By Bill Anderson
Written December 20, 1999; Revised December 23, 2019
When we were kids, back in the early 1950’s, growing up in a small town in southeastern North Dakota, the rhythm of our lives was governed, to a large extent, by the schedule of the Great Northern Railway Company. Our father, Earl Anderson, was the station agent/telegrapher for the Great Northern in our hometown of Rutland, North Dakota. His schedule was set by the Great Northern and our schedule was set by him. Back then railroad trains ran on schedules, with arrival and departure times calculated down to the minute. Tough conductors like Shag Lehmann and Herb Cochrane would cuss a blue streak if their train arrived in the station as little as a minute or 2 ahead or behind the scheduled time, and woe be unto the locomotive engineer or brakeman who was responsible for the deviation. Back in 1951, you could tell what time it was by the freight train steam whistle or the passenger train air horn as it came into town or departed with a load of freight, passengers, cream cans and U. S. mail. It’s not that way anymore. Now, a person can’t even determine the time of the year by the arrival or departure of trains on the Rutland branch line. As the late Ahrlin Hoffman commented some years ago, “I used to set my watch by the old Great Northern, then, one day, I came into town and discovered I was two months late.”
Back in the 1940’s and 1950’s the trains ran on schedule every day, holidays being no exception, and the men who worked for the railroad were on duty whenever the company said they were needed. As the railroad’s agent and telegrapher, Dad had to be at the depot when trains were scheduled to arrive. Everybody knew the train schedule and, a lot of times, folks would go down to the depot in the evening to “meet the passenger train” just to see who got on and who got off. The arrival of the eastbound evening passenger train from Aberdeen was always looked forward to with anticipation. Everything from freight to passengers to postcards moved by rail in those days, and folks were always looking forward to either sending or receiving something. You could drop an envelope containing your order to the Sears Roebuck or Montgomery Ward Companies into the slot on the side of the eastbound passenger train’s Railway Post Office car on Tuesday evening, and expect the items you had ordered to arrive with the U.S. Mail on Thursday morning. All it took to send a First Class letter back then was a 3 cent stamp. Is today’s internet service any better than that? It’s certainly not any easier.
There was one night in the entire year when the children in the Anderson family looked forward to the arrival and departure of the evening passenger train with more eager anticipation than on any other. That night was Christmas Eve. We always had a Christmas Eve gathering at our house back then. Grandma Julia Anderson, Grandpa Hans Brown, Uncle Art Brown and two old family friends, Vic & Hjalmer Strand, were Christmas Eve regulars. With our immediate family consisting of Earl, Irene, Harvey, Bill, Patty and Paul, that meant we usually had 11 around the table, and often more than that. One year Dad brought all of the bachelors in town who had nowhere else to go over to our house, too. That Christmas Eve, in addition to the usual bunch, Tom Shepstad, Wolf Gabriel, Ronald Donaldson and Don Donaldson joined us for supper. Some of these fellows had been imbibing Christmas cheer for most of the afternoon at the Lariat Bar, and they were all pretty jovial, except for Don, who cried several times when he reminisced about the American G.I.’s who had served with him in Europe at Christmas time back in 1944. Most of his buddies had been killed a few months later when the Remagen Bridge over the Rhine River collapsed while they were working to repair it. Years later, after I had been in the military service and had comrades of my own who never made it home for another Christmas, I started to understand why Don cried, but at the time it was beyond my comprehension. So, I just ate my supper and pretended not to notice.
Once in a while we had lutefisk on Christmas Eve, a scandinavian dish consisting of lye cured codfish which Grandma Anderson & Grandpa Brown enjoyed, but most of the time we had oyster stew, which was Uncle Art’s favorite. Art would buy the oysters at Bentson’s Store, the oldest of the 4 grocery/general stores then in business on Rutland’s Main Street, the others being: Bladow’s Red Owl; Hermanson’s Fairway; and Narum’s Rutland Meat Market. He always got “Negro Head” brand because they were believed to be top quality, and the best was none too good for Christmas Eve. Bentson’s was the only store in town that handled that brand. I remember that the labels on the cans had a picture of the head and shoulders of a smiling black man superimposed on a background of oyster shells. That brand name is most likely not politically correct anymore, and I haven’t seen Negro Head canned oysters on the grocery shelves for many years, but, back then they made the best stew.
When supper was over, as Mom and Grandma cleared the table and did the dishes, Dad would go uptown to open the depot and meet the evening passenger train. Sometimes he drove our ’47 Plymouth, but most of the time he walked the 4½ blocks, accompanied by our little dog, Beulah. No gifts could be distributed and no packages could be opened until Dad returned from the depot. The time between supper and his return seemed like an eternity, although it was usually only about an hour. As the minutes crawled by at an agonizing pace, our anticipation grew. Us kids spent a lot of time by the Christmas tree, making sure that the gifts intended for us did not get misplaced or overlooked. We didn’t have a television set until 1955, so that device was not available to distract us. Sometimes our philco console radio/record player would be playing Christmas music, but most of the time the only sounds in the house were from the conversations of those who were waiting for Dad’s return. About the time the train was due to arrive, the noise level would diminish as we all listened for the first indication that our long wait was nearing an end. Finally we heard it, the wail of the passenger train’s air horn as it signaled its approach to the county road crossing ½ mile west of town. The air horn would be heard again as the passenger train passed the roundhouse and the junction with the branch Line that ran out to Forbes ND, at the west end of the rail yard, and again as it approached the crossing on Main Street and the depot. Then there would be relative silence at the Anderson house, as passengers got on and off and as baggage, express and the U.S. Mail bags were loaded and unloaded at the depot. It was tough to wait at home while all this was going on. Didn’t those people know it was Christmas Eve? Why did the railroad have to run its dumb old train on Christmas Eve, anyway? At last the “highball” signal was heard, two long blasts on the engine’s air horn followed by a short and a long blast, signaling that the Great Northern’s evening eastbound passenger train was departing from the Rutland station. As the train headed east toward Cayuga, Breckenridge, Minneapolis and beyond, Dad turned off the platform and depot lights, locked the office and freight house doors and headed for home. Back then the depot waiting room was always left open and heated, in case someone needed a place to get in out of the weather. A few minutes later, Dad would come in the back door of the Anderson home, hang up his coat, walk through the kitchen, through the dining room and into the living room where the 4 Anderson kids, Harvey, Bill, Patty and Paul impatiently waited. Then the fun began. Patty and Paul, the two youngest, usually passed out the gifts to everyone, and the living room was soon awash in wrapping paper and boxes. When all of the gifts under the tree had been distributed and opened, and we had calmed down somewhat, the front door of the Philco console would be opened and Dad would bring out M-G-M Records recorded version of “A Christmas Carol” by Charles Dickens, consisting of 4 78 rpm records and featuring the famed actor Lionel Barrymore as Ebenezer Scrooge. The records would be placed on the turntable’s automatic record changer, the lights, except for the lights on the Christmas tree, would be turned off, and we all listened to that marvelous story, never failing to shiver as Marley’s ghost rattled his chains and warned Scrooge of what awaited him if he did not repent and change his ways, and never failing to smile as Tiny Tim concluded the story with “God Bless us, every one!” Sometimes, now, when I close my eyes and think of Christmases past, I can see and hear the sights and sounds of those times as if they were here and now. Grandma, Grandpa, Art, Vic, Hjalmer, Dad, Mother and brother Harvey seem almost close enough to touch. Sometimes, too, I think that waiting for the train on Christmas Eve was a little bit like the real Christmas story, in which humanity waited for, and finally received, the ultimate gift. That gift, too, arrived according to a timetable set by an authority beyond our control, but it did arrive, in its own good time. Merry Christmas to all of you and may all of your Christmas memories be as good as mine. Later.