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Discover Mid-America — November 2007

Mowing along and thinking about the old tracks

by Doug Bratcher

You’ve heard the phrase many times: “A mind is a terrible thing to waste.”

The reference is always to the developing mind of a child. Well, the mind of an adult fits into that category as well.

On some Saturdays during the warm months, one of my self-appointed chores is to mow along and between the railroad spur in the back of my shop. The railroad will mow it in time, but I’ve found over the years their answer to weeds is to spray chemicals and be done with it for a few months.

As for me, I have spread sawdust and shavings from my shop over the broken glass and cinders, giving flora a place to start. Old railroad beds naturally spawn various wildflowers and tree species on their own. I have found wild garlic and onions along with goat’s beard or salsify, and have shared the harvest with an Indian friend from Arizona while he was a visiting professor at a local college. The rest of the summer brings grasses and weeds that I cut with an old mower and a lot of sweat.

I’m not a lawn expert or groomer and don’t want to be. I’ll waste my time on other projects. I like to mow when I see results, much like when I was a kid and we had so much to mow that it always seemed two-foot high before we started to think about cutting it down again.

Salify or goat’s beard (Tragopogon porrifolius) can take root by the old railroad tracks behind Doug Bratcher’s shop.

On this morning as I mow back and forth, my mind wanders back to the history of the rail bed itself. I know the track was laid in 1867 and it comes from Hannibal to the northeast and connected to rail lines near Kansas City to the southwest. I have been told the reason for its existence was simple.

During the Civil War trains moving between Kansas City and St. Louis were the object of many searches and looting by soldiers, rebels and southern sympathizers in the area. So it was decided to run a spur from the Hannibal and St. Joseph line to Kansas City.

The war was over by the time the new rail line was ready for the first massive steam engines of the day. But it proved valuable for farm supplies and general transportation of people and goods. The line became the main link between the industrial center of Chicago and the cattle pins of KC.

One local farmer still talks about farmers having to be at the Liberty station by 7 am to put their can of cream on the southbound train to KC. A creamery would collect the cans from the KC depot and empty them to make diary products. Then, the empty cans would be returned to the farmers on the evening train along the line to the north. The cycle repeated itself for many years before refrigeration made the practice obsolete.

As I look down the track, visions of people waiting to board the train or greet arrivals past through my head. I have seen pictures of old depots with hundred of citizens gathered around. During WW II, Liberty was the first rest stop for trains taking soldier to Chicago and parts east. The trains took on coal and water, and the soldiers got off for fresh air, to talk or have a smoke before resuming their journey, which for many was a one-way trip. Times were different then and they were eager to do their duty to man and country.

After a hard rain many treasures surface along the gravel-covered roadbed. I have found jackknives and an Irish penny from 1942 along with lots of discarded spikes and hardware from track repairs in the past 140 years. Thinking about such things keeps the mind fresh and the soul strong, and makes any monotonous task a lot easier. Sometimes it takes a spark from an old friend to start the mind on a new adventure. Thank God for friends.

Doug Bratcher and his wife Jan own Bratcher Cooperage in Liberty, MO.


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