These days it is pretty hard to find somebody who knows where Traer, Kansas is-much less having lived there. For a town that is only 25 miles from McCook, even “McCookites” who have been there are few and far between. However, those of us who lived there during the late 20s and early 30s regarded it as the center of the universe.
I was connected with the center of Traer, the connection being that my father, Charles E. Hendrix, was the depot agent and center of the Burlington Railroad which in turn was the center of Traer. The importance of the railroad in all pioneer towns was huge. Those without a railroad were referred to as inland” towns and found traveling and commerce limited. One of the landmarks in many railroad towns was the water tower and the windmill adjacent to the depot and railroad tracks.
As for our family, the railroad not only provided a paycheck but permitted engineers and trainmen to disburse some coal from the engine and some ice from the refrigerator cars. It also permitted the use of certain right-of-way for the raising of chickens and the growing of potatoes. We had enough chickens to get a case of eggs a day, and taking care of them kept me out of some of the trouble I might have otherwise found. I remember an enormous hog constantly threatened our chickens. Dad had a 12 gauge sawed-off shotgun (not illegal in those days). He once loaded shells with salt and shot the hog. The people around the depot got a big laugh when the hog merely wagged its tail and kept on with his business of scaring the chickens. Dad then tried to show me the pattern a shot gun made by putting up the whole section of a newspaper and shooting it from about 10 feet. The shot spread so far around the paper that it was obvious not much of the salt could have hit the hog.
My dad working for the railroad had other advantages and empowered me to find out that it wasn’t always what you knew, but sometimes was who you knew. During Franklin D. Roosevelt’s first campaign for president, he came through McCook in his private rail car. After giving his speech at the ball diamond he returned to his car at the end of the train. With the help of some railroaders we got in the front of the crowd. When Roosevelt came out to greet the people my dad held me up and I got to shake his hand.
Jim Lazaroff was the section foreman for most of the time I lived in Traer. Just a few of the trainmen who worked our branch line from Oxford to St. Francis were John Ream, Glenn McQuiston and Ed Stafford. With time I could confirm a dozen others. One thing the railroad men helped with was a “Tom Thumb” golf course built on the right-of-way. It was modeled after the first one I had ever seen at Pastime Park in McCook. One of the holes was really up-town with a tire making a loop-the-loop. Another use of the right-of-way was for a tennis court, no backstop, but a tennis court that gave the kids in Traer a lot of fun.
One of the section hands was single and lived in a section house near the depot. He was black and now that I think back on it, probably very lonesome. He and I became great friends. He would have me to the section house for dinner and I still vividly remember him making big, thick pancakes and my eating them.
His special gift was in making kites. They were constructed in regular kite shapes, but had long tails and a buzzer, which hummed in the wind. They were so well constructed that they just sat in place in the sky. I remember often when I came home from school, he would have more than twelve kites flying, each tied to a telegraph pole down the right-of-way. When he left Traer he had built a reserve for me of about a hundred kites which we kept in the garage for future use. I didn’t appreciate the work done by the section hands until I spent the summer before college working on the section at Stamford under Dr. Gayle Farwell’s father. It was the hardest physical work of my life.
The trains on the branch line were slower and with the exception of the locomotive, lighter in weight. They were great for making crossed pins or small nails into scissors. I tried this with my grandchildren on a modern day train, but they were hit so hard they just went flying off the track instead of binding together.
The tracks had other uses too. When I was small, real small I hope, I laid a .22 caliber cartridge on the track and hit it with a hammer. It exploded, but the bullet didn’t fly. The casing, being lighter, hit my knee hard enough to leave a bloody hole skin deep. It looked just like a bullet hole and scared me plenty. The scar has been visible for most of my years, a constant reminding to me of my own stupidity.
Not everything in Traer was related to the railroad. There was the “newsboy”, the airplane that delivered the McCook Daily Gazette. The most frequent pilot was Steve Tuttle, whose very name would bring a feeling of adventure to the kids in Traer. All of the boys knew everything about the plane and its pilot. Every workday evening, during its operation, we would go to an alfalfa field just east of town and wait for the plane to arrive. We went early so that we wouldn’t miss it. When it finally came, the plane would fly low and the bundle of newspapers for Traer was thrown out. For our benefit, I think, the pilot would dip one wing and then the other, after which it turned toward the next town and disappeared over the horizon. We would race to see who could get to the papers first, then deliver them to the people in our town.
The most prominent geological formation near Traer was the “Hole in the Rock” on the south divide. It was frequently used for picnics, gatherings and a place for young lovers to gaze at the moon and stars above. This always makes me remember when it was my duty to drive, on foot, the town herd from Traer to the pasture in the morning and back again after school let out. Just a note, town herds were made up of the cows which most smaller community residents kept for milking in the absence of a dairy.
Athletics were different. With a two-year high school (freshman and sophomore years only) this made competition hard to find. We played basketball outside with no net on the basket. The boundaries and foul line were made with a hoe mark in the dirt. As I remember, we played five games my sophomore year, 1936/37. Cedar Bluffs was our logical competitor since they played outdoor basketball too. We enjoyed playing Herndon and Norcatur because they had inside gyms. I don’t recall winning a game, but I should ask Dale Carlisle about that. He still lives in Traer, but I think the Leitners, Wurms, Kellys, Jordings and many others I remember are not there any longer. I think we only played one baseball game for the school and were beaten by Herndon. They had a left-handed pitcher, Escher I believe, and he was a dandy. Traer had a fine town team in baseball. My dad was the coach so I got to sit on the bench even though I was still just a kid. I remember a lot of the players, among them being, Bill Wurm, a pitcher and Gordon Rathbun who played outfield.
In Traer there was never a depression in friends and activity. During hard times we were all in it together.