Monday, March 26, 2018

Don B Snyder: Part 1 - Riding the Rails I, Growing Up

Climbing My Family Tree: Donald B Snyder
Donald B Snyder
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This is Part 1 of a 13-part blog series sharing my Grand-uncle Don’s life story, in his own words, via an autobiography sent to me by Don’s grandson, Ron Oldfield, after Ron stumbled across one of my prior posts about his grandfather. It is shared with the permission of both of Don’s children and Ron Oldfield. [Note – Anything in brackets with green type is my added explanation of something in Don’s text.]


Don’s story:

Some of my family members wanted me to write down some of my experiences. Two years went by and I thought, “Why not?” Everybody has had experiences but I doubt if they have experienced what I have. I was born in Findlay, Ohio in 1918. As a baby, I had a close call with double pneumonia, but I made it.


RIDING THE RAILS 1


Climbing My Family Tree: Milk Delivery to City Homes (In the public domain; LOC)
Milk Delivery to City Homes (In the public domain; LOC)
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          Nothing of note growing up. I did get in trouble from skipping school and was put on probation. It was in the Big Depression and people would put change in the milk bottles [left out on the front porch], they had deliveries at home in those days. Kids all over town were swiping it. I hadn’t done any of that. A neighbor kid wanted me to do it with him and I said “O.K.”. The first and only bottle I picked up had six cents in it. There was snow on the ground and we got caught. I think they wanted to make an example of us as they took us to the city jail. There they read us off, handcuffed us, and walked us to the county jail. There they locked us up in a room that had a toilet. I heard they kept woman prisoners there. We were in solitaire. At each meal, they would shove a tray through a trap door. It was usually so hot you couldn’t eat it in a few minutes and they would take it back whether we had eaten it or not. Three days later my brother went to the sheriff to report me missing. He told him he had us upstairs. I was 15 years old and they hadn’t even notified our parents. After five days we went to court. The judge told off my parents and let me go. I never got in trouble again. I think this hard time is good for kids as it scares the daylights out of them. I’ve heard that juvenile places have TV and ping pong, etc. That doesn’t necessarily teach them a lesson.

Times were real bad in the Big Depression. If a man could work for a dollar a day, you got by ok. My dad had owned a number of houses. All were mortgaged. Times were so bad he lost them all except one large twelve room house with three lots, also an acre of ground where he raised black raspberries to sell, plus fruit trees. Also my uncle Howard, my mother’s brother. He lived alone in a small one-room house. He helped my dad some and dad looked after him. One day dad went to see how his chickens were. The whole dozen were dead. He asked Howard what happened. Howard said, “they looked like they had the croup.” He thought he should doctor them. Dad asked, “what with?” Howard replied “coal oil and cayenne pepper.” Those poor chicks.

Back to the depression. Dad couldn’t find work after being laid off. They would shut off our electric and we would use coal oil lamps. Finally, he would pay it and they would turn it on. Then the natural gas would be shut off and we had a big kitchen range. You could burn gas and on one side you could burn coal to cook on, plus it had a hot water tank. Often we would have froze but we did as a lot of our neighbors did, got coal from the railroad beside our house. We were blessed by having another railroad up ahead that crossed ours.

Climbing My Family Tree: Nickel Plate Railroad Schedule Cover
Nickel Plate Railroad Schedule Cover (in public domain)
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We lived beside the Nickel Plate Railroad. Up ahead it crossed the New York Central Railroad. The trains would stop by our house until they got the ‘all clear’signal from the guy in the little shanty at the crossover. A few times he fell asleep and the fireman had to walk and wake him up. At times you could see at least a couple dozen or more people riding in empty boxcars or gondolas, empty coal cars that had a flat bottom and sides about six to seven feet high. All cars had rungs at each end that went to the top. There was a board walkway in the middle of the top about 16 inches wide and four inches high from one end to the other. It was possible to go car to car by jumping across the ends of the cars. It was enticing to me and I started to hop onto the trains. People were not working then and had no money to buy coal. These trains stopping there was a blessing to them. They would get on top of coal cars at night and throw the coal off. Lots of people did it. It kept many a family from freezing. The police seemed to look the other way. I remember a kid I went to school with. He told me he and his brother were throwing off coal from a coal car. He saw his brother standing there doing nothing. He spoke up and said, “come on, let’s get this coal in before a bull (detective) shows up”. Turned out he was talking to a bull. He took them downtown and then let them go. I suppose so they could pick up the coal and take it home as it wouldn’t look good laying around in the daylight.


          There wasn’t any work and nothing to do, so I started riding the freight trains. Mostly everyone rode in empty boxcars with the doors open. I got the wanderlust and started riding them. The boxcars were fine. The coal gondolas were about six feet high inside. Not so good, but you couldn’t be seen except from someone climbing up or looking down from an adjoining boxcar. Then the big tank cars had a big walk around them. It was O.K. to stand and hold onto a handrail around the car. If you sat on the walkway you didn’t have much to hold on to, especially when the train would jerk. Then there was the ‘hopper’ dump cars. They were higher than the gondolas. And the insides slanted down so the coal could discharge from the bottom. At the lake ports they would turn the car upside down, empty it onto the lake boats, turn it upright and down to the yards. There were not comfortable to ride in. As for the boxcars, you could sleep in them if you didn’t mind the clickety-click of the rails, the ding-ding-ding of the streetcars, etc. After a while, you got used to it. Also, the bulls couldn’t see you very well. On the ‘reefers’ (refrigerator cars) at each end, there was an ice compartment. It was about six feet wide and the width of the car with rails you could climb down in the car. On top of the compartment was a trap door about three by two feet on each side of the car. They were kind of heavy and you could throw one back and not have to worry about it slamming shut. It made a nice place to ride although you missed the scenery. Sometimes you would climb up to see if everything was ok. And get back down. Out west, most of the cars were meat runs to Chicago and were full. Then you would ride the top, between the cars hanging on, or whatever. These meat runs ran at 60 to 70 miles per hour.


Climbing My Family Tree: Boy Hopping Train, Great Depression (in public domain; LOC)
Boy Hopping Train, Great Depression (in public domain; LOC)
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          I have rode passenger cars also. Where the cars connected there was a folding part, about three feet wide and covered. They joined together so people could walk from car to car. The front car next to the engine was open and you could ride covered and standing up. Called the ‘blind baggage’. You had to know the railroads as some (Pennsylvania) had a track in the middle filled with water. The train would slow down, let down a chute and scoop up the water into the tender. It would throw a lot of water onto the front car. I read where a Toledo man was froze fast in the winter. They chiseled him out and he was O.K. Another time a man froze to death in the same way. One time I was hiking from Canton, Ohio to home. It was dark and snowing. I came to a railroad, the ‘Pennsy’ (Pennsylvania Railroad) passenger was at the station across the road from where I was standing. I got an idea. I knew it went to Lima, Ohio so I went to the blind baggage next to the engine. I knew after the next stop that it took water on the ‘fly’ so I went back a couple of cars, hanging on between cars. It was risky as I only seen a couple of guys hanging on between cars on passengers. Anyway, I did it and was o.k. When I went to the front again everything was wet as was the second car. Next stop I went backward and repeated it. After that, I rode the front and got to Lima o.k. Then to Findlay on the Nickel Plate. It was a good thing I knew the railroads. I might add that I was 15 to 16 years old then. I would often go to Lima and back later to Muncie, Indiana. There I’d sleep in the jail basement on the cement along with about 50 or more others. I knew how to go through the garage without checking in at the desk. One night I noticed a guard there. I asked him why and he said, “you know about that murderer that’s in the paper headlines?” I said “yes,” and he said, “we think he sleeps down here.” In the morning I went to a mission for doughnuts and coffee. Then I caught a freight to Lima. It was around 0º F and I had to ride the top and hanging on between the cars. I almost froze, but I made it. I got off the train in Lima, Ohio as it slowly rode into the yards. Then I walked around the yards onto a bridge. A man saw me and in a shocked way said, “do you know some idiot came in on that train?” I said, “yes, I’m the crazy idiot.” I left him mumbling something I didn’t hear. As I said it was 0º F plus the speed of the train made it worse.


Climbing My Family Tree: Montreal Mission Soup Kitchen, 1931 (out of copyright in CA & USA)
Montreal Mission Soup Kitchen, 1931 (out of copyright in CA & USA)
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Lima, Ohio had a bull ‘detective’ named Lima Slim, and the word was he was mean and had killed a couple of riders. I went through Lima a lot of times but never had the pleasure of meeting him. This was because, as we entered the yards, I’d get off and walk around the yards and at the other end, I’d hide and catch it as it was leaving. One time I and a friend, Chuck Brown, wanted to go to South America. We thought we might hire on a freight ship in New Orleans, hence getting to South America. I didn’t even tell my folks I was leaving. I often did this, going to Lima, Muncie, Indiana, and Indianapolis. On this trip, we left Findlay, Ohio on a Nickel Plate Railroad freight train. We got to Indianapolis ok. Up ahead we saw a freight leaving the yards. I wondered as it was a short one. Anyways, we caught it and got in a boxcar. It went a ways and stopped, switched cars and went on. Then I realized it was what was called a ‘beltline’ that does switching from yard to yard. We got off and walked miles from where we started at 5º F. Well we gave up on that one and did the only sensible thing: went home.

I might add that I knew the railroads very well: where they went and which ones had the reputations that you should avoid them. About two years ago I saw in the newspaper a man [Errol Lincoln Uys] was writing a book about teenagers riding the rail and requesting them to write him. I did and he wrote the book Riding the Rails [you can find the book HERE ], which I understand was a best seller. He then sent me a copy of a paragraph that was about me.

“It was terrible way to live. It was rough and dangerous but there was also a mystical quality,” said Don Snyder, who rode the rails for three years from 1933, when he was 15. “The sound and moan of a whistle in the silent darkness echoing through the hills. The smell of the cars and the clicking of the rails. The ding, ding, ding at the crossings. The excitement of avoiding the bulls and the brakies. The open prairies, the mountains, the clear skies above you. For all the hardships, you feel a faint longing to hit the road again. I wouldn’t do it for anything.”

[The author has a longer quote from Don on his author website, in the Archive section for the book, Riding the Rails, it is the fifth entry in the OHIO section, below the New York section, THIS PAGE ]

Once we were fighting at an athletic show at a homecoming in Hicksville. Coming home, we hitched to Defiance, Ohio and I saw a passenger train at the station. I said, “let’s catch it.” Chuck said, “o.k.,” so we watched as the bull searched the train so we caught it on the run. At Deshler, Ohio it stopped for water and the fireman who came back on the tender to put the water in. He saw us, looked back and pointed his finger back. I said, “it’s the bull [detective], let’s get off.” Chuck said, “let’s go for the weeds.” I said, “no, let’s go on the station side, he won’t expect us to do that.” We did and got away. I said, “Chuck, I think we can still catch it.” On the opposite side of the station, we went to the front. The bull came running around the corner and bumped right into us. He swelled up like a toad, face red, and puffing. He looked at Chuck and said, “I see you have a black eye, I’d like to blacken the other one.” Then he looked at me and said, “you too.” I wanted to say “try it and you’ll wish you hadn’t.” There were a lot of people watching so he said “now you kids get out of here,” and we did, hitchhiking the rest of the way home. Another time I was younger and a pervert tried to grab me. I ran up a grade and he caught me. We wrestled down the grade turning over and his face ran into a bramble bush. He let go and I took off. Chuck stayed home, but I hitched and went to Wapakoneta, Ohio and joined the athletic show again.


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