Volume X, No. 3, Spring 1983


I WORKED ON THE RAILROAD FOR FIFTY-ONE YEARS

A visit with Lee Johnson

Interview by Scott Jeffries


Lee Johnson in 1963 as roadmaster for the Frisco railroad.

Of all the things I ever did, I'd rather turkey hunt than anything. One turkey hunt really taught me to watch where I sat down from then on. It had rained a little that night, but it was real warm that morning. I had to walk up an old road. I heard two gobblers, one gobbler in a holler over here and one in a holler over there about a mile away. I walked through an old laid up field. When I got up to the edge at the end of this old field, I thought the turkey over to the right was the closest. I set down and called, but they wouldn't do anything but just stand there and gobble. I was setting down on my knees, and I set there for twenty minutes. I looked at the ground right down between my legs and there laid a great big copperhead!

I just throwed one leg over the other and turned a flip-flop, kind of, down a hillside. I went back, got a stick, poked him, and he crawled up around a bush there.

I thought I'll call the turkeys one more time and I did. This time, the turkey way over in the holler had come up. He gobbled up on the hill, and it wasn't two minutes before he was strutting up there. I killed him, then I got me a club, and I worked Mr. Copperhead over. Why that sucker never curled up to strike but just laid there like a rope, I'll never know.

[72]

You know there's an art to turkey hunting. In the spring of the year is the mating time for turkeys, and these gobblers will gobble. Now if you're good enough to fool one of them and get him to come in to you--he thinks it's a hen--why, you can kill him. Otherwise, if you don't, you're just a-wasting your time because you might set there and call for two hours. If you make a mistake, he goes the other way instead of coming your way. The turkey call is what does it. You have to be awful careful. You've got to camouflage yourself and be hid. I killed one last spring that was twenty-three pounds with an eleven and three-quarters inch beard. That's a big fellow.

We have a wild turkey for Thanksgiving. Every Thanksgiving a bunch of people come, and we have a time. We've got lots of turkeys around here. I've sat right here and heard six or seven of them gobbling at different places in the morning in the spring of the year.

I hunted ever since I was six or seven years old. My dad had an old nitro-hunter shotgun. They made just two shotgun shells back in them days. They was all black powder and put out a lot of smoke. When you'd shoot, you'd have to wait five minutes to see whether you'd killed what you shot at, or you'd shoot one and run over to the side out of the smoke and look to see if you killed it.

The first time I ever went hunting, we was shucking off corn back in 1908. We had a little old black gum holler with some patches of corn. We shucked off a bunch of corn, set the fodder up in shocks and hauled the corn home. The turkeys were just a-eating it up. So I figured I wanted to kill me one of them turkeys. My dad had three shotgun shells, the old nitro shells--the old black powder. I knowed the old man wouldn't let me have the gun, so I stole that old shotgun out.

I hid in one of them cornshocks to wait until those turkeys come into the field but they didn't come. So I hid the old gun in a rabbit gum until the next morning. The second morning I went back and here come about thirty-five or forty turkeys down the path just coming into the cornfield. I started shooting. I shot all the shells. I killed five of them, and I don't know how many I crippled.

I started hauling them home and I couldn't even drag them, much less carry them. I finally wound up taking one home. I told my dad that I stoled the gun out. I didn't know what would happen, but he went back with me. We picked up the turkeys and he said, "Now, where's the gun?" We looked for an hour before we found it because when I stopped shooting, I just throwed the gun! He wasn't mad at me, never said a word. He was glad to have the turkeys and let me use the gun from then on.

Me and my brother, we had about forty or fifty rabbit gums. I caught lots of rabbits to sell. We had a mailman come out of Richland with a big old surrey and he bought rabbits. I'd get maybe three or four cents apiece for them. I'd catch twelve or fifteen a night. Nowadays there's not that many rabbits in that country.

I used to hunt back in them days with an old shepherd dog every night in the wintertime. We caught enough possums and stuff to buy our own clothes in the winter. I smelled like a skunk from November till the next spring. Skunks was four or five dollars apiece then. Now they ain't worth nothing. That was a lot of money then. I mean back in them days a dollar was a lot of money. And if people didn't raise what they ate, they didn't eat. That was all there was to it.

I'm a trapper and a hunter. I've always done a lot of trapping. I made eight hundred and twenty-four dollars in eight nights trapping this winter. The trapping season was the first of December till the tenth of January, but eight nights is all I wanted to do. I try to make enough from my trapping to buy three hogs and pay my taxes. When I do that, I!m satisfied.

This fall I had set my traps every day. The river was falling all the time. Just a little fall or raise will ruin your set. If the river level changes or you have a big wind and the water ripples and uncovers your set, you ain't going to do much good.

I keep a journal. I write in my journal every day. I have for years and I never miss a day. You'd be surprised at the things you drop back to. I put down the weather, and I keep the dates of my trapping, what I caught, and what I got for them. See, in 1970-71 I caught one hundred, twenty-seven muskrats, forty-two coons and three minks. In 1972 I caught a hundred, ninety-six rats and eighty-two coons. Rats is getting more scarce, and coons, too. Of course, I trapped a lot longer than I do now.

[73]

When I trap, I trap for something specific. For coons, I bail with fish--catfish heads most of the time. I put the heads in the deep freeze in the summertime and save them. I put a piece of wire in the heads and tie them to the trap where a coon can't get one loose. I never set my traps without covering them. I always use willow leaves or maple leaves to cover the traps. Sycamore leaves are too big. They won't let the trap function right.

You don't bait for rats. You just set the traps in a hole in the river or under a drift. I caught a mink this season. I had the trap baited with fish, and he went in after the fish but he didn't get it. I didn't know the mink were there at all. I hadn't ever seen tracks.

Incidentally, I caught a red fox this season on a piece of fish in the water. It's the first time I ever done that. Usually for foxes, you got to get out in the woods and use a fox scent that you order from trapping companies. You got to set it in a certain way and use a little of the scent. Your trap has to be covered up and everything disguised. Then stay away from it for a few days. Don't go about it at all, just go where you can see it. But I don't fool with trapping foxes now because I don't want to catch someone's dog.

Several years ago beaver used to be awful high. Styles control the price of fur. Now they are not hardly worth anything because long fur has took the place of short fur. Blanket beaver is worth about fifteen dollars. That's one that is so many inches around. But it is a job to skin one of them. I don't like to fool with them.

Besides trapping I like to go deer and squirrel hunting. I've killed a lot of deer in Missouri. I killed an eleven point buck. It's got a little head of horns but it is an original Missouri deer. Now there are a lot of Wisconsin deer that the Conservation Commission traded for. I like to go squirrel hunting, too. I'd rather have a couple of fox squirrels than anything, especially cooked on an old wood stove. Roll them in flour good. Let them sit there for about two hours. Pour some water in and let the water boil out.

Ain't nothing no better.

I worked for the Frisco railroad for fifty-one years. I went to work on the first day of August, 1915 and I quit the first day of September, 1966. All the time I worked on the railroad, I was under the gun twenty-four hours a day. But I could get off once in awhile, and everytime I got off I went hunting or fishing.

When I started to work in 1915, I was fourteen years old but I was working as hard as anybody. I started off running a twenty five horsepower engine, pumping water, and working as a station helper. I worked seven days a week and got twenty-seven, fifty a month. I worked that till World War I came on. Then they cut off all these station helpers and put on two more operators to work on a section. So I went to work on a section.

These railroad hands are replacing ties at Newburg, Missouri in 1957. Lee said, "I helped replace the old automatic block signals with centralized train control. Of course, time changes everything. The railroad stopped the passenger trains because they weren't making any money."

[74]

I went to Oklahoma about the time of the depression, and I stayed out there four years. Back then if you batted your eyes you got fired, and I batted mine at the wrong time. I got fired by not a-listening. I couldn't stand to sit there and listen to somebody demeaniate everything in the world without talking back. I was a-talking when I ought to have been a-listening. But I was glad of it because I didn't like Oklahoma.

I come back here and bought a farm on the Gasconade River over close to Richland. I threshed until the twenty-first day of June, and that night, a guy from the railroad came down and wanted me to go to work as a hand on an extra gang. An extra gang is a gang they put on to service the track other than a regular maintenance gang. There were about fifteen men on the gang. I went to work because I had a crop laid by, and I thought I'd work for a month or two to make a little money. I never did quit again!

I took ties out for twenty cents an hour, ten hours a day. But I could make more money at that than anything else. There wasn't no work then, no jobs. Maybe a farmer would hire you for three or four days for seventy-five cents a day. I worked that summer for twenty-five cents an hour. Away long late that fall we got a nickel raise. Thirty cents an hour wasn't a bad wage at all.

I worked until that next spring as a section hand. Then I got the foreman job on that gang until it was pulled off. I had nine places to bump because of my seniority. If a position came open, I could have that place. So I took the Springfield terminal. I was section fore man on the northside trainyard. I sold the farm after a couple of years. I didn't have no use for it.

I finally got up to fifty-six cents an hour. About that time World War II hit, and we didn't get nothing till the war was over. You talk about something. The only difference between me and somebody in the army, they wasn't a-shooting at me. We ran seven thousand cars a day through that little train yard up there. I was up five or six times a night. Somebody'd tear up something and I'd have to go up there. I'd have a car or engine on the ground or a switch brake or something. The railroad carried the troops by the millions and when these troop trains come, that was the priority. You got out of the way and everybody else got out of the way. It was really something.

During the war you couldn't buy a piece of meat. You couldn't go nowhere and buy the stuff. They wouldn't sell it to you because they didn't have it, but it was a sight on earth the stuff the army throwed away. They'd order a truckload of meat to go on one of these troop trains and a packing company would bring it over there. A lot of times I'd be walking down by the side of that troop train and the sergeant of the mess hall would say, "Hey buddy, you want a ham or meat?" They had to get rid of what they had or throw it away.

And it was a funny thing, railroad men was always trying to get something for nothing. You take switchmen or trainmen, if they could line up somebody or make a day extra, that was it. But during the time of the war, everyone had people in the army. They had boys or friends or something, and everybody worked together. If they hadn't I don't-know what would have happened. On the railroad nobody complained about nothing. Course, quick as the war was over this all changed. Union labor I think is what ruint the United States. I've belonged to union labor all of my life, but it's a bad thing. Detroit, for instance, is the worst off place in the United States. The automobile unions has got an increase in pay and better working conditions. Then automobiles get so high that these foreign countries are making better automobiles and making them cheaper, and now them guys in Detroit are setting up there without a job. It was the same way during the World War II. John C. Louis was good to the coal miners, and they went on strike against the government--every sixty days, didn't make them no difference. But when the war was over everybody went to oil and gas. I didn't feel sorry for them, not one bit, because they thought that by being on strike, maybe they'd get an increase in pay. I don't believe in that.

[75]

I didn't like to be mixed up in strikes. In 1944 I was promoted roadmaster from Springfield to Lebanon. After the war, they had a switchman's strike. The railroad wanted to move some perishable stuff from Springfield, and they had to get officials to do it because they didn't have no switchman. Well, I didn't aim to be in town, so I got away from Springfield. Roadmasters had to mark the ties that we were going to take out that year with a white paint brush. They were supposed to walk the track and paint them. Nobody ever done it, but that give me a good excuse. I come over to Phillipsburg in my motor car and stayed a week with the operator. I would stay over there in the woods in the daytime.

I was back in town one day, and the old block signal fell down to a forty-five degree angle, then directly to red which meant a train was coming. Then I heard a train whistle about Conway, four miles back. That was the first train they had run that week, so I knew the strike was over. When the train went by, I put my motorcar on and went back to Springfield.

The next day I seen the superintendent. He was a pretty mean old bird, and he said, "Where have you been?" I says, "I been a-marking ties. "And he says, "You must have had a lot of ties to mark." He knowed what I was doing. Well, I didn't switch no cars!

As roadmaster, I was responsible for driving conditions and maintenance of the railroad for about a hundred and forty miles. Everybody that worked on the track was working under me. I put in centralized train control from Lebanon to Springfield, spending fourteen million of the Frisco Railroad's money there. I built a train yard. We just started out in the mud and built twenty tracks that was over a mile long. It was a job, I'm a-telling you.

Before we had centralized train control, we had an old automatic block signal that stood up. When a train got in its track circuit, it fell halfway down. When a train got within a mile of the circuit, it went plumb down, and if you run on that track you was into bad trouble. They also had an operator at every little old depot that there was on the railroad then, and they gave the trains their orders all the time. Now they've got two operators between Springfield and Newburg. They took them old signals out, and they put in centralized train control with electric switches. Now a guy in Springfield lines every switch from Monett to Springfield.

The centralized control system is a big board in Springfield. It's got every switch on it between there and St. Louis, and that switch works just like the radio. For every train that is going to meet, he pulls a switch and lets a train go on the side, and then lets the other one go. That's done by green lights, yellow lights, and red lights. For instance, if you was going into Lebanon, going west, a ways out this side of Lebanon, you'd have a green signal. When you come to the next signal, it would be yellow. Whenever you'd come to the old Mustard crossing this side of the depot, if that was a high green, you would go on down the main line. If that was a low yellow, you would go on the right on the old westbound. Centralized train control was a big improvement.

Then they started to put the train line in over from Springfield to Thayer, so I was roadmaster on the southern division out of Willow Springs. We had a branch railroad, sixty-one miles on the chicken feed line on the Current River down through the Irish Wilderness. I rode down there the sixteenth day of August, 1950 and I was down there three years.

I had an awful lot of work to do down there. That branch road was all to pieces. They used to have a little old steam engine which had five drivers on the side and weighed eighty tons. When they got rid of steam engines, they took this diesel down there which weighed a hundred, twenty tons with four wheels under each end. It was just too heavy for the railroad. It would break that little old rail like a pencil, and on the ground it would go. We had that engine on the ground half the time from breaking that rail and from rotten ties. That old railroad had been laying there eighty or ninety years. In 1908, 1909, and 1910 when they started using creosote ties, they used a large nails to drive in that tie. The nail had a lead head with an 08, 09 or 10 on it, whatever year it was put in. There were still some of those old ties with those old nails in them. I had section gangs working and everything else.

[76]

I got lost once when a cyclone blowed all the timber the same direction. I finally went the way my head said not to go."

When we needed extra help we would use hobos. We had a hundred men some days, some days fifty, and some days a hundred and twenty-five. They would ship hobos out of Kansas City or St. Louis to us. The hobos would come in on a passenger train one night and maybe ten of them would stay or maybe they would all stay, you'd never know. They was all good railroad men, though. They would work good when they would work. Then they would go back into St. Louis or Kansas City, draw their money, and get drunk on that old canned heat. They would stay drunk and lousy until they about starved out and they then would ship back out again.

Boy, we had trouble with lice on them. One time--it was February and pretty cold--we got a bunch of hobos. They were lousier than pet coons. On a Saturday evening, I told them, "Every man up here on Monday morning that hasn't boiled just as well take off down the railroad." Boy, they had every lard can and kettle around there boiling.

Lots of hobos used to jump the trains. They would go south in the fall and come back in the spring, the same old birds with an old pack sack on their back. In the spring of the year, there would be fifty hobos on a train going to Canada to harvest. These train crews just let them ride. When they stayed through the harvest and rode back, these brakemen would say, "Hey, bud, I want fifty cents to ride my train." They would collect off of them when they was coming back. They probably didn't have any money on the way up.

We used to have an old paddy hobo. He was eighty years old. He had just kind of a V shaped place built out of old ties. He built a fire under there, you see. He had five or six of those places. He'd go from one of these places to the other on foot every day. He stayed there all winter. It didn't make no difference how deep the snow got or how cold it was, he'd go to this other place and he'd camp there of a night. What kept him from freezing to death, I don't know. But I guess he got used to it. I'd motor car down there and I talked to him several times. He got a pension of some kind.

After being roadmaster on the southern division, I came back to Springfield and took the Lebanon subdivision from Springfield to Newburg and I worked that for several years. Finally, I got a chance to come to Rolla to take the subdivision from Newburg to St. Louis. The reason I did it was because I got a roadmaster's house to live in in Rolla. That's where I wound up.

As roadmaster one of the biggest headaches I had was wrecks. When I had one of these big wrecks, I had to go out and stand day and night for maybe twenty-four hours or longer. One time we had a wreck on a bridge over the Gasconade river at Jerome. A journal, part of the axle, burnt off a boxcar. It was dragging along the ground and hit the corner of that bridge. It started tearing the bridge down and the train turned over.

[77]

I went up to a store there to call the chief dispatcher in Springfield. That is what we had to do when we got a derailment. I told him what the thing looked like and when we thought we'd get the railroad in operation. We would always want to give ourselves five or six hours and then we done a good job if we got it done, but if we didn't get it done by the time we told him, we were doing a sorry job. He said, "When do you think you can get the main line operating?" I said, "A week from today." He said, "My God alive, what are you talking about?" I said, "I'm talking about a wreck."

It was wreck I'll tell you. There was snow on the ground and it got down to zero every night. We was up on top of that bridge trying to clear that stuff off of there. We had to drive piling and put a wooden bridge up until we got the steel bridge up. We had to order a steel bridge and pour a concrete pier. It was something, but we got it done. It took a week exactly. It was a headache.

I remember some funny things from the railroad, too. Years and years ago, there were two workers, Charlie Keller and Joe Lick who would do anything. When Charlie carried the mail to the post office every morning, he carried with him a great big old forty-five pistol that the government furnished. One time there was a fellow came down off the highline, down from Kansas City. He went to town and while he was gone they made it up that when he came back, they'd be in a pretend fight. When he came back, they was into it, just a-having it up one side and down the other. Charlie pulled this old pistol out and told Joe, "That's it. I'll just kill you." Charlie hauled off with that pistol and shot a couple of shots at a big old coal box a-sitting there. Well, Charlie had a typewriter and adding machine in the depot that was his own private stuff. One of the bullets hit a piece of slug and went through his adding machine. They scared that fellow to death. He run to town, got the law and when they come back, Charlie and Joe were having a big conversation. But if it wasn't for something like that on the railroad, we'd all have gone crazy.

When I retired, my wife and I both got a big gold pass to ride on the train whenever we wanted, but it wasn't over twelve months till they cut all the passenger trains off. It don't make me any difference because I've rode all. the trains I want to ride, anyhow.

We bought this cabin on the Gasconade River. I could have bought me a big house if I would have wanted to, but what's the use of buying something to die in because I'm past eighty and she's seventy-six. I wanted to get down here away from all of it to hunt and fish or just to do what I wanted to do because I'd always worked as hard as anybody and I'd been around people all my life.

I love to hear owls. You ought to hear them down here sometimes. The coyotes will tear loose when them owls quit you. Boy, if it ain't something. With the fresh air down here, everything we want, we have it here.

Lee, in 1958, showed a good catch. Besides hunting and trapping, Lee enjoys fishing. "There are some good bass in this river. I caught two that weighed three and one-half pounds apiece. I've caught seven pound bass here. I fly fished for years, but when the war came on, you couldn't buy the fly rods anymore because the material came from Japan, so I went to casting rods."
Old photos courtesy of Lee Johnson

[78]




Copyright © 1981 BITTERSWEET, INC.


Next Article | Table of Contents | Other Issues


Local History Home