In Praise of Rail Road Towns

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“TRAIN!”

–Gordy, in Stand By Me, 1996

Many of the Crazy Train’s excursions lead us through tiny dots on the map, born of the railroads during westward expansion. Millions of acres lay in wait, untouched by a new breed of American explorers in search of a place to call their own. During the nineteenth century, a herd of iron horses stampeeded westward, forever changing the Western landscape. Likewise, decades later, when the US Department of Transportation paved a spiderweb of asphalt, most of the old railroad towns were bypassed, condemning them to a future of ambiguity. mccloud rail 1930s It was on one of these road trips that I made a connection I’d never made before. Usually, when we arrive in a town, I google its history, and we learn about any little interesting tidbits the town had—or still has—to offer. I usually read a little about how the town was founded, its subsequent growth, and its ultimate decline. Or, in some cases, what continues to keep it thriving.

mccloud train hauling logs It was in one of these obscure little ghost towns that I made an offhanded remark to the tone of, “gee. All these towns are named after railroad presidents and train muckety-mucks rather than the town founders.” My words were still hanging in the air above my head in a bubble as The Hub turned and looked at me in that, “you didn’t seriously just say that, did you?” expression he gets that is at times humorous, and at other times annoying as hell. “Oops. Yeah, Right. It’s a FANTASTIC idea to name those towns after railroad presidents!” I exclaimed, with a guilty giggle.

nera swobe californiaI laughed because, in a way, the Crazy Train has VERY close link to one such town. And what is this link, you may be wondering? In the northern California county of Siskiyou, there’s a tiny dot on the map called Swobe. Depending on which map you use, Swobe, California may, or may not, actually have roads. But, one thing it does not have is a population. Or buildings. Or a sign. Or a zip code. Or a train depot. Or ANYTHING. Swobe is pretty much just a dot on the map.

swobemap So just where did the name for this tiny dot originate? Just who was this “Swobe” person, and why is there a dot bearing his name? My great-grandfather, Dwight Milton Swobe, was born in 1878 in Nebraska, the son of Civil War veteran Col. Thomas Swobe and his wife, Alzina. Col Swobe worked his way up the ranks in the Union Army, ultimately retiring as Quartermaster. It was upon his retirement that he became a partner in Shears, Markel & Swobe of the Millard Hotel, Omaha’s premier hotel at the time, and one of Nebraska’s political centers. His company also provided dining cars for many railroads. swobe dudes It seems that Dwight Swobe got the railroad bug from his dad, because all accounts I’ve read have him working for railroads as soon as he graduated from college. The railroads brought Dwight incrementally west, became a widely respected short line railroad man, and ultimately became president of the McCloud River Railroad in 1921. He saw the Railroad through the devastation of the 1930s, making use of the line for lumber transport. The company was beloved by its employees and became known by them as Mother McCloud for continuing to offer its employees credit in company stores throughout the Depression, and then forgiving their debt afterwards. Dwight raised a family in Berkeley, and, sadly, passed away at the age of 65 in 1943. Mccloud train After his death, McCloud River Railroad honored him by naming a “town” after him. It’s actually just a mile of tracks between markers 12 and 13 along a picturesque span of the Railroad, but the real honor was in the gesture. swobe original mainline 2 Swobe former site 1 Although we rarely depend on the railroads for transportation these days, The Mc Cloud River Railroad, now the McCloud Railway operates as a passenger excursion train, and an 80 mile portion of the former line is being converted into a multi-use trail for hiking, cycling, horseback riding, and other non-motorized sports. train track For a glimpse of my great-grandfather’s railroad, check out the scenery in the classic movie Stand By Me. The infamous bridge the boys run across to escape the oncoming train is the McCloud River Railroad’s Lake Britton Bridge in Burney Falls Memorial State Park.stand04 ***Special THANKS to the people of the McCloud River Railroad and the McCloud Railroad for posting these pictures that I borrowed from you on your webpage. Learn and see more history at mcclourriverrailroad.com, greatshastarailtrail.org/history/railroad-history-summary/, trainweb.org/mccloudrails, ancestry.com, and to my mom, my aunt, and my awesome 2nd cousin Gordon for your assistance in the ongoing Swobe family research!***

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Huntsville, Texas and the Greatest Christmas Gift in the History of EVER

We love to browse in vintage/antique shops and local boutiques in the small towns we visit. They’re usually filled with things we haven’t seen before and aren’t likely to see again. It’s fun to talk to shop owners who are usually pretty engaging characters.

On our infamous trip to Phelps, we ended up in Hunstville. We couldn’t do much outside exploring because a huge downpour began once we arrived in town.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1350-0.jpgFor some people, junking/antiquing is boring. But for us, it’s a fun way to spend an afternoon. The kids enjoy talking to shop owners about shop items (or, as in Goliad, the owners thrilled them with local ghost stories). My kids are “Antique Shop Trained,” meaning they don’t touch (many) things, they don’t run, and, when they follow the rules (which they always do) they can explore on their own. Some owners (like one in Buda) who force us to constantly hold CJ’s hand do not have the opportunity to sell to us because we leave. A child struggling for independence is more likely to cause damage than one who’s learned to respect others and behave accordingly. So, each time we enter a shop, I say loudly, “you know the rules!” and they respond, “yes, Mom!” I then briefly, and conversationally, tell whoever has greeted us our rules, and we’re usually given a wide berth.

There are some shops we fall in love with, and in which we can explore all day. They’ve seen so many cool things. And one bonus of shops, unlike museums, is that we can pick things up, show them to the kids, and buy them if we want. It’s fun for them, and sometimes, if the mood, price, item, and phase of the moon are in alignment, something cool follows us home.

Occasionally, we find something that conjures a memory, and we love sharing those stories. On this trip to Huntsville, I found one such item. This would turn out to be my best gift purchase ever. This NEEDED to be wrapped up with a bow and put under the Christmas Tree for my brother.

You wanna hear the story, huh? Yeah, I thought so.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1340.jpgBack in 1977, McDonald’s was a BIG deal. HUGE. And no one loved it more than my brother, Jimmy. He loved McD’s so much that once when my mom was pumping gas, he slipped out of the station wagon and toddled across a busy 4-lane road, headed for the Golden Arches. He even he had a birthday party in their party room.
/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1323-0.jpgThis was pre-Happy Meal (1979) and McD’s were geniuses at marketing. So, when they offered 10” melamine dinner plates featuring McDonaldland scenes, YES we bought them, and YES we used them. ALL THE TIME. And, as many kids in their terrible 2s and 3s, Jimmy went through a phase where he’d ONLY eat off of his McDonald’s plate. Since we always ate at home back then, our dishwasher ran daily, and Jimmy’s favorite plate was always clean.
/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1337-1.jpgWell, almost always.

One fateful night in 1978, Jimmy’s plate was not clean, and Mom had set the table with the Franciscan Ware flower pattern dishes my parents had chosen when they married in 1970. They were a sturdy, off-white stoneware with a green stripe, and flowers in the middle. They were pretty, and when I saw a set last year, I almost bought it. But I only wanted a few pieces and I didn’t have room… and, wait, I’m getting off topic here…

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So Mom set the table with these dishes. Jimmy looked at his plate and firmly stated that he wanted HIS plate. Mom said it was dirty and he could use it tomorrow. Like a rational 3year old, Jimmy then flung the flower plate across the table, and it hurdled though the kitchen, smashed, and broke. Mom was mad, Jimmy was surprised, Dad must not have been home yet because I KNOW I’d have remembered his reaction.

Days later, Mom and Jimmy were in the kitchen when she saw something on the floor and went to pick it up. Anger flashed across her face as she sternly held it up. “Do you know what this is?” she barked, hoping he would feel some remorse. “A twiangle?” he answered, sweetly, sending my mom into reluctant giggles.

This story has become one of those family legends that gets told whenever we think of it because it’s funny. We laugh because it was cute that he didn’t see the shard of broken plate as a reminder of his tantrum—it was a triangle. The exchange made Mom laugh then, and it makes her laugh now. It’s now legend, and one of those things we collectively remember and laugh about together.

In 2007, Mag was about three, and one night when the whole family was at my folks’ house for dinner, Mom served Mag’s dinner on Jimmy’s McDonald’s plate. After several moves, Mom had come across the plate in a box and thought that letting Maggie use it would be fun. Jim cracked up, recalling his history with the infamous plate, and we retold the story for the millionth time.

After dinner, as Mag brought the infamous dish to the kitchen, she dropped it. The brittle, 30 year old melamine plate broke in half. Jim was devastated. The plate he’d loved so dearly, the plate that had faded into our collective memory and then miraculously resurfaced, was now gone. Traumatically gone. Mom didn’t think Jim would take it so hard, but he did. And as grown ups do, he got over it and moved on, eventually forgetting about the plate that had made such a brief reappearance into his life.

It was on this trip to Huntsville when I saw it on a table in an antique shop. A 37-year old melamine plate with Ronald McDonald frolicking in the leaves with Grimace. It’s not the first thing one imagines when thinking of vintage dishware, but, oh well…. In 1977, I this plate was purchased over a Mc Donald’s counter for about $1. In 2014, I was going to give an antiques dealer exponentially more than that, but it’d be worth every penny to see my brother’s face on Christmas.

/home/wpcom/public_html/wp-content/blogs.dir/55d/80083171/files/2014/12/img_1351.jpgWhen we got home, I tucked the plate away, and on Christmas Eve, I made sure it was all wrapped up so I could see Jimmy’s face reaction when he opened it. I couldn’t wait. I suck at keeping secrets, so keeping this under my hat for six months was torture. It was SO worth it. The Crazy Train had never heard the story (since we didn’t want to rub salt in Uncle Jimmy’s wounds after the tragic event), so we laughingly retold the story for the first time in years. And Jimmy carefully wrapped up his plate and stored it where it could not be broken right away.

I only wish I had thought to find a Fransiscan Ware Floral Pattern plate for my mom. I searched eBay after everyone left, but serendipitous encounters with objects are more my style. Someday I’ll run across a single plate somewhere, and when I do, the epic family story will come full circle.

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