Editor’s note: This is part two of three of this story. See last week’s The Country Today for part one.
Then it was train-time. Crouching in our hiding place behind the wooden barrels of dishes and canned goods, we heard the big freight engine chuff up and down before it suddenly bore down on our car to snake it onto the train. The first bump was terrifying. I could see Jack, our dark wolf-cross dog, begin to tremble again with the jolting, his eyes bright with fear. One of the three cows bellowed. Relative quiet followed with the engine huffing a way off. Suddenly Bob Shepard, standing in the doorway, called out sharply.
“Here it is! Minnesota, here we come!”
My brother and I shared the excitement. But I know we were afraid, too. Frightened of the unknown, of leaving home. Afraid partly because our dog was. Terrified because we were young, and kids didn’t ride in box-cars.
The steam locomotive gathered speed, the sharp, deep blast of its exhaust cracking faster and faster. We wanted to look out, to watch the familiar freight yard slip away, see the column of smoke and steam funnel upward as the engine labored up the west grade out of town. Well, a few minutes more ... .
The hired man called out cheerfully, “Just as well take a look, boys. Already past Kent’s crossing.”
We straightened cramped legs and limped to the open car door. A few hundred yards south of the crossing stood the white Baptist church building. My brother and I had driven a horse and buggy there on some summer afternoons for the Sunday School. In my mind’s eye I can still see the colored picture story cards we got in the lower grades. Now, as I watched, the train carried us westward past that white church with its steeple. And back farther, across the rolling fields, we caught just a glimpse of the long red barn, the squatty silo, and the white house. We are leaving home.
A lot of things had to be left behind. Right then I wasn’t thinking about what remained, not then, in the beginning of the great adventure. But as I think back now, what that car contained was significant. Perhaps something of the pioneer spirit lay in the family plans for moving.
Big as that box-car was, it couldn’t hold everything. I’ve mentioned that the heavy machinery had been sold. It would have taken too much space. Besides, this was May. Out in Minnesota the crop had been put in by a tenant. It would be almost a year before ground preparation would be needed again. So what does a farmer-mover take with him?
One thing most farm families would have taken was the important team of horses. I don’t really know why Dad hadn’t kept back a team, but I can speculate. A really fine pair of Belgians had been broken up when old Queen went blind. One other team we had wasn’t well matched as I remember. And Dad, ahead of many of his neighbors in this respect, had already been doing a lot of field work with a tractor — a Wallis, I remember. The best guess seems then that it’d be as well to buy a team in Minnesota.
Cows for milk, immediate and continuing food for the family. Hens for eggs, the same reasoning. Essential furniture: cook stove, table, chairs, beds, clothing, dishes. Most of these breakables were packed in wooden barrels of oats for guaranteed safe passage. One big luxury which accompanied us seemed natural then and even now: a Hamilton upright piano, carefully packed in a wooden piano box.
A few of the other items show, I think, a certain insight into the years a man sees ahead of him. There was the fanning mill for seed cleaning in the spring; a hand corn sheller for shelling seed corn ears or for small amounts of livestock feed; hand tools like forks, shovels, a spade, axe, rake, hoe; chains, rope; carpenter tools — Dad owned a fairly complete set of these; fencing tools. And then, I’m sure, Dad and Mother had unknowingly packed great amounts of hope and optimism for the new home. Boys, however, do not look so far ahead.
For a while everything excited us. Every farm and hill and grove was new. The whistle stop with the water tank and the freight cars on the sidings were revelations. And when the engine puffed around the long curve, we saw Lake Menomin among the trees with the houses and the long sheds and the switch yards, it was the most exciting day of our lives!
“Better get back in hiding, boys,” Bob told us.
We were reluctant to leave the car doorway, but we carried the shiver of expectancy with us into our spot behind the canned goods.
When some of the excitement had dulled, there was the lunch. The large box Mom had packed contained a mixture of home and the unknown. There were special treats rare in our lives back then in the ‘20s, like oranges and store-bought cookies and candy. Jack stopped trembling while we sat near his corner and fed him bits by hand.
Then we were watching again by the door while the sunlight faded and the locomotive charged on into a flaming sky. Yard lights blinked on. Green and red signals winked from the track side. Mind and vision blurred.
I crawled up into the bed we had made on top of piled furniture. We settled into the mattress, and all the magic of the entire day was with us again. The rocking, rolling motion was the music of far-away places. When the engine whistled with the moaning, longing wail reaching into our sleep, I felt the tingle of something I shall never forget. And when I opened my eyes, the flicker of the fire in the locomotive flashed on the car wall along with the headlight glow, reflecting the shadows of trailing smoke.