HISTORY OF PASCO COUNTY
My First Railroad Trip
By NELL MOODY WOODCOCK
It has been 80 years since this lady on a railroad passenger train befriended me as a child. I was headed home alone to Lacoochee, Florida from a small town in southern Georgia. When memory propels me back to that railroad coach this elegantly dressed lady and I are seated facing each other. I don’t remember her name, but do remember the warmth of her presence. She shared treats from a basket sitting along side her. And asked lots of questions.
I am sure she knew the history of my short life by the time I left the train. She was traveling on to Clearwater, Florida with its sunny beaches on the Gulf of Mexico.
There was no direct railroad connection between Lacoochee and Baxley, Georgia where I had spent the summer with relatives. It was necessary to switch to a different train at the busy railroad junction in Jacksonville, Florida. It was the gateway to the south at that time. That is where the lady on the train entered the picture.
It was the mid-1930’s and Lacoochee was a blustering sawmill town in Pasco County. The sawmill was one of the factories owned by the wealthy Cummer Brothers in Jacksonville. My father worked in the crate mill.
On two consecutive summers when I was between age six and eight there was no work at the mill for my father and school was out. His only alternative for us was to return to his hometown in Georgia.
He purchased a passenger ticket and helped me board the Seaboard Airline Railroad train. It was around noon when I waved to him from a window and was off, headed for the state line. I was in Baxley by midnight where he joined me a few days later.
It wasn’t uncommon to see children unaccompanied on trains during that Depression era. They traveled “in care of the conductor.” To make sure the child got off at the right stop, and for safekeeping, the passenger ticket was pinned to the front of his garment.
When I left the coach in Jacksonville I walked for some distance along side the train to reach the station. Inside people were scurrying in every direction like ants. My father had told me to go to the Traveler’s Aid Desk that I found in the center of the high domed building. I waited there for the next train. A Traveler’s Aid attendant walked with me to the departure gate and made sure I boarded the right one.
When it stopped in Baxley, the conductor helped me to the ground and pointed to a nearby taxi stand. The man standing there was hoping for a fare. It was a short ride to my uncle’s house, just a few blocks from the station. I wasn’t expected but Uncle Millard didn’t appear surprised to find me standing on the front porch when he answered the doorbell.
My father had been confident about the midnight leg of my journey in this rural farming community. Millard Moody was the elected Appling County Ordinary, the equivalent of a County Judge in Florida. He was a familiar figure in a town where there were no strangers.
The next morning at his breakfast table, I was the center of attention. His two daughters, who were several years older than me, were anxious to hear what it was like to live in sunny Florida – and to ride on a train.
It wasn’t until the next summer they heard about my friend who was traveling to Clearwater. The lady who reminded me of the movie stars I’d seen in the picture shows at Vivian’s Theater in Lacoochee.
We walked hand in hand to the rear of that coach and stood in the train’s vestibule. It was broad daylight and I pointed out my father in the cluster of men below. She whispered “Are you sure?” I nodded “yes” and jumped from the train into his open arms.
My father “traveled the rails” too. He would catch a moving train of boxcars as they rumbled through town and ride it as close to his destination as possible. Hitching rides with the few motorists who owned cars was another part of his journey.
He worked on the farm of other relatives during those summers. By September his job was open again at the crate mill and school was in session. Having been away all summer my little friends welcomed me like the new kid on the block.
A child’s world is fresh and new and beautiful, full of wonder and excitement. It is our misfortune that (sometimes) that clear-eyed vision, that true instinct of what is beautiful and awe-inspiring, is dimmed and even lost before we reach adulthood. — Rachel Carlson