Boxcar Shantytown

During one of my stints in the Marion County Jail this summer I got to know a 62-year-old black man whom I’ll call C. We were the oldest prisoners in the cell block — most of the others were tattooed young meth-heads and such.

C. grew up on the West Side, Hannibal’s ‘hood. Back in the early 1960s he was Hannibal’s first black paperboy, and he still remembers the name of the Courier-Post woman who hired him. His route consisted of several streets such as Spruce, Gordon, and Griffith, then as now a predominantly black and poor part of town.

After we had been released from jail I would run into C. and his wife from time to time out on the street. They were friendly to me and invited me to their house. Over the next few months I had many pleasant visits with the couple, just sitting around talking, yarning, and watching TV. While I was there I’d fill up one of my water jugs and charge my cell phone.

C. had many stories of life in Hannibal in “the old days” and told them with great vigor and expression. He told me stories his father told him over the years. C’s dad had a trash-hauling business in nearby Palmyra before he got married. This was back in the 1920s. C.’s father routinely saved what money he could in a local bank; all in all it amounted to several hundred dollars, a sizable sum back then. Then the Crash of ’29 happened and the bank failed. Until the end of his life C.’s father squirrelled away sums of money in coffee cans which he buried in the back yard. He also had a leather portfolio which he hid inside his mattress. A quote from C.’s father: “I’ll be damned if I ever trust my money to a white man again!”

C. recounted to me his father’s memories of a makeshift neighborhood on the edge of Hannibal, a settlement of indigent people who lived in boxcars during the Great Depression. The Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad had a lot where worn-out wood-sided boxcars were deposited after their poor condition made them unreliable. I imagine they kept the boxcars so that parts such as wheels and coupling mechanisms could be scavenged for re-use on newer boxcars.

I had some questions for C.:

“I suppose they carried their water in, but were these people completely without access to electricity?”

“Oh, there would be a few who could afford to run generators, while others would run extension cords. They would just move in, run a stovepipe out the roof, and start scavenging wood to burn before winter came.”

“Did they cut in windows in the walls of the cars?”

“Naw — if they wanted some fresh air they’d just open the big sliding doors. People were still living in some of those boxcars when I was a little kid, and I remember visiting some of those families with my folks. Y’know, when ya get right down to it, it sure was better than sleeping under a bridge!”

This story intrigued me. I had read about shanty towns during the Depression, but I had no idea there was one in Hannibal!

I don’t see C. any more because he is currently serving time in the Boone County Jail. One night C. and his wife were fighting, probably about money, and his wife either fell or was pushed down the long flight of steps leading up to their second-floor apartment. She broke a toe in the fall and from the bottom of the steps she called the police. When the cops came they ran C.s name and discovered that he had an outstanding warrant in Boone County.

I didn’t know about this unfortunate incident until the next morning. I was buying some food at the Save-A-Lot store when a black woman approached me. I had never seen her before but she knew who I was. She said “Hey, Larry, didja hear that your buddy’s in jail?” I was a bit nonplussed that she knew who I was and that I was a friend of C.’s; she told me the story, though in her version the number of toes broken had doubled. Later that day I talked with C.’s wife and she told me her version. I don’t think she really wanted to have her husband arrested and put in jail, but that’s what happened. She may not have even known about the outstanding warrant.

Larry

14 comments on “Boxcar Shantytown

  1. Leslie says:

    Interesting article, Larry, and its great to see you blogging again.

  2. Darrell says:

    Good to hear from you again.

    My Mom saod there was at least one “Hobo Jungle” along the tracks. One was in the woods along the RR tracks going from Marblehead east along Bear Creek to about Ely St. There was another along the tracks west of Lindell Ave (what is now Warren barrett).

    Mom hasd a run it with one hobo who got into the house (at Marblehead) and refused to leave until she grabbed a butcher knife and went for him . . . he left!

  3. Virginia says:

    Larry, I was interested in C’s account of the boxcar village. At Eugene Field School my first grade teacher, Mrs. Mitchell, read a chapter of a book each day called “Boxcar Children.” I was fascinated with the way family members pitched in to get food, water, and take care of other needs. The book related challenges the people faced, but of course every chapter ended well. I thought it would be great fun to live in a boxcar.

  4. Genevieve says:

    When I was growing up 50+ years ago in rural Nebraska, an older couple in our neighborhood lived in a modified boxcar. They had raised a family there, and my mother always said the reason one of the daughters was a conspicuous consumer, always “putting on the ritz”, was that she was making up for her humble childhood home.

    I suppose they put wheels on the boxcar to move it to the country, 35 miles from the nearest railroad.

  5. Joan says:

    A cabin on the Mississippi right next to ours was made of a boxcar, painted barn red. Very spacious. In this case it was a boxcar on stilts instead of wheels. The river used to flood up to 8 or 10 feet.

    Hi Genevieve! Was just thinking of you a couple of days ago. Our family just saw a movie called Winter’s Bone, which was filmed in the Mo. Ozarks. In reading about it I found it was filmed in Taney County and Christian County Missouri. Is your Christian County in the hills or plains of Kentucky?

    Virginia, I remember that book was still around when I was teaching art in the local grade schools. It must be a classic.

    Darrell, my cousin looks just like her father who looked very much like my grandmother when he was a child. Thanx again, BTW for the long awaited clips. Now I’m anxious to try to find both those films. .

  6. Darrell says:

    Joan, good luck on the films. Both MAY be out there. Back when I was teaching history surveys at Fresno City College (1988-1997), I’d occasionally end a chapter or section with a casual “At the Movies” note about films that address the period we’d covered. Two that I mentioned were “Burn” and “Cromwell” (ca 1970 with Richard Harris). Anyway, one of my older, more serious students, went out and found both of ’em . . and even liked them!!! There are superb films out there that many folks in America never seem to have seen . . one being Elia Kazan’s “America, America” (1964) . . . set in Ottoman Turkey at the turn of the 20th century. When I saw it at the movie house in Columbia,MO, I’d given up thinking I’d ever see the place . . yet within a few years I’d find myself wandering Turkish streets for months on end, and an unlikely flick became a reality in more ways than made me comfortable.

  7. Virginia says:

    Genevieve and Joan, What great descriptions of actual boxcar homes. It was an interesting way to make a home with what was at hand. I’ve seen the book “Boxcar Children” in a local bookstore, so perhaps there is interest in children’s books from our “olden days.”

  8. Darrell says:

    Also, when cabooses went away, some were bought up and converted into retreat cabins. Apparently my cousin Linda lives in one by a lake near Ft Scott, KS.

  9. Virginia says:

    Caboosee would be a little more luxuious than boxcars I think. Hmmmm do you suppose your cousin would like some surprise company, Darrell. There are nice limestone and sandstone exposures around Fort Scott. It’s also a pretty, historic area. I’ve visited the fort there and collected some specimen.

  10. Joan says:

    Also cabooses would have built in front porches. (grin) Are they as spacious as boxcars though?

  11. penstemon says:

    An interesting comment sequence. Thanks go to Leslie,Joan, Darrell, Virginia, and Genevieve!

    I think a caboose, while smaller than a boxcar, would make a more pleasant residence due to the presence of windows and the “back porch” Joan mentions.

    I think that it was around 1959 that my family lived in a two-story house in an old neighborhood in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was five years old. The RR tracks ran right behind our back yard, and I retain fond memories of waving to the man in the caboose. He would always wave back to me and my nascent mind would drift into speculation — where was the train going? Did this man have a family, and was it always the same man?

  12. Darrell says:

    Cousin Linda and Co receiving a visit? I’d have to make it arranged one; because we have never met. We ecame acquainted by DNA testing and the surname website. Geneology per se failed to reveal my family’s history as it slammed into a closed gate ca 1820. There were some tales related to my by my Dad a few weeks before he died in 1971; tales of a group of brothers ganging up on a too-much favored youngest sibling and having the simmering rage filled older brothers attacking the youngest (ahe 14) when his elderly doting father died . . he was bull whipped and beaten into unconcoiousness and banished to the slave quarters. The family was rifted by this, and familial relationships were terminated. “That’s the reason we aren’t claimed by anyone named (family surname)”, he laughed. Well, because of DNA testing the link was reestablished . . . and that led to the “cousins” of Ft Scott . . probable descendants of the “Bull Whipper”. There’s a lot more but I won’t belabor the issue now. Suffice it to say, the past several years have been strange indeed.

  13. Darrell says:

    Cabooses . . . I understand they went away when railroad worker were no longer required to wotk long or swinging shifts. In the older days one crew would run the train while the second shift slept or ate. Then they would alternate.

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