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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Top Ten 2014 Crazy Train Destinations I Haven’t Blogged About… Yet.

We’ve been backroads road-tripping since before the kids– I only just started blogging about it. There are countless places I haven’t written about yet. With all the end-of-year lists emerging, I wanted to share my Top 10 Texas Destinations of 2014 that I haven’t blogged about yet. This is just the tip of the iceberg!

These are in no particular order since they’re so different, so I’ll just list ’em as I think of ’em!

10. Bandera
We went to Bandera for the National Day of the American Cowboy. We had a great day and wanted to spend the night, but learned a valuable lesson: Sometimes advance hotel reservations are necessary, or else you find yourself at Buckees at 3am for coffee.

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9. Shiner
One of these days, we’ll make it to Shiner on a weekday when the brewery is open. Until then, the “Antiques Art & Beer” place is my favorite spot. Especially the ladies room.

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8. Cuero
We had no idea there was a Pharmacy Museum in Cuero (heck, we’d never even heard of Cuero either). From the outside, it looked cool. The lady in the liquor store across the street said it’d been in the works for ever, but still hadn’t opened. Once it is, we’re there!

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7. Mason
For Mag’s birthday, we went on a topaz dig on a private ranch in Mason. It was pretty awesome. Then we explored the downtown square, although everything was closed for the day (weekends are tough for roadtripping to small towns). We’d like to go back and do the whole thing again…. minus the crack.

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6. Hallettsville
We’d heard that Hallettsville is a great little town, but we’ve never been on a day when everything was open. We’ve been through on a Sunday, and we went back for their Kolache Festival where William took the title of Kolache Eating Champion, 10 & Under Division. THAT was a day to remember!

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5. London
Raina and I had High Tea in downtown London. Yes, I’ll blog about it. Not sure if we’ll be headed back, but at least we can tell everyone that we went to London and had tea.

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4. Gonzales and Goliad
Who knew that the “Come and Take It” cannon was still around and that you could actually see it? Both Gonzales and Goliad had a lot of interesting historical spots, and they’re pretty close together. I’m really looking forward to blogging about both places.

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3. Huntsville
I’ve always thought of Huntsville as the prison town. But it was fantastically beautiful. With Sam Houston State University, countless cool historic sites, and all the cool antique dealers on the square, we are definitely planning a return trip.

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2. Walnut Springs
Out in the middle of nowhere, somewhere between Meridian and Glen Rose is a little ghost town called Walnut Springs. A short trip into a junk shop turned into one of the most memorable Crazy Train afternoons yet. Definitely looking forward to a return trip. Sometimes you really can’t judge a book by its cover.

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1. Phelps
Is there a more PERFECT spot for a family photo than in front of a city limits sign for a town bearing your last name? I know, right?!?!? But, to quote the poet Robert Burns, “But little Mouse, you are not alone, In proving foresight may be in vain: The best laid schemes of mice and men, Go often askew, And leave us nothing but grief and pain, For promised joy!” In other words, no city limits sign, no ghost town, no family photo…. nothing but a dot on the map. Literally.

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I could go on and on and on. But, why give y’all preview snippets when there are full stories to be told? Here’s to a fantastic upcoming year filled with more fun and adventure with the Crazy Train!

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The Bug Farm, Conway, Texas

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The last town before Amarillo– or the first after leaving– on Old Route 66, is the ghost town of Conway, TX. Before I40 was routed 1/2 mile north of town, Conway consisted of ranchers and farmers who settled in the area in the late 1800s. The town grew after the Choctaw route of the Chicago Rock Island and Gulf Railroad came through in 1903.

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In 1967, the Crutchfield family opened a service station and souvenir shop at the I40 exit to Conway. Two years later, the town peaked at a whopping population of 175 people, but a year later, more than half of them had moved away. By 2000, only 20 people remained, and by 2002, the Love’s truck stop across I40 was the main draw in the immediate area. Undeterred by the big guys across the highway, one of the Crutchfields had an idea to lure in customers. He had always loved the Cadillac Ranch out west of Amarillo, so why not create a parody of the attraction east of the city? He put his knowledge of off-road equipment to use and buried five Volkswagon Beetles nose-down, a la Cadillac Ranch, in front of their station. It wasn’t long before the spray painting began.

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The stunt brought in the local media and drew in some customers, but it was’t enough to sustain the business. In 2003, the Crutchfields bugged out of town, and it has been abandoned ever since. But, that doesn’t stop kitsch-seekers like us from making it a destination point. I’ve heard it’s a great spot for geocaching, if you’re into that. The Bug Farm, or the Bug Ranch, or the Slug Bug Farm or the Slug Bug Ranch, or the Bugg Farm, or the Rattlesnake Curio and Souvenir Shop– whatever it’s called, all that’s left now is a deteriorating roadside attraction with Crazy Train written ALL OVER IT. (Quite literally!)

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Speaking of souvenir shops, I think I need to interject something here for a quick second. I was a little surprised at the lack of nick-knacks, tchotchkes, tshirts, and other miscellaneous crap available with “Rt66” emblazoned on it. Though relieved not to be nagged constantly for a bunch of crap by my kids, I am sure we could have found something wonderful that we couldn’t have lived without. I’m not sure how I’m going to survive without a Rt66 keychain, or how I am gong to feel in six months when I am not yelling at the rest of the Crazy Train when I retrieve a broken Rt66 snow globe from under the seat of the car. But I digress. Back to Conway.

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The Crazy Train had almost as much fun at the Bug Farm as they did at Cadillac Ranch. We climbed around an old Ford(?), took a fantastic family picture, and William even found a partially filled can of spray paint and the kids got to leave their mark both east and west of Amarillo. We were the only ones there, and it was a little warmer and slightly less windy than Cadillac Ranch had been. It’s definitely worth a stop.

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The Town of Medicine Mound, Texas. Population: 0

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While doing on-the-road recon for Ft Phantom Hill, we stumbled upon the name of a town that promised to be well worth a detour. Medicine Mound, TX has been called (by texasescapes.com) “Texas’ most interesting ghost town,” and when we see a claim like that, the first thing the Crazy Train’s Pilot and Navigatrix say is GAME ON!

This tiny town is surprisingly easy to find (unlike most ghost towns) as it’s still on most maps. Named for the nearby Medicine Mounds, the town was created when the Kansas, Mexico and Orient Railroad Co. extended their line in 1909. Almost immediately, business sprung up and more families arrived in the area. With a population of 500 and 22 businesses at its peak in 1929, Medicine Mound had promise.

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But the Stock Market Crash in 1929 was immediately followed by a decade of depression, drought, and dust storms. It was during this time that a bizarre series of events unfolded that would destroy this community, leaving it LITERALLY in ruins.

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This, my friends, is a story worth reading. (See bottom for explanation of my new word!)

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But first, OUR trip!
When we arrived in Medicine Mound, the cold wind was blowing a storm into town (and blowing my hair out of my ponytail!). The sun was on its way down, casting long shadows and giving everything really intense colors.

There are essentially three buildings left in town: 1.) The Cole building, which is now a museum run by a town native who lives nearby. We hear she opens for a few hours on Saturdays, but it wasn’t while we were there. 2.) The gas station, which is FLIPPING AWESOME with the old gas pumps still standing out front. 3.) The schoolhouse which is maybe 500ft away, down a dirt road (yet we were lucky enough that it was MUDDY!).

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Between the buildings is a little merry-go-round, so while I was kodaking at the gas station and Mark was peeking around the Cole building, the kids got to run wild. Since the biting wind had numbed our ears and we didn’t want muddy kids in the car, we drove to the schoolhouse and I jumped out and sacrificed my boots for some great pictures.

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This place was really cool. And if it hadn’t been so windy and cold, and had the museum been open, and had the sun not been so close to setting, we might-would have stayed and kodaked a little longer.

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Ok, back to the history. What happened to Medicine Mound?

At about 3:00am on March 31, 1933, Mrs Ella Tidmore BURNED DOWN THE TOWN.

The sad story of the Tidmore family was mostly a well-kept, small-town, secret for more than 65 years. The act of arson was not investigated (or even reported) although over $50,000 (about $1M today) in damage had been done, and all but 2 buildings in Medicine Mound were burned to the ground.

The Tidmores were one of the first families to settle in Medicine Mound, arriving before the railroad in 1902. By all accounts, the Tidmores were the perfect family. They were socially prominent, wealthy, active members of the community. Jim Tidmore was a deacon in the church and had higher ambitions than farming– he opened the town’s first commercial real estate venture. The large, extended Tidmore family was well liked, healthy, intelligent, and good looking. But when things went bad, they went BAD. Unrequited love, extramarital affairs, prison sentences, suicide, multiple divorces, several attempted murders, drowning, untimely deaths, theft, well poisonings, several acts of arson and a tale of insanity so incredible– really, you’ve got to read it to believe it.

The lasting effect the Tidmore family had on Medicine Mound happened on the windy night of March 31, 1933. It was 3am when Ella, by then completely insane, set fire to the barber shop on the south end of town. As the fierce south winds whipped across the plains, it wasn’t long before the entire town was engulfed in flames, leaving only two businesses standing. Even the bank vault collapsed, destroying all the town and financial records. Throughout it all, neighbors said they saw Ella standing on her front lawn, laughing.

Between the destruction in 1933, a freak snowstorm in April 1938, WWII, and the Industrial Revolution, Medicine Mound quickly became one of Texas’ most fascinating ghost towns.

(Full story here: http://texashistory.unt.edu/ark:/67531/metapth26723/m1/20/)
If you have time to click around this book, it’s so awesome. It’s a book filled with hilarious (and sometimes tragic) small town stories and gossip. There is some fantastic stuff in there. I wanted to buy a copy, but I could only find one online for sale, and it was $135.00. Yeah. No. But, I have read a bunch of the stories, and from one of them, I added a new word to my vocabulary:

KODACING (or KODAKING).

the -ing form of the word, appropriate in almost every situation, of the word Kodak. As in the camera/film/etc. company. In the book, it’s spelled with a “c,” but I prefer a “k.” Example: While in Medicine Mound, I enjoyed kodaking around the town. A common pastime in Medicine Mound in the 1920s was kodaking on the Mounds. Unfortunately I don’t get to use many Kodak products anymore, but it’s my homage to George Eastman!!! It’s so DORKY it’s AWESOME!!!!

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