Hidden History: Doodlebug, the little train that touched ‘every person’s life’ in Melvern – Osage County Online | Osage County News

Hidden History: Doodlebug, the little train that touched ‘every person’s life’ in Melvern

Photo of the Doodlebug M.177, in 2011, at Los Angeles, Calif., by Jd from RR Picture Archives.Net.

When Leona Knight Shaffer was a young girl in Melvern, Kan., in the 1930s, her father, Edward, was employed by the Santa Fe Railroad as a section laborer. One of the rewards for her dad’s labors was a pass issued to him, his wife, and minor children.

For a long time whenever Edward or his family wanted to go anywhere on a train, they had to order a pass, but later passes were issued annually with the eligible names on the pass. With the passes, the family had the opportunity to travel wherever the passes were honored.  Most of the time the family rode on the local Doodlebug.

Doodlebug M.177 was a passenger train that was built in 1929 and designated by the number M.177. It ran from Emporia to Lawrence, 1930 to 1933 and  in 1936, Kansas City to Newton, in 1937, and Burlingame to Alma,  1941 to 1943.

The following is Leona’s account of Melvern’s “Doodlebug”, which “touched every person’s life” in Melvern, she said.

The little train, or “doodlebug,” as we called it, made a daily run through Melvern, between Emporia and Lawrence. This train was the only mode of transportation for most of the people in this small town, because of the majority of the men worked on the Santa Fe in some capacity, and most of them didn’t have automobiles.

The little train was pretty small, but we all thought it was “just right.” I can recall the train having an engine, coal car, baggage car, and the passenger car. At the back of the passenger car was a railing where people could stand if they wanted to. There was no need for a larger train. If a person were going anyplace very far, there was always more passenger trains that were available. Most of us were not going anyplace other than the little towns close by.

One thing on the little train that fascinated us smaller children was the fact that there was a real honest to goodness modern toilet at the end of the passenger car. None of us were used to such a modern convenience. All we had was a “path” to the outhouse behind the house. As soon as we got on the train and got our seats, one of us would have to go to the toilet. It was so nice to sit on a nice modern stool seat with some water in the bowl. We were used to just an old hole and it was a smelly place at that. We all took turns going to the restroom.

The wives of the Santa Fe employees got the most use of the doodlebug. On Saturday afternoons after payday, the women rode the little train over to Ottawa to do their shopping. Some bought their groceries, others got clothing or household items, others just went for the ride to get out of town for a while. This was a pretty good form of recreation. The ladies could catch up on all the gossip because most of them didn’t have a telephone. A few had radios, but lots of them did not even have electricity, and of course the wonderful invention of TV was unheard of. For many of the ladies, this was the only time that they met for conversation, and they thoroughly enjoyed it.

Usually in the spring there would be flooding along the right-of-way due to the Marais des Cygnes River that flowed through the towns of Melvern, Quenemo, and Ottawa. It used to be a serious event before the Melvern dam was constructed.

Whenever we were on the train and the flood waters were high, it was pretty frightening to a young child. I know I used to be really scared when the waters were so close to the tracks. I often wondered if the tracks would be washed out. It could have happened. I guess the Man Above was watching out for us, there were never any problems with the floods.

At the time of the doodlebug, there was not much money to spend, especially on anything that was not absolutely essential. There was a little shop in Ottawa that gave permanent waves to the ladies for $1. About two times a year, my sister and I would have $1 saved and we would get on the train, ride to Ottawa, and get one of those permanents. They were terribly smelly. Then we would catch the train back to Melvern. I can imagine the conductor would hate to get close to the smelly permanents. Thanks to the doodlebug though, the ladies could keep a little bit in style. If it had not been for the train and the passes, most of us would have had to do without the little bit of fashion.

We didn’t have any recreation in our little town, and if there had been any we couldn’t have afforded to patronize it. So sometimes on Sunday afternoons, my girlfriend Maxine Garvin and I would get on the little train and ride to Lawrence. The train turned around there and went back to Emporia. We would ride back to Melvern without ever getting off the train. Now that probably doesn’t sound like very much fun this day and time but it was great fun for two little small town girls. We had such good times on this train.

The train carried mail and as soon as the town folks heard the whistle of the doodlebug they headed to the post office to wait for the mail to be distributed. We got mail from several trains and it was distributed every time the train left the mail sack. The doodlebug mail was usually the main mail delivery of the day.

The mail was brought to the post office by an elderly man named Ed Morgan. He had a little two-wheeled pushcart and he never missed a mail run, no matter what the weather was like. Later on, he got a housekeeper by the name of Maggie Lyman. She was fortunate and owned an old truck. This made the hauling of the mail easier for Ed. After the mail was sorted, Maggie would drive over to Waverly, 10 miles south of Melvern, with the mail that came for that town. There were no mail trains going through Waverly.

It was the highlight of the day to go watch the little train come into the station. We would watch the mail and other baggage being unloaded. It was very exciting to see all the baby chickens in the spring. The farmers always shipped their cream on the train to creameries, mostly in Ottawa. There was an ice cream factory in Ottawa called Bennetts. They bought the cream from the farmers. The little train served our communities in many ways. The farmers especially couldn’t have survived without this convenience.

It was such a great thing for our little town to be one of the few that were served by the doodlebug. This little train touched every person’s life in some way during the years it was in service at Melvern. It was a sad day indeed when the train was taken out of service. It would be just wonderful just to be able once again to sit on those seats and to hear the “All Aboard” call again.

Doodlebug M.177 was donated in 1958 to the city of Los Angeles, Calif., and has been fully restored. It is currently on display at that city’s Travel Town Museum. Leona’s account of the Doodlebug is also on file at the Osage County Historical Society, in Lyndon, Kan. Leona passed away in 2014; her obituary is here: www.osagecountyonline.com/archives/9702

wendibevitt2016bWendi Bevitt is owner of Buried Past Consulting LLC. She lived in Osage County for 20 years and her research interests include Osage County Civil War veterans and Osage County history.

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