The On-Line Magazine of Rideable Model Railroading
NUMBER SIXTY SIX

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© February 18, 2006 

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Depression Days in 1933

Written by Don Morgan  

 


New York Central #5347 West of Kalamazoo in 1936 or 1937
photo
©Don Morgan.

 


I was 11 years old in the summer of 1933 when we moved to a 2 acre farm 4 miles west of Kalamazoo. Michigan. In the backyard, 75 feet from the house was the double track mainline of the Michigan Central Railroad. Trains ran every 15 minutes in both directions day and night from Detroit to Chicago. Semaphores were spaced a mile apart and one was right near our house. When a train passed the signal would drop down and turn red, one mile back the semaphore was yellow and two miles back the signal was green.

Our first night in the house we only got one bed set up before dark so we had to sleep 4 in the bed. My dad, mom and 4 year old brother slept at the head of the bed and I slept turned 180 degrees at the foot of the bed.  About 2 AM the house shook with such force that my dad leaped out of bed and shouted "What the hell is that?" There he stood in his bare feet and long night shirt and I can still see his image standing there.  In a few days we figured out that two 20 car, very heavy baggage mail trains pulled by two 4-6-4 Hudson locomotives at over 90 miles per hour traveled from Detroit to Chicago in each direction every day. Those baggage mail trains were the heaviest trains on the line. Most freight trains those days were 50, 60 or 70 cars long.

I picked up coal one mile east and one mile west. By buying 1 ton of coal and using a lot of wood and my coal we were able to keep warm all winter. Many times when a freight train would get a hot box the trainmen would get water at our outdoor pump and I would always tag along to see what they were doing. Thus they got to know me and when they would see me picking up coal the fireman going by would push off a couple of big lumps which would fill my bucket. They appreciated the water for their hot boxes. Thanks guys!

We had an outdoor pump that had to be primed before use and an outdoor toilet called a privy. A Round Oak coal stove in the living room and a cooking range, coal fired in the kitchen heated the house. We couldn't afford electricity and had to use kerosene lamps to read and study by. I slept upstairs (no heat) with an old carpenter Ed Stanton that was teaching my dad to be a carpenter. He slept on his back with knees up in the air and mouth open all night. I asked him why and he said it was to catch flies. He had false teeth which he wore except when he sat down to eat he took out his teeth and put them in his pocket. We had to take a couple of warmed bricks wrapped in towels for our feet to bed in the winter.

Across the tracks was an abandoned apple orchard of about 600 trees. I knew where all the best apples were Jonathans, Macintosh, Spys and Snow apples. There were also some black walnut, butternut and hickory nut trees.

We cleared the two acres of rocks left by the glaciers eons ago in Michigan and planted tomatoes. Large beautiful Ponderosas but never were able to sell any because everyone else had tomatoes that year. We also raised about 100 Plymouth Rock chickens.

We had to walk one mile to the one room school with 8 grades in one room. When the teacher would call 7th grade Geography or 5th grade Arithmetic every one could hear the recitations and learn from them.

My dad bought a farmer's old broken down Maxwell car and the farmer towed it to our house with his 2 horse team. It didn't have electric headlights. They were carbide that one had to light with a match. The first thing dad did was wire those headlights for electric power. He overhauled the engine and got the Maxwell to run.

Shades of Jack Benny!

Dad traded the Maxwell for a Model T Ford flatbed truck. There wasn't any starter so he sometimes had to jack up a rear wheel and hand crank the car. I usually sat in the driver's seat and operated the spark and the gas levers on the steering post.

My mother needed false teeth so she and I took a bus to Kalamazoo to a dentist. He pulled about 14 teeth, made the dentures right there all in one day and only charged her $40.  We hired a taxi to take us home. The driver stopped at an ice house and we bought two 100 pound cakes of ice and drove the 4 miles home. He put the ice on the corner back bumpers of his car. He carried the ice in and helped my mother into the house. I put ice packs on her face to relieve the pain. My dad said that the dentist was a quack, but my mother wore those same teeth for over 50 years.

We had an Atwater Kent battery operated radio and listened to Amos and Andy. We heard the Jim Braddock, Max Baer fight too.

Ed Stanton's grandson Robbie was also 11 years old. Robbie lived on a farm near Paw Paw, Michigan. The old farm house had a dumb waiter and us kids used to ride it up and down from floor to floor. They couldn't afford electricity either, but Robbie owned the finest electric standard gauge American Flyer train ever made. It was the President's Special and sold for $55 in 1933. The electric locomotive had swiveling front and rear trucks. There were 4 blue passenger coaches. Us kids used to sit on the coaches and ride around on the wooden floors. That train (when you can find one) sells for $2,000 + today.

 

Written by Don Morgan
photos by Don Morgan


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