I’ve spent many days of my life sitting across the kitchen table from my nan. During the day, the other members of the family will work in the yard – five acres requires near constant tending when the expectation rivals that of a golf course. Nan and I don’t work in the yard; we always found other things to do inside to occupy our time. On this day in particular, I was working on editing photos when Nan started talking about her childhood living near the railroad tracks in Nicolette, W.Va.
Nan grew up in a shack by the railroad track in Nicolette. At one time Nicolette was the largest city in Wood County. They had a sawmill, a hotel and a store. As you made it to Davisville, they had a post office, and that’s where the mail came from. There was a big post out by the track, and they put the mail out on it. Someone on the train would hook the bag with a shepherds’ prod and the train wouldn’t stop until it went to a distribution center. Times have changed. Both towns are now just a shadow of their former selves, and paper mail is now considered a burden, if not wasteful.
As her story unfolded, she would pensively stare out the large picture windows that frame her terrace in perfect view of the kitchen. Her home may be large and stately now, but like she says, she grew up on the train tracks – and that was nothing to be proud of.
“I had a relationship with those trains. They were my friends. You had to make your own entertainment where you could,” she said.
JoAnn (this is her real name, but it seems entirely too formal for the story ahead of us) was young during World War II, but she still remembers parts of it. Mostly, her memories revolve around the train tracks.
“I didn’t know much what the war was about – I certainly didn’t know what a German was,” she said.
A lack of knowledge did not equate to a lack of curiosity. Transported by train, German prisoners of war passed by her house in Nicolette. Where they were going remains a mystery. Her best guess was either to the POW camp in W.Va. or out West to another camp. Either way, she describes the men as young, and probably scared.
“We had a neighbor who would be the first out there whenever we got word that the train was coming through. He would stand in his yard until he was bowlegged waving the American flag,” she said. “We knew that they were an enemy, and they were going to a prisoner camp. But I didn’t know a German from a tea kettle. Whenever we would get down there, mother and I would wave at them. A lot of people shook their fists and hollered at them.”
The prisoners waved back, and for a small girl, it was exciting. The news wasn’t delivered via the television, mobile device and social media. JoAnn and her mother relied on a battery radio and word of mouth. “Each story was embellished a little more” and by the end of the day, it was hard to tell the truth from the sensationalized rumors.
“You know, you think about it, especially here in W.Va. – our roots were German – they could have been relatives on that train. They were drafted too; they weren’t all of the Nazi ideology. You know, really, I don’t know – the thought – of what made a Nazi. To them, it was a superior race. We just assumed they were all bad, but they weren’t, they didn’t all believe that either,” she said.
The same tracks that moved enemies also moved dignitaries. On one particular occasion she recalls finding American soldiers lining the length of the tracks. Her mother hurriedly made a batch of candy and sent her down with it to give to the men. Although appreciative, they escorted her back to her mother and informed her that she would have to stay away from the tracks for the day as President Roosevelt was going to be passing through by train and they needed to secure the area.
Jumping topics, Nan quickly intercedes that soldiers weren’t the only thing that came by train. Actually, the train brought a myriad of wonderful things to Parkersburg. Sometimes, it even brought the circus to town. The circus was a sight to behold. Schools closed, people took off work and the whole town was present.
“The circus came in on trains. I only saw it unload once when it was stopped – and they stopped down in the high cars, and they took the elephants down from there. I watched that once from the tracks on my way home from work. They don’t use elephants anymore, and I’m glad,” she added.
She attempted describing where the high cars are – and the best we could conclude was that it’s near Camden Clark, today. Parkersburg has certainly grown up since the time of the train whistle.
“It was an event. There were flyers and posters everywhere. And everybody knew the circus was coming to town, we could get off school. It was funny because I think we went home at noon. I was a Cedar Grove Elementary School then, and I told my teacher that Mother said that I had to take a nap before the circus. Mother never said that at all, but I thought it sounded like something I should say if I was missing school,” she said.
She went to the circus one time, it was most likely Barnum and Bailey. She remembers that it was “a circus under the big tent” and that is what really mattered. You wore the best you had. When the circus was over, they packed up the big cats, clowns and elephants as it journeyed on to the next city.
However, sometimes, a little part of the circus stayed behind.
“Mother and I were walking back home from Davisville, and there were men working on the railroad with one of those pump carts,” she said as she makes the motion required to operate one. “Mother yelled for me to run and get them because she had seen what she described as a boa constrictor. We assumed it had fallen off a train – it was a big snake, fit for a circus – side show oddity. It certainly wasn’t native to Wood County.”
By the time the men arrived, her mother had watched it slither away into a pipe. Never seen again, the escaped snake remains in purgatory somewhere between fact and family folklore.
Snakes and hobos weren’t the only passengers hitching rides into town either. The railroad connected all across the United States, so sometimes outsiders ventured in from great distances.
“Our neighbor once caught an armadillo – we didn’t know what an armadillo was. It was like something from outer space – had we known what outer space was. People came from miles around to see that thing – people were coming to this big white house in Nicolette. ‘Look at that!’ We didn’t know what to feed it, or what it was. But it ended up freezing to death, it’s not used to this climate. Why, can you imagine us old country hicks seeing an armadillo? It had its own armor – it was here to get our little ones,” she laughed.
The National Limited passed by her house every evening; a welcome sight for an only child with a vivid imagination.
“It was a make believe thing that it was my friend. I could hear it leaving the Parkersburg terminal and it would be getting its highest speed by Nicolette. There was a crossing near there and they would have to blow the whistle, and I thought they were saying ‘hello’ to me. It was so amazing to me that anybody would have money or wherewithal to get on a train. They’d toot and toot and I would wave,” she said.
After a while, the trains were powered by steam engines and they burned coal. The house JoAnn lived in did not have any heat, so her and her mother would walk the length of the tracks trying to find pieces that had fallen off. They would walk around two miles collecting coal and hiding particularly large pieces to retrieve on their return trip.
“There was another old fella down there doing the same thing and he would find our coal and take it,” she recalls, still incensed with his brazen theft. “After a while, the train’s firemen figured out that Mother and I were up there by ourselves, and they started just tossing the coal near our house. They would shovel it over until they were out of sight. That was really nice.”
Coming in from yard work, my mom joins the conversation from another side of the kitchen table. She lived near the tracks when she was younger, too, while my nan was with my granddad in a military hospital in New York.
Although it was at least 25 years later from when Nan lived on the tracks, the train still brought entertainment. My mom (Suzanne) remembers, vividly, a time that the train completely derailed from the tracks. The train carried loads of corn.
“As soon as I jumped in (the corn), I started sinking. He (a train worker) pulled me out; I could have suffocated in there. Mammaw was down there with bags and buckets – making all kinds of trips. A guy came down with a tractor loading it up. Some guy even had a mule down there with burlap bags over it,” she said.
Quickly, but presumably not quickly enough, the railroad police showed up the intentions of finding and arresting people who were hauling away the corn.
“Mammaw had a whole storage room full of bushel baskets – about six of those full of corn. She threw a sheet over them and just straight-faced lied to that guy – ‘nope, I know nothing about that – you might want to check up the holler; you can’t trust those people up there,’” she recalls.
The train brought visitors and locals into the area. For those wanting to catch the train, you simply stepped on to the tracks to flag it down or wave a lantern to catch the attention of the conductor.
A neighbor who conducted business in Washington, D.C. would return back through Nicolette late at night by train. Every time he came through, he would throw a bag of candy off the train for my mom and a newspapers or magazines out for Nan.
The train tracks that brought circuses, friends, soldiers and coal have long since been converted to trails throughout West Virginia. The whistle that faithfully sounded off at 2 a.m. is a distant reminder of a booming time in a long forgotten town.
“We occasionally hear a whistle, and it just brings me right back.”