Making friends and a little money at the strawberry harvest.
The Little Train To Des Arc
An Excerpt From The Hobos Trail, Through The Depression
By White County Historical Society Member Earnest L. Best
From his birth at Rose Bud in 1911 to an orphanage at Center Hill to riding the rails in the Depression to a successful professional career, Earnest L. Best has lived a remarkable life. Since retiring, he has written several books on his experiences. An active member of the Historical Society, he has granted permission for this excerpt.A
fter a short while, I found myself in Des Arc, around White River. I have mentioned that little train that used to run through Des Arc, from Searcy to Brinkley. It has long since been discontinued, but back then it was vital to the communities along the way. It usually pulled three or four cars, but it hauled a lot of timber, lumber, cotton, and livestock. It usually had one passenger car, for now and then there would be people riding back and forth to Searcy, Des Arc, and Brinkley. On my way back to Des Arc from that last hobo trip, I left the main line of the railroad in Higginson, and got on the back end of that little dinky train as it pulled out for Des Arc. I knew I could get off at Stineville, whether it stopped or not.
There have been many stories about that little train, and you can believe as much or as little as you like, but I know a little bit about it. I had learned about trains during the last few years, and had come to like them. One can develop a real affection for things like that. At the time I was in that area, the engineer on that little train was a little guy they called "Blinky." I’m not sure, but he may also have been his own fireman. I don’t recall ever seeing any other crew member on the train. In fact, Blinky must have been the brakeman, too. Now, Stineville was a nice little saw mill community seven miles north of Des Arc. Then from Stineville to Griffithville was about that far, and most of the way, it went through the woods. And people along the way sometimes let their cows run loose, and they’d graze along the railroad tracks. About half-way between Griffithville and Stineville, the train began grinding to a stop, and I couldn’t figure what Blinky was up to. I just kept my seat on the back of the train, and watched. There was a cow on the track up ahead, and Blinky had to stop and run her off. Another time, when he knew that I was on his train, he stopped and refused to move; he told me to get off and chase the cow away, and if I didn’t do it, I wouldn’t make Des Arc that night – he’d just sit there.
One time I was riding that slow poke, and I looked out along the track, and there was Blinky, with a bucket in his hand, and he was picking wild blackberries. When he got what he wanted, he just ran along and climbed back into the engine cab, and the train hadnt even missed him. Im not insinuating that that train was slow, but I doubt if it ever set any speed records, either. One day I was bumming a ride on it, and Blinky told me Id have to pay. I said I didnt have any money. We argued back and forth a bit, and I said Id walk to Des Arc. To heck with his old train. So I started hiking down the track to Des Arc. Blinky blew the high-ball and took off, just him and his little train. When I got to Des Arc, I walked over to the depot and waited for the train. I said to Blinky, "Did you have a nice trip?" He said, "If it hadnt been for them darn cows on the track, Id have beaten you here!" Blinky was not very tall. He couldnt reach the whistle cord in the engine, so he would climb up on the seat and stand up when he had to blow the whistle.
During my stay in Des Arc, election time came around, and the country was clamoring for a change. The depression was hanging on like a bad cold, and America was becoming restless. In Europe there was talk of war, and a fellow by the name of Adolph Hitler was beginning to occupy the front pages of newspapers around the world. Tension was in the air, as the world awaited the coming months, and years, that were to follow. My Dad, two of my brothers, Linnie and I, all voted at the old Ridout School, across the bayou from Des Arc. Brother Johnie was too young to vote. We all voted for Franklin D. Roosevelt, for his first term as President. It was my first time to vote, having just turned twenty-one. Clip and I had seen and heard Roosevelt speak, in New York City a few months before, and we liked what we heard.
Then Clip left for parts unknown, and I took off on another trip of my own. It seemed that my feet had developed an itch that couldnt be scratched, except on a cinder trail. The cotton picking season had ended, and I had a little change in my pocket. For a long time, I had wanted to see the west coast. I decided that this was a good time.
By now, I had a little girl friend who lived in Bigelow, west of Little Rock. I had met her in the strawberry harvest in McRae. So as long as I was heading west, why not? Id pay a little visit. Her parents knew me, from McRae, and they were nice to me. They put me up for a couple of nights, in their home, and were very hospitable. Nice folks.
I told you about picking strawberries for a man by the name of Sam Turnage, at McRae, Arkansas. Sam was a big fruit farmer, owned a lot of good land, and was very successful. Had a nice, large family. Sam took a liking to me, and we used to just sit and visit, after the days work was done. And years later, as I would pass through McRae, I would stop and see him, and hed always insist that I stay over night. I enjoyed those occasions immensely.
Sam told me that he had been an orphan boy. At an early age, he had "hit the road," and wandered around the country for a long time. He rode the rails, hitch-hiked and took odd jobs wherever they might be. But then he' move on, and he had difficulty settling down. He was restless. But when he made up his mind, he stopped in this little Arkansas town, worked for wages, saved his money, and bought a little farm. From there, his success was a dream come true. In later life, Sam became Sheriff of his county, and served them well until his retirement. A hobo need never be ashamed of his past. Many of them have gone on to serve their community and their country with distinction.