Greasing the Rails

This is my favorite story of all time. I’ve spent time on the hill Louie talks about, and in the rail yards, and at the roundhouse. It’s all too familiar, and there’s no end to the adventures he got into.

"Soo Line 2719 Steams from Duluth to Two Harbors, MN" by Pete Markham - Flickr: Soo Line 2719 Steams from Duluth to Two Harbors, MN. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons -,_MN.jpg#mediaviewer/File:Soo_Line_2719_Steams_from_Duluth_to_Two_Harbors,_MN.jpg

Similar steam engine. From Wikimedia.

The roundhouse was the engine house, with a huge turn table that directed steam engines and tenders into various stalls in a circle around the table. In the engine house workers maintained and repaired the steam engines. They needed frequent maintenance and service. Every hundred miles or so the engines had to take on coal and water. Even rail box cars needed frequent maintenance and service, including greasing the axles, as Louie describes in today’s letter.

Security as we know it today was non-existent in the thirties and the fifties. Our little gang of kids would often go into the roundhouse to clamber around on the engines. It was a dirty place, with coal dust and grease everywhere. Dangerous? OMG! Huge pits under the engines. Heavy tools and parts everywhere. Somehow we survived, I’m sure some did not.

Back to the story.

Grandpa Guy Havelick



Louie writes:

Being born and raised in a railroad town, all of the kids in the west end of town were always hanging around the rail yards of the “roundhouse.”

One of the things plentiful around the rail yards was buckets of grease. These were used to grease the wheel boxes located on the end of the wheel axles …

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Railroad flares

One of my closest friends when we lived in the Pink House was Nathan B. He was really a lucky kid because his mother would make toast for him whenever he wanted it. They lived in a rented house between our house and the park, right along the James River.

Railroad flaresOne warm summer evening we had one of the most exciting times ever. All summer Nathan and I combed the railroad yards for half burned railroad flares. It was finally time to use them. We found a little cove along the river near his house and started lighting flares. We thought we were nicely hidden and private where there was no way that parents could see us.

I really don’t know what’s in a railroad flare, but they had to be bright so the engineer at the front of a fifty car train could see what the brakeman back in the caboose was trying to say. They may have had black powder, and some chemical that caused them to burn blindingly bright for a long time. Probably not something an eight year old should be playing with. After dark. With a bunch of friends. Let’s just say we had a lot of fun.

Even in those days I was one of the first ones to leave the party. My house was only a block or two away, so it was a quick run home. When I got home and looked up the river towards Nathan’s house there was an astounding sight. A warm red glow lit up the entire river, side to side and from water to tree tops. I could clearly see the other boys playing with the still burning flares. Anyone crossing the second street bridge could have easily seen what we were doing.

Little did we know that the way the river twisted around, the entire neighborhood could see us clearly. Since we were night blinded by the flares, we had no idea who could see us. Why nobody saw us having that much fun I do not understand.

The rail yards gave us boys a lot of fun experiences. By comparison, today’s railroad tracks are incredibly sterile and boring. Perhaps they’re a bit safer, too?Grandpa Guy Havelick


Indians on the Dawson Trail

Kunkle House

Kunkle House

There’s something special about meeting someone nice for the first time. If that spark is in the air, you want to know everything about the other person. By the end of the evening you know all sorts of things about the new someone. Those stories become the foundation for a new, wonderful, relationship.

That sharing of stories didn’t happen between my mother and me until I was over forty years old. So many things seemed more important for those first forty years. I needed my allowance a day early, or it was time to get a driver’s license, or my own life filled my brain. Then I met Judy and stories about the past no longer mattered. Stories about Judy became my goal.

Since Grace died twenty years ago we’ve visited the Kunkel farm where she grew up a couple of times, and I’ve often visited the Fairview Cemetery where she’s buried. In the summer of 2015 the extended family gathered at the Luehr plots in Fairview to bury Grace’s older sister. The wind blew off our hats, and swept our words onto the wheat fields. Grace and her parents experienced that same wind, on those same hills in the first half of the twentieth century.

As much as the climate was similar, just about everything else was different.
Grandpa Guy Havelick


Grace writes:

To my four dear sons, their wives + children,

I want to start this story with some events that shaped my life before I was born

The story I’m enclosing was told to my sister-in-law Elaine. It’s about the farm where we lived in Buckeye township south of Lake Williams, North Dakota. Continue reading