Editor’s notes: This story was submitted by Linda Drackley, the author’s daughter-in-law. The author, who was an English teacher for many years and a part-time farmer, wrote this submission in the mid-1970s.
This is part one of three of the story. Read part two here.
On the rear of a popular rental vehicle today appears the slogan “Adventure in Moving.” Giant vans cross the continent; cargo planes transport mountains of goods. But somewhere between the covered wagon that moved west and these modern vehicles, a way of moving long distances has been almost forgotten. My brother and I won’t forget, however, because we were box-car emigrants from Wisconsin to Minnesota a half century ago.
Railroads were the way to move then, when there were long miles to cover. Autos and trucks were unreliable and slow. The day of the covered wagon was gone; indeed, wagons, though still the standard for short hauls, were painfully rough and slow. Of course, as a boy of ten, I didn’t know those things. As I look back now, moving to Minnesota by freight train was not only logical; it promised also to be a great adventure. Let me tell you about this latter-day pioneer trek by freight car, surrounded by household good, crates of chickens, cattle, and even mixed-breed dog named Jack!
It is important that you picture the scene carefully. The time is the mid-1920s. Keep in mind the awkward, high-cabbed trucks, many of them with chain drive. Farm wagons were high, wooden wheeled; no rubber tires were yet used on horse-drawn vehicles. Most roads were still gravel or even dirt, though I remember a five-mile stretch of concrete pavement near our Wisconsin farm. And while it hasn’t much to do with moving by rail, it might help to remember that boys wore short pants bloused above the knee, or with rakish boldness, allowed to hang below. Big bands played and the smart set danced to “Three O’clock in the Morning.”
Into the serenity of my life in the big white farm house with the hard maple shading its south side, the dreaded word “moving” fell harshly. Three years of walking to Lyndale school past fragrant white cedars where bushes of hazel nuts browned in autumn — how could anyone want to end all that? But there was something called Rich Farm Land out in Minnesota. Dad had made the trip out there. He beamed when he reported you could actually raise alfalfa without adding lime to the soil! Then, too, it seemed that the buffalo didn’t actually roam there any more, and the jumping-off place had retreated far into the Dakotas.
I have confused memories of the packing. There was a big railroad car called an automobile car — large enough for most of the things we’d take to the new place. I remember the rail car being shunted onto a siding along a loading platform in the small town of Rusk, a half mile from home. Special magic lay in that, because my brother and I had spent hours watching trains there. A busy double track line of the Chicago and Northwestern’s Chicago to St. Paul run was there. And we would actually ride those rails in that box-car!
It was inevitable that the unpleasant reality of moving would catch up with me. The big farm auction is pretty mixed up in my mind as I look back now. But something very chilling happened to me, when, on the sale day in early May, I began to realize that the fine herd of grade and purebred Guernsey cattle was actually being sold — cows I had helped to milk and that I could call by name: Fern’s Rilma, and Lady, and Eva, the imported cow.
When old, high-wheeled trucks and wagons drove away that day and the next, the large dairy barn was suddenly hollow and lonely. A part of moving wasn’t fun at all, even though Dad had “bid in” three cows we would take along, and you could always buy new machinery. But with that farm sale and the days of packing that followed, the great adventure of moving out became a mixed blessing. The grassy bank where I played beside the white hay and horse barn, the “park” where the fir trees sighed — I would have to leave them if we were to pioneer in Minnesota. I couldn’t have both.
Very little comes to me out of that moving day except near train time. I know, of course, that the loading had been finished; the cows, a couple of crates of Leghorn laying hens, and a trembling black and tan family dog were put aboard the automobile car during the day. Then, with a sense of growing excitement, my brother and I came to get aboard in the late afternoon. The freight was scheduled out at around 4, I think, but we were safely on board at least an hour before that time.
One overwhelming impression from that journey is that it was necessary to keep our presence hidden. This was because with an emigrant car — household goods, livestock being moved — one person held a pass to accompany as caretaker. My brother and I rode in the freight car because our family was too large for all to ride to Minnesota in the 1926 Chevrolet four-door sedan. Also, another older brother would remain in Wisconsin to finish the year at school.
So it had been planned that the two of us would ride with Bob Shepard, the hired man, in the car of goods; we would keep out of sight when the train passed through towns. I remember the term “railroad bulls” was spoken a number of times. Dad said we’d need to “watch out for the bulls.” They might even come to inspect the car! This, it seems now, would be quite unlikely, with an attendant standing in the open car door. But there was an exciting tension connected to that illicit journey. Both my brother and I felt it.
We had been carefully coached: keep hidden when the train passed through towns, especially when there was switching or stopping. Don’t call out loudly when a passing switchman might hear. While much of our apprehension probably was imagined, there was enough real danger under railroad regulation, as I think back now, to lend a sober cast to the affair. Our family wasn’t much into anything illegal.
What else does a ten-year-old worry about as he thinks of riding a freight train? I discovered that one of my fears had been groundless. Early exploring of the box-car had left one scary impression. What did one do, riding along in a swaying car, about the danger of falling out the open door?
Of course I needn’t have worried about that. Once the car was loaded, boards were placed across the one door which would remain open. I can feel the relief I felt then, knowing that my brother and I might stand securely in that doorway as the train rocked through the countryside.