Why do some stories stand out in our memories more than other? Is it in the content or is it in the telling? Today I’m sharing a fictionalized account of one of my Dad’s favorite stories. Without fail he would start laughing so hard he could barely get the words out. I think we asked for this story mostly just to see him laugh. Second in my series, The Adventures of Cowboy Bob, enjoy this step back in time.
The Covered Wagon Trip and The Train
by Diana Elder, based on accounts from Bobby Gene Shults, Charles Leslie Shults, and Christine Shults Decker
“Whoee, whoee,” the faint sound of a train whistle made Bob’s ears perk up. He glanced at his brother, jumped to his feet, and started racing for the train tracks. He and C.H. had a standing dare to see who could get closer to a train if and when one appeared. They had just camped for lunch pretty close to the tracks and now was the perfect chance to see which was the braver of the boys.
It was the summer of 1934 and Bob’s family was trekking by covered wagon from his Grandpa Shults’ farm in Levelland,Texas to his Uncle Oscar’s place in Apache, Oklahoma. In March Bob had turned seven and was big enough to help his mom and dad plant a crop of milo, the grain that everyone said was perfect for the Texas plains since it didn’t need much rain to grow. But it hadn’t rained all winter and only a sprinkling or two had wet the crop that spring. The milo got about knee high and then it died as the hot Texas sun bore down on it with no relief. There was nothing for his family to do but watch it wither and die. Bob didn’t worry too much, his parents always figured something out and besides he was having fun playing baseball now that school was out.
To young Bob, his dad, Les, was bigger than life. Charles Leslie Shults had gone by Les his entire life. The hardest worker he knew, his dad could work from sunup to sundown. Of medium height and build, years of planting, harvesting, splitting rails, and all manner of farm work had fashioned a wiry strength. His quick wit and easy smile made him easy to be around. Bob did have to watch out, though cause his dad liked to tease.
Bob’s mom, Ettie, kept the family humming with her quiet strength. A petite dark haired beauty, she worked alongside her husband whenever possible and didn’t seem to mind the moving around. The Depression and the drought covering the plains of Texas, Oklahoma, and Colorado were making it difficult for farming families to make a go of it, and the Shults family was no exception. No matter where they ended up, she’d made it a home.
One day at dinner, Les said, “Ettie, let’s do it. Let’s hitch up a wagon with a mule team, load it with supplies and take the kids on an adventure they won’t forget. That milo out there looks worse every day. We might as well forget making a crop. School’s out and we can make it to Uncle Oscar’s place in Apache, Oklahoma by the time it starts again. What do you say?”
Bob held his breath, would his mom agree? A covered wagon trip would be just about the best thing he could think of, but it might not sound as fun to her.
Easy going Ettie smiled and replied, “Sure thing, Les, when do we start?”
C.H. and Bob whooped! They’d heard all about the covered wagon trip their Grandpa Shults had taken their dad on as a little boy in 1907 and it sounded like a lot of fun.
Almost thirty years later, Les thought the summer of 1934 was about the right time to gives his kids the same adventure. With no crop to tend, what was holding them back?
Grandpa Shults gave them his best wagon and mule team and helped Les and Ettie get it ready for the trek. They attached the ribs to the wagon, then covered it all with a heavy, canvas sheet.
Bob helped his mom load up the wagon with all the supplies they’d need for the trip. He was so excited he could hardly stand it. He and C.H. were going to walk behind the wagon and pick up wood and cow chips for their campfire. Helen was only five years old and would probably just stay in the wagon with his mom most of the time. His dad would drive the pair of big mules pulling the wagon.
The hot summer days were full of fun, running after rabbits and birds, taking a dip in a pond, camping each night in a new place. Bob liked watching the country change as they slowly left the flat plains of Texas and moved into the hill country to the north. They traveled alongside the railroad tracks for part of the trek and Bob and C.H. started itching to get close to a freight train. Most of the time they could only watch from a distance and count the cars as the train chugged by.
One day, the family camped for lunch and this time they were as close to the train tracks as they’d ever been. They had crossed the Red River the day before and were now in Oklahoma. The tracks ran through a cut in the hilly landscape, about six feet down an embankment. Bob and C.H. looked longingly at the tracks. This was the perfect chance to see which boy had more guts.
“Whooee, Whooee” blasted the train whistle, breaking the quiet of the hot summer afternoon.
Bob and C.H. jumped to their feet. This time they could just make it if they ran. Racing the freight train as it approached they hightailed it to the cut and started sliding down the dirt bank. They crept closer and closer to the track as the train neared. Bob could feel the ground shaking with the power of the train and the roar filled the air.
Glancing at C.H. Bob edged even closer. The train was almost upon them when suddenly the whistle blew and steam billowed from the train’s valve completely filling the cut. Engulfed by the steam, Bob couldn’t see a thing. He panicked and without even looking for C.H. he turned around and started running for the dirt bank. He started crawling up then felt C.H. pulling his leg, dragging him back. C.H. got ahead of him, so he grabbed C.H.’s leg to pull him back. Back and forth they went until they finally made it to the top and safety only to find their dad doubled over with laughter.
Les had been following his boys to see what they were up to and when the train neared he saw the engineer open the steam valve. The sight of his boys scrambling up the dirt bank was just more than he could take. Both he, the engineer, and the freight crew laughed and laughed.
It took Bob and C.H. a while before they could see the humor in the situation.
Writing the Story
I had three accounts to draw from written by Bob, Les, and Christine (Les’ baby sister). Each added a unique perspective to flesh out the story. I discovered a map of the train routes circa 1926 and using the information from Leslie’s account that they had “crossed the Red River” the day before, I was able to pinpoint an approximate location of the train incident. Combining that map with Google Earth, I could see what the land looked like.
I wanted to flesh out Bob’s parents, Ettie and Les in this story. I never knew my Grandma Ettie, and only have photos to go by. Studying her photos I created a picture in my own mind that I tried to get on paper. I knew my Grandpa Les as an older man, but he still had that twinkle in his eye and a sense of humor. I could just imagine him as a young father enjoying his boys.
Bob’s account: “Dad’s crop hailed out – Hailed so much filled up between rails on railroad track. Decided to move again. Left Texas in a covered wagon and headed for Oklahoma. My brother and I would walk alongside the wagon and gather wood or cow chips to cook our meals over.
One camp was near a railroad track which was down an embankment from camp. We saw a freight train coming and my brother and I dared each other to see who would get the closest to the tracks. We kept inching up till we were probably about 6 feet away and thought we were pretty brave. As the engine got close the engineer opened a valve that turned loose a cloud of steam. Needless to say we lost our nerve and raced up the hill to get away. The crew on the train were doubled over with laughter but it took us a while to see the humor of the situation.”
Christine: That winter 1934 (we think) Leslie got a bug to go to Oklahoma in a covered wagon. Pappa could never say “no” to Leslie and he knew it. So a cover was made for his best wagon, two of the best mules, come spring the wagon was loaded with supplies and Papa gave him money for supplies and feed for the mules till they got to Apache, Oklahoma.
Leslie: “In the winter of 1933, we went back to Levelland, Texas and was going to farm with Dad in 1934. The winter of 1934, it was dry. It did rain a little bit in the early spring. We got our crop planted but half of it didn’t come up. What did come up, the milo, got about knee high and it died. In the spring of 1934, we didn’t have nothing to do but play baseball and watch our crop dry up. In the early summer of 1934, we decided it wasn’t ever going to rain, so we decided to go to Oklahoma. We hooked the team to the wagon, put the wagon sheet and bows on and Ettie, C.H., Bob, Helen and I loaded up in the wagon and started out onto another wagon trip, about 250 or 300 miles.
We had a lot of fun going down, the kids thought it was great because they got to go on a covered wagon. The boys would follow the wagon and pickup wood, just like I did in the the earlier days. Helen, she got to watch us from the wagon. We had one incident down between Paducah and Red River. We camped to stay all night and here came a tornado near by. We got just a little of the tail end of it, The kids were in the wagon asleep. Ettie and I spent about an hour trying to hold the wagon sheet on to keep everything from blowing off. The next day, we forded the Red River, and stayed all night at some people’s yard. The next day for lunch, we pulled off alongside the railroad track to have our noonday meal. There was a cut about six foot deep on the railroad. Bob and C.H. saw a train coming so they got to daring one another to see which one would stand closest to the railroad track when the train came. When the engineer saw them, he thought he’d have some fun and he did! He pulled the steam valve and filled the cut full of steam in about three seconds. They about run over one another getting back to the wagon – when one would pass one, he’d pull him back, then he’d pass him, he’ pull him back and we got to watch the show. The engineer was dying laughing at them. They had a lot of fun on the trip.”
Interested in writing a family story? Try looking at old photos to get a sense of what your ancestor looked like. No photos? Use your imagination and try to conjure up what they might have looked like. You can let your readers know that you’re imagining. ” I imagine, grandma wore her hair up in a bun, like other women of her day. . . ” Describing your family on the written page is a great way to breathe life into any family story.
Best of luck in your family history endeavors!