The Rail

October 24, 2017 — Leave a comment

I suppose it was just before the beginning of the Great War (WWI) when two brothers growing up in a very small town in a very rural county of a mostly agricultural state pulled off an amazing heist. Perfectly legal they had permission. I’m sure the instigators of the idea for the heist forever scratched their heads in wonder. If, I have raised your curiosity, I will begin the story. A true story, probably greatly embellished, but none the less true in its intent.

Don’t know exactly when, so I’m going to say summer of maybe 1916 two brothers, the youngest boys of a very large family were growing up in Norristown, Indiana on the extreme southwestern corner of Shelby County. Not a whole lot to do but work. Their dad and older brothers farmed a lot of ground, about 1000 acres.  It took lots of horses and mules to do the work so the basic farm chores were left to the younger boys and the unmarried girls still at home. There were cows to milk, hogs to feed and eggs to gather and in the summer, a huge garden to tend.

It is difficult to imagine the long days and back breaking work involved in farming in 1916. Up before the sun, breakfast and preparing the horses for the mornings work. Feed the horses, brush the horses, harness the horses, check the shoes and repair if needed all by lantern lite.  The boys helped and after the men left for the fields they cleaned up after the horses and took on the rest of the morning chores.

It was probably a Thursday or Friday that the boys went to town on an errand for their dad.  Something I think at the hardware store. As they came into the town of Hope, about 6 miles south of their home they noticed a railroad crew setting around eating lunch. They stopped to talk and asked lots of questions like young boys do.  Whatca doing. Why are you replacing the rails? Is it hard work? Question after question.

As the boys continued talking and being harassed by the older railroad workers one of the boys had an idea. A railroad rail would be perfect for poling corn stalks! Now, I assume you don’t know what “poling stalks” is. To paraphrase “Jeopardy” How do you make corn stalks manageable to plow next spring? The answer is; pole them.

I really think poling stalks was a way to teach young boys how to handle work horses and it seemed that young boys could handle cold , really cold , mornings better than old men.  You had a pole, or a log that you hitched a horse to each end and drug the pole across a corn field with the corn rows. The idea was to break off the stock at ground level and cause it to lay flat to the ground with all the stocks laying in the same direction. To be successful, this job had to be done while the stalks were frozen so that they snapped off, clean and all laying in the same direction.  So, early in the morning before the sun could warm up the stalks and not too fast because if the pole bounced there would be standing stalks and a father’s ire, cold slow boring work to say the least.

Amid all the banter one of the boys, I’ll guess Frank, asked,” how could we get one of these old rail.  I think we could make good use of it at the farm. The workers laughed and told the boys “help yourself.”

If you can load it you can have it. Much laughter ensued as the older men were having great fun with the rube farm boys! Wow they thought and they tried to lift a rail to load it in the wagon. Do you have any idea how much a rail road rail weighs? (About 528#for a 12 foot rail.) It normally takes 4 men with rail lifting tools to carry a rail. Needless to say they could not lift the rail and the men sat howling.  Embarrassed, the boy left to finish their errand.

On the way home, which seemed to them a really long trip due to the frustration, embarrassment, and humiliation, they talked about the rail and how it would make poling stalks so much easier. Somewhere along the way they had the idea! Don’t know which one started the conversation but by the time they entered the barn lot the plan had been finalized.

Saturday, the railroad crew didn’t work. So the escapade began. They loaded all the tools and things they needed to accomplish the heist.  Not a heist but just retrieving a gift. Remember the railroad guys had told them, “If you can load it you can have it” The trip to Hope was full of talk and rehashing the plan. They knew exactly how to bring the rail home.

When they got to the rail yard they rolled a rail away from the pile until it was far enough to start the removal plan. The team and wagon was driven over the rail until the double tree was just past the end of it. Using pry bars and blocks they worked first one end then the other. Raising the rail slowly and with a great expense of boyish energy they kept at it until the rail was up against the axles. Now the easy part. Chain the rail to the axles and go home. Mission accomplished!

I’m not sure if the rail ever worked as planned. I guess I just forgot to ask the question. But, I know the story is true because once when I retold the story at the Isley reunion one of Frank Isley’s grandsons said, “So that’s where that rail behind the barn came from.”

Thanks for listening,

Richard Isley

The Crotchety Old Man

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