Almost 40 years ago, yes Frances it has been that long, I participated in a program titled, “Railroad in My Blood,” that was directed by Dr. Frances Neidhardt, English professor at Austin College and East Texas State University. The program that included a photographic exhibition and group interviews was funded by the Texas Committee for the Humanities in association with the Grayson County Historical Society.
Dr. Neidhardt was putting together a group of local people who were willing to do oral interviews with a number of retired railroaders and a few others who had been lined up to talk about their railroad lives in the three “Railroad in My Blood” programs.
When I ran across something this week I was reminded that these three program were almost 40 years ago, I realized that would be considered “Yesterday.” So I began digging to remember what went on with putting the programs together.
Joan Ball, a former Sherman Democrat reporter who died recently, did a rundown on railroads in general in Grayson County, and I found a copy of her article in my thick file on the subject. She pointed out that any history of Grayson County would be incomplete without the mention of railroads and their part in developing the area into a vibrant industrial district.
Many railroads had connections with the county through the years with the Missouri, Kansas & Texas (Katy), Frisco and Cotton Belt lines playing the most important roles. Others included the Houston and Texas Central; Southern Texas and New Orleans; Galveston, Houston and Henderson and Galveston, Harrisburg and San Antonio companies that had connection with the three major rail lines in the county.
She pointed out how railroad history was difficult to compile because there were so many frequent changes of ownership and names.
Denison was a railroad town beginning on Christmas Day 1872 when the first train crossed the newly completed bridge over Red River headed toward town. The history of the railroad was closely entwined with the lives of thousands of families through the years. Actually a work train came across on Christmas Eve and some in the town got excited early.
With all that in mind, Dr. Neidhart’s group put together a wonderful photographic exhibit by Grayson College’s photography instructor Katherine Allen and the taped interviews for a series of programs titled “Railroad in My Blood.” Several interviewers provided the tapes for programs that included several of the interviewees speaking at each of the three sessions.
That is where I came in and we all got wound up in planning, interviewing and presenting these three programs that gave the public a good idea of what railroad life was all about. Assisting Dr. Neidhardt in addition to yours truly were Melba Kratch, Gwen Shwadlenak, Joan Ball, Mary Moody, Louise Street and Harry Bilger.
We had a great time interviewing these gentlemen and a couple of women who had great stories to tell. To name just a few, the railroaders interviewed included Jim O’Brien, superintendent of rules with the Katy; Louis Wright, mechanic from Frisco; Edna Mae Trice, engineer’s widow from Frisco; Clyde Kenner, brakeman from Frisco and father of the late Sue Sappenfield of Sherman; Claude Smith, switchman from Frisco; Joe Smith, conductor on a Houston and Texas Central, Missouri Pacific Interurban; Monroe Gilliam, roadmaster with the Katy; and Tobin Williams, conductor with the Katy. I thought it might be interesting to give a quote or two from each of these people.
“During my years with the Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad I served as agent, operator, train dispatcher, assistant superintendent of the Operating Department, assistant to the manager, and superintendent of rules. My first wife used to say that I was different than other men in that I had three corpuscles. I had white corpuscles, red corpuscles and railroad corpuscles in my blood.”
“All the colored had to go into the other couch, and it wasn’t fit for nobody to ride in. And I was one of the persons. I mean I was the only man … going from Denton to Denison. … But I’m not jealous. I see the change, the change was coming.
Edna Mae Trice
“I was 25 years old, and I was the mother of six little boys. They were sweet little dickenses. … We all went to the table together, and we ate together and we returned thanks first, and we all enjoyed that. My husband, when he was home would follow then on the porch and see that their hair was combed properly. And he would place their ties where they wouldn’t be crooked, and he learned them what pride meant.”
“I’ve helped haul German prisoners on the train during the war. … There was a prison camp at Madill, (Oklahoma) where they unloaded them and used them to clear the timber out of where they was building Lake Texoma. … I walked through the cars where they were – all just young boys – just as mean as all kids are. … I felt sorry for them. They was that far away from home, and I was thinking about my own boys. They were jolly – having a good time. I imagine having a better time then when they were on the battlefield.”
“I don’t know whether my grandfather was famous or not, but … that Christmas night 1872 that he came across the Red River into Denison from the Oklahoma Territory, they had a big celebration planned for the arrival of the train. So help me, like all passenger trains, they were late. And when they did come in – I’ve heard my grandfather say it a dozen times – all that was left down there was a bunch of drunk cowboys shooting .45 pistols off in the air. ” (Tobin Williams was the grandson of Pat Tobin who brought the work train across Red River to test the strength of the ties on Christmas Eve. The planned celebration was supposed to be on Christmas Day.)
“I remember when the Frisco railroad first came into Sherman. I was living close to the tracks. … I believe it was in 1900 or 1901. My first job with the Frisco was 1907 as a train crew caller. … When they would order a train to leave the yard to go north or south, why it was my job to call the men. … During the spring of the year … sometimes during the stock rush – stock rush we called it – I recall sometimes we’d run 10, 12 trains one right after the other with about 15 cars of stock on fach train. We had smaller engines, but that was about the limit.”
“We had power, by golly, on that Interurban. 1,200 bolts of electricity and four electric motors under there. … You could go close to 90 miles an hour. … I went through Sherman when they was burning the courthouse. I had 35 cars of wheat from … Dallas, all box cars. … Oh, the crowd had gathered. … I got there at the square and I said, ‘Hey! About four of you fellows get out on the front and get these people off the track, and let me get out of here with this wheat.’ … I was tied up down there for hours and hours. … It took the courthouse a long time to burn.”
“The terminal in Denison was one of the biggest terminals west of the Mississippi at the time it was built. … And everything was hand labor. That’s the thing I marvel at now. … During World War II they decided to lay the new rail from Denison to Dallas. … And it was my job to check each rail. … And I crawled from Denison – or the Red River – to Bells, you might say, looking rail over and marking them. … I like to look at my life on the railroad, as well as my father’s before me, as a kind of pioneering, just like covered wagon people did.”
Others interviewed included Gene Stringer, Vivienne Stringer, Wayne “Zeke” Atkins, Grant Harshbarger, Ora Ellen Kenner, Thedford Smith, John Moody, Harmon Cope, Lena Parker Pirtle, John Orozco, Frank McCune, G.E. “Steamboat” Fulton, Clyde and Zella Carter, C.E. Reasoner, John Bell, Herman Beall, Maebelle Warren, V.L. Starnes, and V.L. Browning.
Three programs with wonderful photographs prepared by Ms. Allen were on display at each, and at least one of those interviewed was on hand to speak to the crowd at the Denison Public Library, Sherman Public Library and the Sherman Historical Museum and a fourth one at the Denison Senior Center. Attendees were numerous at all with 300 attending the museum presentation.
Dr. Neidhardt said this week that all the photographs, interview tapes and other materials used at the programs were stored at the museum and sometime during the past almost 40 years they disappeared. Transcriptions of all the interviews were placed in both libraries and are available to be read by people interested.
Donna Hunt is former editor of The Denison Herald. She lives in Denison and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. She has been a longtime contributor to the Herald Democrat with her bi-weekly column, which appears in the Wednesday and Sunday editions. The views and opinions expressed here are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Herald Democrat.