An Excursion Gone Wrong

Monday, July 25, 2011

Here is another true story gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in 1936-1940. I cleaned up a few typos but did not otherwise change the wording in the original manuscript.

The narrator is Mrs. Annie Hightower, who lived in Fort Worth, Texas at the time of the interview. This event occurred when she was a child in Arkansas.

During 1870, rumor had it that a railroad was going to be built into Benton; and did during the 12 months following. I shall never forget our anticipation of that coming event. We children pestered mother every day for an explanation of a railroad and a train. It was to us the wonder of all wonders. Mother promised to take us to Benton the day the first train came in, and she did.
On the day of the big event, the team of horses were hitched to the wagon and we started before daylight on our 20 mile ride to see a railroad and its train. We females carried along our calico dresses, made from the bolt of calico father had bought, which was the proper dress for the occasion. Those dresses were only worn on special occasions. For instance, if we were called upon to act on a reception committee to welcome some high official. When we were about a mile from town, we changed from our home-spun to the calico and arrived in town properly attired.
We drove up to near the depot where we tied the team to a sapling, then joined a crowd of people on the platform who were waiting for the train's arrival. It was an anxious wait, but finally the smoke from the engine was sighted and there went up a chorus of voices yelling, "there she comes!" The train, which was an engine, several box cars and a caboose, came rolling up to the depot. To us, it was a majestic thing. But when it reached the platform over half the people left the platform on a run, and we Heckman children were in the crowd of runners. No sir, we wouldn't take any chances with that engine staying on the track or not bursting. The way the train was swaying on that newly layed track and the engine popping off steam, indicated to us the darn thing was about to destroy everything around there. So our better judgment and common sense told us to give the contrivance plenty of room.
Our team, which had been raised in the hills and valleys of Saline county like us folks, had never seen a train, and the team used the same kind of common sense that we humans did. There was a difference, however, in that the team didn't consider the wagon, harness, and our lunch which was in the wagon. The team reared back a couple times which put such a strain on the tie ropes that it caused the ties to break, and the horses started for some other place going at their best speed.
The result of that team's run was a broken wagon and harness, beyond repair. That was a disaster for mother to face. However, the calamity for us children was the loss of the lunch. Mother had roasted an excellent fat young turkey hen with dressing. She had, also, baked a raspberry pie, some strawberry preserve tarts, and made some vegetable salad, all of which was to be enjoyed under the shade of a tree after the train's arrival. In addition, mother had promised to buy each of us a bottle of red pop. Being deprived of the pop by the run-away was the crushing misfortune for us children, because red pop, those days, was the greatest treat children could receive.
NOTE: The photograph (which is actually the railroad station at Coal Creek, Colorado) is from the Denver Public Library Collection (Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library) and was taken by Louis Charles McClure sometime around 1915.

The Federal Writers' Project interviews are government-created documents and are available on the Library of Congress' website. WPA Life Histories. The quoted passage is from an interview with Annie Hightower, Item 10 of 445 in the Texas section of the American Life History manuscripts.

Southern Gallantry

Monday, July 18, 2011

Did you know that Lew Wallace, the author of Ben Hur, was the Territorial Governor of New Mexico from 1878 to 1881? He figures prominently in this apparently true story gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in 1936-1940. The narrator is Mrs. Pauline Meyer.

My husband had just returned from a hunting trip when a government wagon with four handsome mules drew up in front of the house. It was Governor Wallace's outfit. It was a chilly October day and as the sun went down it grew chilly enough for a fire. I was amused by the Governor's behavior which exemplified our idea of southern gallantry. First I obtained the necessary kindling and other necessities for the fire. These I placed in position, ready for lighting. All this time Governor had been watching me as I went about the task. Then, just as I started to strike a match to light the blaze, Lew Wallace took the match from my fingers.
"Allow me," said he with a slight bow. "No lady has yet lit a fire while I was in the room." And with that he struck the match and set it to the paper beneath the kindling. He made quite a ceremony of the match-striking.
After Lew Wallace had gone I reminded my husband of his "gallant" act.
"Huh--" my husband scoffed jokingly. "If he was so gallant as all that, why in thunder didn't he carry in an armload of kindling for you! He sat there and let you do all the work, then he ups and strikes the match with a big-to-do, just as if he'd done something wonderful."
Of course I couldn't help but agree with my husband, though of course I never let him know it.
NOTE: I copied the picture from the Wikipedia article on Lew Wallace. I have no idea who the photographer was, but the photograph is in the public domain because of its age.

The Federal Writers' Project interviews are government-created documents and are available on the Library of Congress' website. WPA Life Histories. The quoted passage is from "Early Days in Albuquerque," Item 58 of 218 in the New Mexico Section of the American Life History manuscripts.

They Weren't All Pullman Cars

Monday, July 11, 2011

I recently discovered a website with life stories gathered by the Federal Writers' Project in 1936-1940, mostly through interviews with the people who lived the stories. I'll spend the next several weeks sharing some of the more interesting ones.

Did you know that George Pullman's sleepers weren't the only ones on the tracks? Here is an account of traveling from Kansas to California in a family tourist coach. The narrator is Mrs. Hortense Watkins of Portland, Oregon.

I am hardly what you would call a pioneer, since it was only as far back as 1883 that I came to Oregon, and not in a covered wagon. But even the way I came with my four children is something of a day that is no more. We came from Kansas to Oregon by way of California, in what was known as a family tourist coach. It took ten days at that time from Kansas to California. I have forgotten just what the railway fare was, but I do remember that children under twelve were half fare, and in some manner I had an extra half. So when a fellow passenger who had six children and not tickets enough to go around found herself in a quandary after boarding the train, I took the surplus youngster on with my extra half. Every time we had a new conductor he would say something about how little that child resembled the rest of my brood, for he was tow-headed and all of mine were dark. We had quite a time, but finally got through all right, and I breathed a sigh of relief when the poor woman and all her six reached their destination.
Those tourist cars weren't very pleasant traveling, but I guess they were a lot better than six months of oxen and wagon at that. We had to furnish our own bedding, even the mattresses, which were made of ticking filled with straw, so they could be thrown away at the end. We had to furnish our own food too. There was a stove in the corner of one end, where we women cooked. I have forgotten just how many were in the car, but I do remember there were sixteen children, so you can imagine the hubbub. This sounds like an old fashioned story, but it's true. The train went so slowly in places that once when one of the men had his hat blow off, he jumped off, caught his hat and got on the train again without stopping. There were two old men that I cooked for. One of them, who wore a tall, silk, stovepipe hat, had his overcoat stolen just before he got on the train, so I loaned him a shawl, which he wore all the time. We had our own brooms, with which we had to sweep the car too. I don't think Heaven can look more beautiful to me than Southern California, when we finally got there.

Not the most comfortable trip, but it sounds a lot better than traveling by covered wagon. And Mrs. Watkins was one of the lucky ones. Her husband was a lawyer, and they could afford the fare to ride in a tourist car.

But it was nothing like a Pullman.

NOTE: The photograph is from the Denver Public Library Collection (Western History/Genealogy Department, Denver Public Library) and was taken by H.S. Poley sometime between 1895 and 1900.

The Federal Writers' Project interviews are government-created documents and are available on the Library of Congress' website. WPA Life Histories. The quoted passage is from "Early Railroad Travel," Item 18 of 81 in the Oregon section of the American Life History manuscripts.

A Birthday Tribute

Monday, July 4, 2011

During the War of 1812, Francis Scott Key stood on the deck of a ship in Baltimore Harbor while the British bombarded Fort McHenry. All that night, Key strained to see if the American flag still flew over the fort, but he didn't know the outcome of the battle until dawn. That's when he wrote "Defense of Fort McHenry," which was later set to music and renamed "The Star-Spangled Banner." You probably have the first verse memorized, but have you heard or do you remember the other three?

In honor of our country's birthday, here are all four stanzas.

     Oh say can you see by the dawn's early light
     What so proudly we hailed at the twilight's last gleaming?
     Whose broad stripes and bright stars thru the perilous fight,
     O'er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming?
     And the rocket's red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
     Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there.
     Oh, say does that star-spangled banner yet wave
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?

     On the shore, dimply seen through the mists of the deep,
     Where the foe's haughty host in dread silence reposes,
     What is that which the breeze, o'er the towering steep,
     As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
     Now it catches the gleam of the morning's first beam,
     In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
     'Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

     And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
     That the havoc of war and the battle's confusion,
     A home and a country should leave us no more!
     Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps' pollution.
     No refuge could save the hireling and slave
     From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
     And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!

     Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
     Between their loved home and the war's desolation!
     Blest with victory and peace, may the heav'n rescued land
     Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
     Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
     And this be our motto: "In God is our trust."
     And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
     O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave!