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Chapter 4 - Railroad Days

Bolivar, Missouri

February 17, 1971

Dear Matthew,

I had a tape from you not long ago. I believe it was your first one, and I treasure it very much. Appreciate it very much. A lot of things happened in the month of February, like Astronaut Alan Shepherd and his pal going to the moon and hitting golf balls bringing back samples!That almost made it perfect. It also happened on your great-grandmother’s and my anniversary, February the 6th[22]. So I don’t have much trouble remembering that. I can’t remember your birthday, being old, you know, but you must be approaching your first or second birthday. Wish I could remember exactly.

Well, last time I talked to you, I was talking about homestead days. I didn’t quite finish up on that, and after I was thinking later on. I would have liked to mention that we were discovering we could raise wheat in that country. In fact they were just discovering the great plains from West Texas, and way up into Nebraskie, and Dakotas, and up into Canada, they could raise wheat.

Our Homestead country, which is now in Texas County, Oklahoma, was very good wheat country. We were not equipped to handle wheat in a very efficient manner, but we tried, and we made some progress and had something to eat anyway. About in 1907, I think, it may be 1908, my baby sister, just younger than I, got married. That didn’t leave anybody at home except Mother and me. We all agreed that if they came and occupied the homestead and farmed it, they could have it rent free. So I turned over what farming and livestock I had to them free of charge. They moved into the dug out, and Mother with them, and that left me foot loose and fancy free. May and her husband started to farm milo, and broom corn, and wheat, but it didn’t last but a few years until Bernie Ensminger[23], the boy that married my sister, homesteaded in Colorado.

They moved out there, and stayed with my sister, Marthie in Texas (Ed. note: This is a bit confusing - it is not known when they stayed at Martha’s, but they did move to Colorado), and they moved into Becky County, southeast of Colorado. They did very well until dust storms come along and run them out. Anyway, in the meantime, none of us had any experience raising wheat. It took some pretty good machinery and pretty good horses. In the meantime they had just invented the Header. It was a big wide thing with a sickle before the horses.

It took 4 horses to drive it and it cut tops of wheat heads. We drove a barge along ‘side of it, a big high frame on it, and filled it with wheat heads. Then we stacked it, and when we could we got a threshing machine to come along to thresh it. We couldn’t afford the header and 4 horses at that time. But some could and they did custom work for us and we had pretty good success at raising wheat. And I decided I didn’t have enough money and machinery to farm it, and turned the farm back to me when they went to Colorado. I decided to go and learned to be a telegraph operator to buy equipment to come back to farm. I always wanted to be a farmer.

So I figgered around and studied what to do, how and when. I got together $100, I think, and went to Wichita, Kansas, to the telegrapher’s school. Which turned out to be a triple racket. After you went to this school, and graduated, then you had to work as apprentice at the railroad in order to get a job. So he got a tuition out of me. I think it was 90 days schooling, and if we worked hard at it, he guaranteed us job on the railroad which was $25 with Santa Fe, $35 with Rock Island. Anyway I worked and graduated and got a job. First, I want to say he got tuition out of me, then he got a rake off of my room rent, and he got a rake off from the railroad for finding a boy suitable to work with the railroad.

Anyway, I landed at Augusta, Kansas, with Santa Fe. At that time the Santa Fe was not popular because it was a scab railroad or non -union. They paid $10 dollars less for an apprentice than other railroads paid. Anyhow, I worked a little while there and got along all right. I was doing my best.

One day the old agent went fishing, we were close to the Walnut River. They had a big rock quarry at Augusta where they quarried rock for bridgework all around the railroads. They quarried out a large rock, I guess it weighed about a ton. He went fishin’, and told me to try to load that on the platform, so when the local came in, why, they wouldn’t have any trouble loading it. I went out and tried a crowbar, shoving and pushing. I couldn’t even move it. I tried to get some help from the telegraph fellas, there were three of them there. They laughed and said, “You’re the flunky around here, we are telegraph operators.”

That was what I was studying to be, but I was on my apprenticeship. So I couldn’t move the thing, so I just let it set. Pretty soon the train pulled in, the rock was still on the platform. The old agent came in at the same time the train did and he wasn’t supposed to be off duty. He commenced a’cussin’ me and called me a g-d farmer, and blessed me out good for not moving the rock. It was impossible for one man to do anything with it. It made me mad. I was rooming just across the street from the depot, so I walked over and got my “grip", that was all the possessions I had at the time. I threw what clothes I had loose in it and got on the train that was following right up after this freight train. I went into Newton, said I’d resigned. They tried to talk me out of it and send me somewhere else. I told them, no, I didn’t like them no how. I went and got a job right quick with Rock Island for $35 a month and they sent me to Lost Springs, Kansas. That is where I worked my apprentice ship about a year. I cain’t remember for sure. I was going to call this My Railroad Days. I was with railroad about six years. Startin’ out my labor days on the railroad days. (Don’t know whether one tape is going to handle all this, it may be two or three. )

I think it was the Spring of 1909 when I went to Wichita for telegraph school. Finishing up there and ending up in Lost Springs. I cain’t remember just how long that period was. It don’t make much difference. I remember the railroad days and apprenticeship and worked at different jobs as the good old days. I had no troubles whatever, I was healthy as a mule. I had Mother in good hands. I contributed what money I could get hold of to her support. What I had left I spent. I enjoyed the work and I enjoyed the meeting of people and the experiences I was getting. I wasn’t getting ahead very fast but that didn’t worry me much. The only thing that worried me a’tall was Mother and I was able to send her a little money every month. Martha and May was lookin’ after her welfare. She was well, too, and getting along all right. I didn’t have any worries left so I called my Railroad Days my happy days.

I can’t remember how long I was at Lost Springs, it was a small town, the first town just out of Herrington, Kansas, which was the division that we worked out of. It was good farming and cattle country, had lotsa good game, prarie chickens, quail. I loved to hunt. I had me a gun. The agent, who was my boss, was a very gentlemany sort of fellow, worked in Mexico with Mexicans. He could speak Spanish, he could play Spanish music, quite a violinist, but he didn’t want to do much work. He was taking it very easy, I would say. He let me do a lot of the agent work, which I was glad to do to get the experience. So I was qualifying for an agency as well as a telegraph operator. And Gallio, my brother, visited quite often down there and we’d go prairie chicken hunting and different things. We had good times. I had to work nights quite a bit and had quite a bit of idle time during the day. A lot of nights I could sleep. except when I had to meet fast passenger trains and look after the mail. Anyway it was the good ol’ days and I enjoyed it.

Some quite exciting experiences happened there. One night, it was very cold, below zero, and two foot of snow on the ground, number 23 passenger train from Chicago to Dallas, unloaded a lot of baggage that was tied up in sheets and a lot of people. I got them off and their baggage inside, and the people inside, and showed them the coal pile, and the stove, the coal bucket, and everything, and told them to keep warm. That was along about midnight when the train got in there. I tried to talk to them and not one could speak a word in English, not one word. All they did was show their passports. By reading their passports I found out they were from Siberia, Roossia[24]. They were Roosian immigrants. I didn’t know what to do with them. I scratched my head and tried to think what to do with them. I remembered out in the country I met a wheat farmer that came in to get freight once in awhile that was a Roosian[25].

I thought I would call him on the phone, it was a party line. I rang him up and got him up and told him what I had. I got a whole bunch of folks here from Roosia. I can’t talk to ‘em and I don’t know what to do with them. He said, put them on the phone and I will see what I find out about them. I tried to get them to talk on the phone, and they just looked at each other and jabbered. They would mill around and jabber. Finally they picked out one old woman, she must have been about 75. I guess they thought if it killed her they wouldn’t lose much. I got her up to the phone. I got the receiver to her ear. And I told the man she was listening so he said something to her in Roosian. She dropped that receiver and jumped up and down and shouting. They all wanted to take turns a’listenin’ at it. They would wait until he’d say something in Roosian and then they would have a duck fit. They’d found a machine that would talk to them, but they wouldn’t talk back. Finally I held the phone on to one of them long enough so the farmer could tell them they could talk back. Then the conversation went on again for quite awhile. They had a pow-wow and he found out that the Roosian immigrants had bought land around Lost Springs, some place. They’d come over. He said he would load up his wagon and pick them up that night. So he had a big, wide wagon, with four horses to pull it. There was four feet of snow on the ground and they were running around just having a big time just like most kids were in warm weather. It sure was a mystery to them to talk on the phone. I got quite a kick out of them.

Another night a fellow came in, it was really snowy and cold. He looked like he was starvin’ to death. I told him to make himself at home, showed him the coal pile and told him to keep warm. He thanked me polite and nice. I laid down and went to sleep. Pretty soon he knocked on the window, on the ticket window. I got up to see what he wanted. He whispered to me that two guys had come in, since I laid down, and they were going to kill me and rob the depot, too. He made out like he was asleep, so they talked before him. I said, I don’t think they would. We ain’t got no money down here. He insisted that was what they were going to do. I called the night clerk at the hotel and told him what this fellow said. So he said he would come down, and bring his gun, and let him in the back door. We will see what they want. He came down to the depot, and I let him in. He had a gun, and I had the Express company’s old Colt 38 revolver and we weren’t afraid of them.

We called them over to the window and asked them about the robbery. No, they were just hobos and trying to go south. That was the last thing they wanted to do. We’ve only got a few cents between us, but we don’t have no idea about hurting anybody, no place, they said. Well, this hotel clerk had quite a bit of experience with people and he told this guy who he had talked to in the first place, you come along with me to hotel to sleep I will fix you a good warm bed. And this guy did it. So he took him to the hotel and put him to bed. The next morning he didn’t get up. He didn’t get up until noon. They tried to raise him, and couldn’t get any noise from him, so they unlocked the door and went in.

He tore up a sheet, and made him a rope out of it and twisted it around his neck, tied it to these high bedposts and tied it to his wrist somehow or other. So when he sat down it was tight on his wrist, and tight around his neck. He couldn’t get up and he hung himself, and he was as dead as can be. We buried him there in a pauper’s grave. We never did find who he was, or where he was from, or anything, or what was the matter with him. We figured he just went crazy. And that was the last of that man.

I helped around the kitchen a little bit. Board and room didn’t cost hardly anything in them days. So I could send money to Mother every month for her keep. I had a little left on $35 a month. Every thing was going lovely for me and it didn’t seem like I was in a hurry to get out and get a another job.

One evening after closing time, and the agent had just went home, the local freight train came in, and took the siding, and come in. They wondered if I could call the dispatcher and get them in to the division point, which was only about 7 miles near Herrington, Kansas. They wanted to get there because there was a passenger train due and first they had to get permission. I called the dispatcher and told him. He told me to take #19 order, and I knew what that meant, it was the green order. It gives one train right away over the other. They have two, the other is Yellow #31 order to restrict movement. The passenger train hadn’t got in yet so they let the freight train go on in on my order.

I’d been copying the orders before so it was no trouble to me. They were happy. The next day, the dispatcher called Lost Springs and talked to agent, asked if I was qualified to go to Marion, Kansas as night operator. And he recommended me, said I was capable, so they sent me a pass, and the next day I went to Marion, Kansas, as night operator.

I got there on the train just as agent was leaving to go home for his day’s work. He’d finished his day. He just counted the money in the cash register and I signed up for it, and he says, you take care of the money, and we will take care of the rest in the morning. It was a pretty good sized town, a big station, two waiting rooms, women on one side, men on the other, two windows with the office in the middle. I had all the telegraphing, selling the tickets, everything you had to do around there at night. I had two passenger trains. This was a coupon ticket station, and I could sell tickets to anywhere in the United States. There I was and I was kinda embarrassed, but I went at it. That night the Southbound passenger train came in a little before midnight, and they had a man die on the train. He was going south for his health. He died on the train. They took him off the train there at Marion, and embalmed him, and wanted to ship him on the next train back, the next morning, about 4 o’clock the next morning. I had to make out the embalmin’ papers and all red tape that goes along with shippin’ a dead man. Sold two tickets because someone had to go along with corpse to ship him. The next morning I think I came out seven cents ahead. I sure was relieved when my time was up, ‘cause I hadn’t any no experience a’tall with the ticket selling, only for short distances. I had to bone up in a hurry. Learned a lot there. I don’t remember how long I stayed at Marion. Not very long, things began to happen fast and furious.

They made a relief agent out of me. If someone wanted to take a vacation, why, they’d send me there for a coupla weeks while the agent took a vacation. That put me right into agents’ work along with the telegraphin’. I studied hard at that because I thought I was making progress in a hurry. I put my very best effort in on learning how to keep books and doing all the work the station master has to do. I got along anyway. I always had took good care of my telegraphing instruments, like the batteries, we had what they call gravity batteries, a dozen or so of them in every station. I kept them clean and nice. And I started keeping, at Lost Springs, I started keeping the bills where they paid freight and stuff. I had them neatly in monthly packages. So you could locate them quickly at any time. I kept them in numerical order, they numbered them in order, as many bills as you had. I kept them in monthly packages in numerical order. Did the best I could with them. The auditor and the lineman were very well pleased with my work and gave me a boost in the superintendent’s office. They recommended me very good, very highly. And I got along fine. They sent me all over the country, and I liked that. I liked that just fine, it would be two weeks in one town and two weeks in another town. And two weeks somewhere else. They sent me as far west as Romera, Texas. That is the last town west of Dalhart, Texas,on the Rock Island, right there next to the New Mexico border. They sent me in the Kansas Division all around in there around Herrington and different places. I was just eatin’ that up.

They needed a ballast inspector. That carried a little raise in wages. I think it paid $50 a month. And I said I‘d like to have that, and it was located out in the country, northwest of Manhattan, Kansas, on Wild Cat Crick. They had a big ballast works where they quarried ballasts for the Rock Island Railroad. It was a big operation. It was where they ground up limestone for different divisions for ballasts, for repair work and for new work. I had a boxcar for an office. I had a telegraph for anything they wanted to know, and anywhere they wanted to ship ballasts, too. As I didn’t have train work to do, as I didn’t have anything to do with trains, but just the ballast work, and I had the instruments there, so I could practice a lot, so I liked that job. All I had to do was to see that they didn’t put in too much clay with the limestone. They’d get that when they tried to work when it was rainin’. They would get clay mixed in with the rock. They didn’t like that. I had to see that it was the right size. I had to take orders to ship it to locations all over the railroad. Didn’t have too much work to do, and it wasn’t too hard to do, and I was out in the country, and that is what I liked. I boarded out on a farm with Swede and his family. It was a beautiful farm with a crick running through it. He was quite a corn raiser and a hog man. Lot of times I would get off in the afternoon early enough to help him shuck corn a lot. I’d he’p him move and haul his hogs.

I didn’t have to work on Sunday. They worked us 12 hours a day, 6 days a week. In the station they worked us seven days a week. On this job I only worked 6 days a week, 12 hours a day. Anyhow I had a good time there.

There was a lot of pretty girls out in the country. I was afraid of the city girls, but not of the country girls. I talked the same language as the country girls did. There was a lot of apples, walnut trees and a lot of hunting. I had a new rifle, went hunting a lot. I think I was there two years. Anyhow, finally, there was a homestead open for sale, hadn’t been proved up ? they sold their homestead rights. Somebody would get tired of the homestead and sell theirrelinquishment to ya for so much and then you could take over and it and live there five years to get title to it. There was one that came up for sale down there seven or eight miles from where Mother’s homestead was. I thought that was a good deal. It was 120 acres. There wasn’t a 160 acre homestead to be had, so I took this 120 acres. I took leave of absence and stayed out there and homesteaded. I worked a little around in harvest, did this for a year or two. I cain’t remember exactly what the time elapsed.

It wasn’t long until I went back to railroad. This time I went out on Kansas division, The division point was at Liberal and Dalhart. And I went to Dalhart and they used me some as a relief agent. Soon an agency came up for bid, and you bid on an agency according to your seniority. A long time with the railroad counts when you bid. So I bid on agency at Wellsford, Kansas, and got it. Then I was a full-fledged, full-time agent.

Meantime when I worked on the Kansas division some nice things happened to me. I worked at Romera to Dalhart thewinter of 1910 and 11. That was what they called the bad blizzard winter. The old time stockmen all remembered that thousands of heads of cattle froze to death. Broke lots of big ranchmen. Snowed in the fall, and didn’t melt off until next April. I seen it snow a train under one night at Dalhart in about 30 minutes.

We had word from the division office which was upstairs from my office to inspect fruit train, the Rock Island at that time was hauling practically all the oranges east, and there was a fruiterand they told us to inspect and close all the hatches, they had the ventilators that they called hatches. They had them open or closed according to the temperature. We had orders to close all the hatches and examine all the seals. Fix it up tip-top. That was the yardmaster’s job. They had a yardmaster’s clerk there who was about my age and size. He come to get me to help carry the lantern, because it was already beginning to be a blizzard. He wanted me to carry the lantern while he did the work and read the seals so we could get done quicker. I told him all right. Wewent outside, but we couldn’t go down on north side. We couldn’t breathe and we couldn’t stand up. We went down the south side of this train and give up. So we went on the south side and went back into the depot. It was right out in front of the depot. And within 30 minutes went high over the top of that freight train.

here was about 2 foot of snow on the ground when this thing hit. The wind just picked up the snow that was on the ground and jes’ brought it along until it hit something, and when it hit the train along with the snow that was falling, it jes’ covered it up. The switch engines out in the yard couldn’t get in, they was stuck right where they were and couldn’t get in to the round house. Trains where ever they were at, got stuck out there. It took a snowplow three or four days before they could get them out. It was three or four days I didn’t do a lick of work. I’d go down when my time would come and set or lay on my desk, sleep or napped, or whatever it was. There wasn’t a thing moving, everything was locked up tight. There was a little cut probably about 200 yards west of the depot about 15 feet deep in the sand where they cut through for the railroad and it was on the level. There were some kids out there watchin’ when the rotary plow came through, and they got out on the bank watching the snow plow and it just covered them up. The section crew seen what had happened and dug ‘em out, otherwise they would have smothered. No one would have known where they was until the snow melted.

Whole herds of cattle got on the railroad tracks that winter because it was the only snow out on the level. There was two or three feet of snow. It melted a little bit on top and had crusted over and would catch the cattle’s legs. They didn’t like to get in it and they would get on the railroad tracks where it had been plowed off. And two switchmen would ride the cowcatcher on the engine with pitchforks and it would take them an hour to go through a herd of cattle. Thousands of cattle froze to death that winter. They hadn’t learned to feed their cattle protein or cubes or anything like that. Fact is, there wasn’t any available. About the only feed that was available was some shocks or bundles of cafricorn or milo or something like that. There was no commercial feeds available then, no bales of hay in that country. All prairie, no farming, so they just starved to death by the hundreds.

People froze to death, right there close to the depot. A half a mile from depot an old man went out to check cattle, and he didn’t come back, and he didn’t come back. And the old lady went out to see about him and when it melted off, they found them both dead not but a few 100 feet from their home. Got out there and got lost. You couldn’t see nothin’ and you couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t see, jest a bluesmoke. It was below zero and the snow would log in your throat and take your breath away. You would breathe a little and it would freeze noses shut. That is the way it killed the cattle. So that was quite an experience there.

From Dalhart they sent me down to Meade, Kansas, then to Bucklin. I was at Bucklin, I believe, no it was Bloom, Kansas. They sent me down to Bloom. While I was there the station at Wellsford was open for an agent there. I bid on it there. And stayed there until I got married. That was some happy days there, too. Just beginning to break into motorcycle business. My pal there had bought a motorcycle. He let me ride it and I got the fever. I bought me one. I was getting the motorcycle fever and I got stuck on his sister.

Pretty soon we decided to get married and go into motorcycle business, instead of the rail road business. We got married and went to Dodge City. It was the first time I was ever there. Only had $265 to start out on, that’s all I had saved up. We went out there in February, February the 6th. And in them days they didn’t have no pavement nowhere. We had to wait for spring for the motorcycle business to open up. We stayed there and rented a little house where the Daily Globe is now. It had three rooms and a kitchen. We rented out 1 room, had a shop in one, and lived in the other two. That is where we started out in the motorcycle business. Before spring, we used up all of our money. Just plumb flat broke. Ruth[26] wanted me to go back to railroading, but I was too stubborn. I made all arrangements for my Harley Davidson agency, along in the winter before Christmas sometime. And then I had resigned from the railroad and got my service letter. I figured if I ever had to, I could go back if I had to. I had a good record and I could go back to railroading again.

In the meantime, I knew I couldn’t do no motorcycle business in the wintertime. In them days there was no paving no where and the roads were not graded, and the roads were beat out by wagons and buggies and so forth. They wasn’t fit to ride on for a motorcycle. I got a job shucking corn with one of the men in the neighborhood of Wellsford there. I was shucking on a farm, different than his, about five miles away. So I was riding my motorcycle back and forth, I had a sidecar on it, an’ I could carry my lunch, and anything I wanted to carry along.

The team kept over at the farm where I shucked the corn and I would come back to the farmer’s home and stay all night there. I would get supper and breakfast.

One evening it was comin’ up a storm and the wind was blowing hard from the north. It was raining a little bit and freezing as it fell. Freezing on everything it hit. Came over a little sand hill, kinda hollowred out, I was going south, and there was an Oldsmobile, early old time big automobiles, just the beginning of the automobile days then. It didn’t have no top on, and it came up on other side of this sand hill which had the road hollowred out, just one track. I seen him, and tried to turn out, and my sidecar ran up on the side of the bank, throwed me back in front of him. He didn’t see me a’tall. He had his windshield full of rollin?_. Every little while, he’d peek around see the road was clear and keep a’goin’. He didn’t see me a’tall, and we hit head on right on top of the sand hill and smashed my motorcycle back into my lap. Pinned my leg to the gas tank.

Tore the front end of that Oldsmobile all to pieces. Broke my arm right in my left wrist. I want to make a correction. It was the winter of 1911 and 1912, in Dalhart, that was the bad winter that froze the cattle and the people to death. The tape is about gone, and we will call this my railroad days and when I went to Dodge City.


Endnotes:


[22] Rufus Edgar Combs married Olive Ruth Starkey 6 February 1915 in Wellsford, Kansas.

[23] Wilburn J. “Bernie" Ensminger, born 21 February 1890. Died 11 October 1962 in Louisiana. Married Laticia May Combs.

[24] Russia.

[25] Russian.

[26] Olive Ruth (Starkey) Combs, wife of Rufus Edgar Combs.

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