Riding the Rails

A story by Frederick Welk


The origin of the surname Welk is given in various name history sources as meaning foreigner or wanderer. For hundreds of years that has been an apt label for many members of the clan, who ranged from Alsace to Southern Russia then to Dakota always looking for a better place and better times. My father lived until 2013, a few months short of his 100th birthday.  He frequently commented on having lived from the "horse and buggy days to the computer age."

Documentary films about the Depression often mention men "riding the rails" to look for work. Most people think of this as a scene from the lowest ebb of the Thirties. But my dad recalls that even in 1929, before the stock market crash, hundreds of men could be seen riding the freight trains on the Great Northern Railway through Berwick, North Dakota. Whether through wanderlust, desperation, or youthful rebellion, he joined these nomads in the early summer of 1929 before he had even
turned 16.   

My father recalled:
"In the meantime, I being the aggressive one, I happened to say I’m going to do something about it (our situation). I was a teenager. You read a lot about men riding on the box cars? You perhaps don’t know all these stories. I would ride on the box cars on the train and I went out West because California and Oregon were prosperous at the time yet."  

He and a Berwick pal, Terrell Johnson, who was a year younger, but bigger than my dad set off for the East. They rode as far as Aurora, Ill., where they turned back toward California. Dad emphasizes that each train had dozens of itinerants on board, wandering the nation in search of work. They were not hobos. Once in the Central Valley of California they found themselves in a box car filled with crates of peaches. They stuffed their jackets full, not knowing when their next meal might be coming.

From Los Angeles, they made their way up the coast to Oregon, where my father’s uncle John Schmaltz lived in Mt. Angel. He ran a warehouse that stored hops and ground corn, oats and other grains. He prevailed on his uncle to stay and work, and John Schmaltz wrote a letter to Berwick because the family had no idea where their son was. Terrell Johnson found himself wandering the streets in the small town of Mt. Angel. A suspicious policeman stopped him and began asking questions. To Terrell's surprise, the policeman had lived in Berwick and knew his grandfather, John Fairley, who was the postmaster! This miracle of luck brought Terrell a loan of enough money to see him back home. The next summer my dad made his way back by freight to North Dakota. But before he reached Berwick, he got off the train, got a haircut and washed up to make himself presentable to greet his family.

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