Tracking Illmo's railroad heritage

Tuesday, December 9, 2003

Librarians objected to the first book in Gertrude Chandler Warner's classic "Boxcar Children" series. The librarians thought the book's orphaned children, living in a boxcar and surviving by their ingenuity, were having too much fun without any parental control.

Generations of children have loved the book since it came out in 1942. David Hardesty had an unusual reaction.

"When I first discovered the 'Boxcar' series I thought, 'Somebody wrote a book about us,'" he said. "But it was nothing like us."

From at least the 1930s until the end of the 1950s, many railroad families lived in boxcars in the old part of Scott City then called Illmo. The boxcars were pulled off the tracks, the wheels were removed and the boxcars were put on blocks. Entire families lived in them, sometimes different branches of the same family.

At one time in the mid-20th century, Scott City had the largest railyard between St. Louis and Memphis. There were two main tracks and 11 sidetracks. Living in a boxcar didn't seem that unusual.

Famous boxcar resident

The Scott City Historic Preservation Commission has organized an exhibit titled "Boxcar Living" to help the city celebrate its centennial. It includes a photo of the most famous boxcar inhabitant: Manny Jackson, who grew up to play for and now owns the Harlem Globetrotters.

The exhibit will be at the city museum called The Caboose on Jan. 1.

The railroad's importance to Scott City has diminished since those days when families lived in boxcars, one reason the commission is considering holding a reunion of the boxcar families. City Councilman Norman Brant estimates 20 to 25 people who lived in the boxcars are still around.

Even after the book came out and became popular, nobody called the youngsters who lived in the houses "boxcar children," said Hardesty's uncle, Charlie Markland. Nobody looked down on them either, he said. The whole town was scraping by.

"Everybody was poor," he said. "We had poor and poorer."

The wooden boxcars were brownish yellow, the color of almost everything the railroad owned. The boxcars were heated by coal stoves. They had no running water or bathrooms; families used communal outdoor faucets and outhouses.

But the boxcars were well-built. Families put up wallpaper on the inside and erected porches.

The men whose families lived in the boxcars were "section men" who helped maintain the track for the St. Louis Southwestern Railway. The free housing was partial payment for the low-paid, back-breaking work they did.

He was between the ages of 4 and 9 when Hardesty's family lived in the boxcar at the end of the 1950s. The house was open inside except for a partition that separated the room where his grandfather slept.

Close to normal

Except for the hoboes among them, living in a boxcar was pretty close to normal, said Hardesty, a Cape Girardeau resident recently retired from Southwestern Bell.

"We could see where the hoboes had slept," he said. "There were newspapers on the ground." Many of the families fed the hoboes.

In the 1950s, eight families lived in the "section quarters," another name for the group of boxcars. They were in an area that is now a few hundred yards east of the current city hall and north of Main Street.

Markland lived in the same boxcar from 1950 to 1954, his midteens, before leaving to go into the service. His father was a section man.

Markland, who still lives in Scott City, worked as a switchman, brakeman and conductor on the railroad but never as a section man. That work was too hard, he said.

Born on a kitchen table

The late James Moore was a section man who had the luxury of living in two boxcars placed together. One of his daughters was Brenda Fortner, now a resident of St. Charles, Mo., who lived there until she was almost 10. She remembers curling her mother's hair on the porch and crossing a ditch to get ice cream.

There were giant trees on each side of their driveway. She and her friends talked over the string and tin cans strung between them. Her older sister, Barbara, was born on the Moore kitchen table.

It was a life like any child in the town had, and nobody thought of their housing as anything unusual, Fortner said. "My dad built a porch on the front, or I guess he did. He could do about anything."

Fortner and her family provided many of the photographs in the "Boxcar Living" exhibit.

The railroad moved out the boxcar houses in 1959, the same year it discontinued passenger service. It also began employing section gangs that moved around maintaining the track.

A few of the boxcar houses still can be found in the city, though not in their original location. They have been incorporated into other houses or are being used as sheds.

sblackwell@semissourian.com

335-6611, extension 182

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