time capsule and read 50 or 100 years from now.

I’ll leave you with the insight of world traveler Anthony Bourdain. He summed it up perfectly in the first episode of his show No Reservations: “We all grow up somewhere. It isn’t so much the place where we’re born, as it is the place we come of age.”

For me, that place was Mansfield, Texas.

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