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From the Heart of the Texas Hill Country



 By Joseph Luther

September 1923 my family came to Kerrville from White Bluff, Tennessee.  They sold out, as my father said, “Lock, stock and barrel” and boarded the Nashville, Chattanooga and St. Louis train headed for the Texas Hill Country.


My grandmother, grandfather, two uncles and my father headed west by rail to Memphis and from there to San Antonio.  Three days later, they arrived in San Antonio.  Their destination was Comfort – because “it sounded good.” So they took the S.A. & A.P. train to Comfort.  My grandfather got off the train at that town and looked around.  He asked the conductor if there was another town up the line.  Of course, the conductor told him that Kerrville was the end of the line.  So destiny manifested itself.


Upon arrival in Kerrville, my family was met by a “goodly number” of people, which was the custom in those days.  My family of 5 crowded into a Red Bird Overland touring car that served as a taxi and went over to the Stegall Hotel where they checked in at 616 Main Street.  They rented a house from Dr. Domingues until my grandfather could build their new home.  My father was 10 years old at that time.


I have vivid memories of THE TRAIN in Kerrville.  The transit of the train seemed to be a big event.  Standing on and crossing the tracks always offered an element of suspense as to when exactly the train would pass by.  The marvelous nature of the train to Kerrville is that it passed right through the town.  Many of Kerrville’s kids amused themselves by putting pennies on the tracks.  For whatever reasons, they gradually increased the size of the objects, as they got older.  This practice usually came to a sudden stop when their car or bicycle was actually run over by the train.  It happened.  Oh, but not to me – it was someone I knew.


It is an old memory, but I think I can remember the route that this train took.  I know that it ran alongside the old highway to San Antonio, coming into town out by Legion, passing by Mosty’s Nursery and then Schreiner Institute.  From there it made its way up to Tivy High School (The Hut) and thence westward into town, sorta paralleling Main Street which was but a few blocks south. 


The old train terminal along Sidney Baker Street must be where my family landed.  Is this the original location?  I remember eating at a restaurant in that building in the late 1970s.  There was a lot of shrimp piled on an old newspaper.


But all this was not the big deal with the train.  The BIG DEAL was turning the locomotive around. Oh fatuous joy!  It was a very slow moving train and upon hearing its whistle one could scurry, over to the place where the tracks ended, to meet it.  A crowd of kids always gathered around the medieval wooden mechanism to turn the locomotive around, so it could push its cars back to San Antonio.


Over by the former location of the wool and mohair warehouse that spectacularly burned down about that time, the locomotive turntable was to be found somewhere around McFarland and Hays Streets.


Looking like a medieval siege machine, the turntable squatted upon its dark stained timbers, oozing creosote oil and axle grease.  I was so small and the mechanism seemed so huge. Without explanation, there was some genetic memory at work there.  It felt not only pleasing, but also somehow appropriate that I reached out and put my hands on that primitive machine and pushed until the locomotive had been turned around 180 degrees.


When the locomotive was isolated from the train, it chugged onto the turntable and sat quietly doing its mechanical things.  As if by a war signal, we charged the turntable and grabbed onto one of the many shafts or spokes that radiated from it.  Imagine the thrill – the crowd, the immensity of the locomotive and the ancient genius of the wooden turntable.  It was another age – it had to be Roman in its engineering.  SQPR.  I was struggling, not for the glory of Rome, but for the glory of Kerrville.


It was a great effort for a small boy to push that locomotive around.  The older boys took up the strain – my problem was keeping my hands on the spoke shaft and my feet on the ground at the same time.  It was my first real team time.  Surprisingly, I remember the swivel as easy, but then I didn’t have to shove very hard - and there was a lot of grease and oil on the ancient mechanism.  It was soon headed back towards the east from whence it had come.


On the railway siding, boxcars were culled out for unloading shipments to Kerrville businesses.  Among these was always a boxcar for the Schreiner stores.  My Uncle Leland worked at the Schreiner Feed Store.  It was his job to take an old truck to the siding and collect their boxcar.  The truck was an old Reo with hard rubber tires.  Uncle Leland would hook the boxcar to the back of the truck and head back down the street to the feed store.  He put the truck in low gear and set the throttle at low speed.  Then he drove down the railroad tracks on Sidney Baker Street towards the warehouse. 


It was a parade of sorts, as small children would follow him on bicycles.  Adults would wave and jokingly blow their horns as he passed by at walking speed.  As long as I can remember it was his big act.  He got out of the moving truck and walked in front of it – beckoning it to hurry up.  He paraded those few blocks from the train siding to the warehouse as a weekly event for many years.  Once Tex Ritter rode his horse alongside the truck down to Main Street.  It was a happy time.


On one magic day, my father “convinced” the conductor to let us ride in the caboose out to Legion.  You know, of course, I had a toy electric train in the closet, all the really fancy train equipment I inherited from my late Uncle Frank.  I had lived for this moment. 


My Dad heaved me onto the caboose step.  I hung on for dear life as we lurched away from the station.  Off we went, past your backyards and gardens, it was a view of Kerrville I would never see from an automobile.  We soon passed by the High School, rumbled over a creek or two, gained speed as we passed Schreiner Institute and soon creaked to a stop at Legion.  To this very day, I ride a train when and where I have the opportunity. 


Anyone who played football at Tivy High in 1960 will remember when the coaches had this great idea of how we could stay in condition during the off season.  We all had to go out for track.  I was singled out to pole vault – which is a dismal story.  Since there was no real track at the High School, we had to workout and practice at Schreiner.  So we would suit up at the Tivy gym, putting on those sweat suits and ridiculous little rubber ballerina shoes that runners wore in those days.


Then – oh excess – we walked over to the railway tracks and took off for Schreiner.  How far is that?  We were supposed to run all the way from Tivy Hut to the Schreiner Institute gym.  Some of my pals like Hobo Holton, Tooter Bowlin, Gilbert Rowe, Bill Matthews, Al Daves and Kenny Sincleair, would sprint out there.  Others of us, mostly the interior linemen, walked slowly so as to not chaff our inner thighs, which were highly developed by weight lifting.  (mmmmm)


Day after day, five days a week during the Spring, we would play our part in this migration on the train tracks.  We became adept at walking the rails and tiptoeing over the bridges – one foot daintily on each railway tie as we went slowly and painstakingly over the abyss.


On just one occasion, the train suddenly appeared as we crossed the bridge.  While some lesser mortals fled, some close cronies and I chose to climb down into the superstructure of the bridge and ride it out.  Glee turned to grim grit, which turned to pillar-clutching panic. You cannot possibly imagine how big and how long a train is until you are under it.  The locomotive and car after car passed within what seemed inches of my cringing head.  Its multifarious black mass steamed, leaked, whistled, groaned, hissed and made terrible squealing sounds as it passed over our heads.  The bridge supports actually moved, swaying with the weight.  The bridge itself began to make resonant noises.  My enduring sense of fatalistic catastrophism was born that day.


What happened to that train?  It must have just passed away, as have many rudiments of our times of yore in Kerrville.  I never saw it leave.   Was there a crowd?  Did they turn it around one last time, or did the locomotive just back its way out of our lives?


Somehow,  that train took my boyhood away with it.  Did it whistle?



Joseph Luther

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