PAINT CREEK, Tex.—In the early 1960s, at a tiny, rural school here in the rugged plains of West Texas, little Ricky Perry waged his first campaign. Seeking the office of Halloween King, he stocked up on penny candy at Ma’s convenience store and then doled it out to classmates.
“It was Rick’s first victory, and he won it with payola,” Wallar Overton, his old scoutmaster’s son, said with a chuckle.
Fifty years later, as Mr. Perry, 61 and a three-term Republican governor of Texas, embarks on a run for president, the tight-knit and traditionally Democratic community that first crowned him king no longer wholeheartedly embraces him even as Paint Creek anchors his origin story.
People here in Haskell County do understand Mr. Perry in a way few can, seeing the spirited, mischievous child in the brash, ambitious politician and recognizing how far this son of a dry-land cotton farmer has already traveled from a county with one stoplight.
But they also know that this town “too small to have a ZIP code,” in Mr. Perry’s words, propelled a restless farm boy whose disciplinarian father was a local power broker into a life of politics that fed off his roots while he moved beyond them and, some say, betrayed them.
Many in itty-bitty Paint Creek, with its 259 registered voters, are proud and protective of Mr. Perry, the ardent Eagle Scout and scrappy athlete dubbed “most popular” and “Future Homemakers of America Beau” by his class of 13.
But others here will never forgive Mr. Perry for switching to the Republican Party five years after they elected him as a Democrat to the Texas House of Representatives in 1984. And they are leery now of seeing Haskell County, with its graying population, ailing economy and drought-parched landscape, used as a bucolic backdrop for his self-promotion.
“He’s overdone that small-town-boy thing pretty well at this point,” said Bobby Tidwell, a retiree and self-described “Y.D.”—yellow-dog—Democrat. “He’s living in a mansion in Austin while folks here are worried about losing their farms.”
In his 2008 book, “On My Honor: Why the American Values of the Boy Scouts Are Worth Fighting For,” Mr. Perry writes of the simpler, slower rural lifestyle that, with its focus on family, hard work, church and “core decency,” incubated his conservative values.
His childhood hometown was simple and slow, although Mr. Perry’s metabolism almost always revved at a higher gear, friends said.
From the time he was 7 to his graduation at 18 , Mr. Perry attended school in a one-story building framed by mulberry trees on flat land where the whoosh of the wind is interrupted only by chattering blackbirds. Opposite the school sat the Methodist church, now shuttered, that the Perrys attended every Sunday. There was also a Baptist church.
And that was Paint Creek, where, for better or worse, everybody knew everybody
“If I misbehaved in class, Mom would find out about it before I got home,” Mr. Perry wrote, and his father would get the news on returning from the fields. “Dad believed in the pain principle. His leather belt was usually the delivery method of choice.”
Mr. Perry’s ancestors moved to Haskell County after his great-great-grandfathers fought with the Confederates in the Civil War. Interviewed for a local history called “Putting Paint Creek on the Map,” the governor’s grandfather Hoyt Perry said his family sank roots near the red clay banks of the creek in 1889.
“When I can first remember this land, it was all prairies with just a few mesquite,” Hoyt Perry said. “This whole country was covered with prairie dogs. I used to catch me a few and make pets out of them.”
Hoyt Perry said he farmed with mules on a ranch owned by another family. His son Ray, the governor’s father, became a tenant farmer, too, until he acquired some acreage of his own and combined it with leased property. Cotton, wheat and grain sorghum were the crops that could be coaxed from the dry land.
In 1950, when the governor was born, Haskell County had about 14,000 residents. (It has been losing population ever since and is now home to 5,899, according to the 2010 census.) A severe drought forced many to migrate in the early ’50s, but Ray and Amelia Perry held on. Ray helped make ends meet by working construction on a new dam; Amelia, a seamstress who made all her son’s clothes including his underwear until after he left for college, sewed in a lingerie factory for a while, neighbors said.
In early childhood, the governor and his older sister, Milla, lived with their parents in a simple though spacious wooden bungalow with a washtub on the porch. Later they moved into the modest brick ranch house, now flanked by towering American and Texas flags, where his parents still live.
“Governor Perry wasn’t born with a gold or silver spoon in his mouth,” said Don Ballard, 65, superintendent of the Paint Creek school district. “I mean, he never done without a meal. But he was not blessed with a multimillion-dollar inheritance neither.”
Like many boys in the area, Mr. Perry grew up alongside what people here refer to as “hired help.” Guadalupe Gonzales, a Mexican-American from San Antonio, was his father’s longtime ranch hand and lived with his family on the Perrys’ property.
“Mr. Perry had two hands at first—Little Lupe, which was my dad, and Big Lupe, who was from Old Mexico,” said Connie Lusk, 62. “My mother used to clean their house. But Ricky was, I don’t know, like one of my brothers.
“My dad used to take me and Ricky to the fields,” she said. “They had this little tractor with one little seat on each side, and we’d ride around and spray the Johnson grass,” a weed, with chemicals. “He was more into cattle, though. He liked riding horses.”
Mrs. Lusk sighed and smiled. She is now the janitor at the Paint Creek School and was taking a break from buffing the floor in a hallway adorned with a portrait of the governor. Looking up, she said, “I didn’t realize then that Ricky was so damn good-looking.”
In Paint Creek back in the 1950s, Mr. Perry and his friends roamed the fields, camped out in the pastures, played with Mr. Perry’s Shetland pony and shot—or shot at—rabbits. They started driving tractors at about age 10 before they became Boy Scouts, “and all the guys helped their daddies on the farm,” said Phyllis Coleman, a childhood friend.
Mr. Overton, 72, the late scoutmaster’s son, said the young Rick loved to play pranks and push limits. One winter night when he was 11, he sneaked into the Overtons’s yard to fish for crawdads with his friend Bob Earles.
“I caught them and told them they’d catch their death of cold,” Mr. Overton said. “Rick said, ‘Well, I’m not going to catch pneumonia because I got my underwear on, but Bob here is naked.’ “
Consulted for Mr. Perry’s scouting book, Mr. Overton said he enjoyed its reminiscences and its acknowledgment of his father. But he rolled his eyes at the governor’s depiction of a “war on the Scouts” being waged by atheists and “activist homosexuals.”
“I think there are a lot of good men who can’t be scoutmasters because they are gay,” Mr. Overton said, adding that he would not vote for Mr. Perry for president despite their personal ties.
In high school in Paint Creek, “every boy played six-man football or basketball, and every girl was a cheerleader, a twirler or in pep squad,” Mrs. Coleman said. “They were all in Future Farmers of America. Everybody did projects. Rick raised calves. My husband-to-be built a gun cabinet. It was that type of community: normal.”
Mr. Perry always charmed everybody’s mothers with his “Yes, ma’am, no, ma’ams,” childhood friends said, and with his ready humor.
“I was listening to him on TV the other day and got so tickled,” Mrs. Coleman said. “He said, yeah, he was for handgun control—‘use both hands.’ That was Ricky to a tee. He’s a jokester.”
Mr. Perry first met Anita Thigpen, a pretty doctor’s daughter who went on to become a nurse, at a piano recital when he was 8. They married 24 years later, in 1982, when he finally “wore down” his teenage “sweetheart” and persuaded her to be his wife, Mr. Perry wrote.
Judging by the school yearbooks, Mr. Perry, while “most athletic,” never made honor roll (although one former classmate does remember him on field trips reserved for the best students). “He’s not a genius, but he’s got problem-solving skills,” said Phil Coleman, a school classmate.
As a teenager, Mr. Perry spent much of his free time at a rustic waterfront camp on nearby Lake Stamford. “Old, slow-pokey Rick—I couldn’t get rid of him,” joked Twain Mickler, 76, whose family owned the camp. “He was a good kid. Not much of a fisherman—too impatient. Loved to waterski.”
Mr. Mickler said Mr. Perry, who as a young adult owned a single-engine plane and leased his piloting services, once flew him and Ray Perry to Alaska for a caribou hunting trip. “I got a small one, Ray got a big one, and Rick was a better airplane flier than a hunter,” he said.
It amuses him now, Mr. Mickler said, that the governor of Texas used to tell his mother that he aspired “to grow up just like me.” He added, with a half-smile, “I’m guessing he didn’t mean the drinking.”
About the time that Mr. Perry graduated from high school, his father was elected county commissioner and held on to the post for 28 years. Mr. Perry wrote in his book that his great-great-grandfather was county judge and that public service—some here call it a thirst for power and a steady salary—runs in the family.
Right about the time that Mr. Overton married, Commissioner Perry built a private, red-gravel road to his property. “I said, ‘Ray, is this legal?’ ” Mr. Overton said. “He said: ‘I have a policy, Wallar. You’re paying taxes on the county road. If you can’t get to it, that doesn’t make sense.’ “
Mr. Coleman, who always knew he would settle here for life, said Mr. Perry, who first left to attend Texas A&M University and then to join the Air Force, never seemed fated to stay put in Paint Creek. “Rick was, I don’t know how to say it—ambitious,” he said.
Mr. Overton concurred. “He came home after the Air Force and tried it for a while, but I don’t think Rick had farming in his blood,” he said. “It’s laborious and boring. He loved excitement and attention.”
In 1984, Haskell County sent Rick Perry, Democrat, to the Texas Statehouse. After he switched parties in 1989 and then won a statewide race to be agriculture commissioner, he moved to Austin and left Haskell County in more ways than one.
“He just wasn’t getting where he wanted fast enough under the Democratic flag, and he went where the money was—that’s the Perry way,” said Steven Alsabrook, 57, a Haskell farmer.
Some here understood Mr. Perry’s move as pragmatic, sensing that the Republican Party was on the ascent in Texas. But it still does not sit well with retirees like Mr. Tidwell who gather every morning to gossip and grumble over 75-cent bottomless cups of coffee at the Double “A” Drive-In.
The men, like others here, complain most about the 2003 Congressional redistricting done under the governor’s watch that cost the area its longtime Democratic representative, Charles Stenholm. And they nurse grudges about Mr. Perry’s failure to visit after devastating floods a few years back.
His parents, who are still active members of the community, always attending church and often stopping by the senior center’s lively free lunch program, usually travel to Austin to see their son, friends said. They declined to be interviewed. “Ma’am, I don’t do reporters,” Amelia Perry said, hanging up her phone.
Mayor John Gannaway of Haskell, a family friend and Republican, said she was fiercely protective of her son. Mr. Gannaway scoffs at those who gripe about Mr. Perry.
“We got people in this town, doesn’t matter if you offered free love and nickel beer on the square, they’d be against it,” he said. “Now if you ask what Rick’s done specifically for Haskell, I’ll tell you proudly: nothing. Because if he had, somebody would have said, ‘That little son-of-a-gun is playing favorites,’ and turned it against him.”
Driving around the area, the mayor veered off the road and into a field, rolling to a halt beneath a billboard. He asked a sign maker parked there about some details relating to his idea to replace the “Haskell Alive!” signs that celebrate the town.
“What I’ve got in mind is this,” Mr. Gannaway said, sketching on a paper. ” ‘Haskell: Home County of Rick and Anita Perry,’ with a nice picture of them. You got to see this as an opportunity, right?”