Locomotives, Bells, and Collections

By David Smith

Back in the ’60s when we lived in Dayton, Texas, Charis and I found ourselves saddled with a 75-ton diesel locomotive switch engine

that I bought from Jefferson Lake Sulfur Company when they closed their Starks, Louisiana works. At the time I was something of a chemical junk man.
Now as a junk man in just about any field, you “don’t get no respect.” Furthermore, if you have David Smith as your baptismal name you get even less, since upon first meeting people might think it’s a name of convenience, since there are near 10,000 David Smiths in the United States.

My locomotive turned out to be the first of several fun hobbies I’ve enjoyed over my lifetime, though it nearly broke us at a time when our family finances were fragile. I find hobbies most fascinating. They can become addictive as one hobby leads to another, and still another until you run out or space to keep them, run out of money to buy more of them, run into another interesting hobby, run out of interest, or die.

A good hobby should surely be something of an adventure, so like all adventures it entails some risk. My hobbies almost always translate “collection.” I’ve collected a pretty good number of things including books, especially Sam Houston books, also dimes, quarters, nutcrackers, Texiana, and elaborate contraptions including domino shufflers, but STOP!
Pardon me if I put on my Uncle Davo hat for a moment. I call this my Dutch Uncle, which I’m apt to put on with younger kinfolks.

1. Don’t let your hobby, collection or whatever it might be damage the family budget.
2. If you’re going into collecting, pick something that has a definable, comprehensible universe ─ surely not bottle caps, postage stamps, foreign currency, or rocks. With collections of large numbers, you’re apt to be like the cowboy who got up in the morning and tried to ride off in all directions thinking surely if he rode fast enough and hard enough, he’d get everywhere by sunset. Had I been born a generation earlier, I might have been that cowboy.

3. If you go into collecting something thinking it can be both hobby and business, you’re probably making a mistake. A football player simply cannot run for two goals at the same time nor play for two teams in the same game.

4. If as a kid you suffered from A.D.D. (attention deficit disorders), unless you’re cured, watch out! You’re headed for trouble. I’m warning myself when I say this.

I never intended to collect locomotives, though for almost a year I had two of them. Since it takes two of anything to start a collection, please understand that I owned only one locomotive, never two. Let’s agree on the stipulation that I had half a locomotive collection. I’ll plead guilty to this lesser offense. The advantage of collecting locomotives is that risk of theft is low. In contrast to books, there’s little chance with a locomotive that someone will borrow it one day and fail to return it.

Looking back to the 1960s it might be better expressed that instead of a midlife crisis, I had an infatuation with a huge, crude, ugly, loathsome, overweight, inanimate, iron, seventy-five ton diesel locomotive. Here’s how it all happened.

One day in the spring of 1964 I arrived in Starks, Louisiana to buy the Jefferson Lake Sulfur Company’s low-grade sulfur remnants, billing myself as a “Buyer and Broker of Chemical Materials.” Their agent, Mr. Thibodaux, was a Cajun gentleman, and we became friends quickly on a first-name basis. He called me Smeety, and I called him Tibby, but we were at an impasse on the value of his junk sulfur. As I headed for the door he stopped me, almost as an afterthought.

“Smeety,” he said, “you like to buy a locomotive? I got one I sell you real cheep,” adding, “I make you price you cannot refuse.”

Tibby had punched my hot button. In another day we were near closing, since one of my hobbies had been checking out several still extant Texas railroads in the 1960s. There is but one step in the collecting game from collecting one or two locomotives to collecting bells, since every operating locomotive must have a bell. Let me tell you what great fun I’ve had with locomotive bells, especially collecting large bells. Bells are another agenda.
In my single days I visited nearly all of the remaining steam lines in Texas, railroads with such grand-sounding names as “The Angelina County and Neches River Railroad,” “The Moscow, Camden, and San Augustine Railroad” and grandest of them all, then still in receivership, “The Waco, Beaumont, Trinity and Sabine Railway,” which had the distinction of not getting to any of the four places in its ambitious name. It didn’t get to Waco, it never reached Beaumont, it came close to the Trinity River but missed, and it missed the Sabine River by fifty miles. From the receiver of the WBT&S, I was able to buy a detached locomotive bell, which started my big bell collection that today numbers over twenty.
My half locomotive bell collection led to a happy adjunct hobby that started when my folks visited us at our mini-farm in Dayton, Texas, and Dad saw my bell from a narrow gauge sugar mill locomotive.

“Davo, that’s sure a fine looking bell,” Dad remarked. “Do you think there’s some way you could get me one just like it for Live Oak Ranch by Christmas?”

I had but few opportunities to express thanks to our great Dad Smith during his lifetime other than give him a tie or a pair of sox on Father’s Day. His gifts to us three boys were frequent and appreciated. But here was something Dad manifestly wanted very much, and my answer was easy coming: “Sure, Dad, I’ll get you a bell like this one, and it’ll be my Christmas present to you.” It was spring at the time.

I hunted high and low for another small narrow gauge locomotive bell, like mine off the Jefferson Lake Sulfur plant switch engine. I thought it would be easily possible to find, but it didn’t work out that way. There were plenty of so-called farm bells made of iron and sold from “Sears’s catalogs” but they lacked a lot in sound compared to mine from bronze bell makers.

At midsummer I was getting nowhere. Then a question popped into my mind one day, “I wonder if I might make a replica of my bell for Dad by Christmas?”

I located a foundryman named Skyvara who sent me to a Mr. Grimes of General Pattern Works who informed me, “Son, you can just as well make several bells as one, for you’re going to have quite an investment sunk in this project before it’s over.”

I found a helpful consultant on metallurgy through the American Bell Association, a Vice President of Gould Pump Company who explained that I needed a high tin content bronze for a loud sustained ring on any large bell.

I had some thinking and deciding to do, and also some praying. We were coming into fall and my word was out. I could of course give Dad my original bell as a backup, but that would be as emptyas kissing your sister.

Fortunately, as a chemical junk man, I had just made a handsome profit on a nickel carbonate trade at Humble Oil that could pay for casting five bells. Then I had the idea to run an ad in the Wall Street Journal and hopefully sell some bells to help cover the cost of one made for Dad, as suggested by Mr. Grimes.

I learned by doing, albeit slowly. In any case I concentrated on bells ahead of chemicals until the castings were made late in the fall. Then in December I did the grinding, lathing, drilling, polishing, assembling, often crudely and clumsily, but by myself. Finally and proudly I took my first finished bell to Live Oak Ranch on Christmas Eve of 1963, a bell that worked well and had a right, loud, sustained tone when Dad rang it:

C L A N G!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

I can hear it now in my mind’s ear. More important, Dad was supremely happy and mounted it on a cedar post and you can ring it today if you come in the side door of our house at Live Oak Ranch, near Bergheim, Texas.
* * * * *
Having half a locomotive collection for three years also led me to a man who dealt in old steam engines, a Mr. Waldo Bugbee in San Antonio. Now Mr. Bugbee bought old steam engines over the U.S., first for their large bells, but also for export into Mexico or to become scrap which was literally “the last stop on the train.”

Mr. Bugbee also never became too fond of his items, locomotives or bells, as I was inclined to do. A collector trader must be detached professionally, especially when collecting animals. If your business should become a collection of pets, watch out! You’re in deep trouble.

Several large bells in my collection came from Mr. Bugbee, mostly off engines of the “Louisville and Nashville Railroad.” When my boys were in Boy Scouts at South Main Baptist Church, we mounted several of my locomotive bells on a structure of bridge timbers so that Troop 27 at South Main Baptist Church could take part in a Fourth of July symphony performance at Hermann Park. In that finale of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture where cannons and church bells celebrate the liberation of Moscow, fireworks substituted for the cannons and our locomotive bells, vigorously manned by Ralph Mills’ Boy Scout Troup, well expressed the spirit of freedom. It was loud and it was glorious!
* * * * *
But let’s go back to that day in 1964 at Starks, La., when Tibby punched my hot button that started my half locomotive collection. To some extent I was “throwing darts at a board in a dark room.” I did have moderate knowledge of Texas railroad history, just enough to be dangerous. And when Tibby invited me up in the cab and we proceeded to start that grand sounding massive diesel engine, I was excited. When Tibby showed me how to engage the massive clutch and we moved down the track, I was beyond redemption.
Without a muffler, the engine roared louder than a Sherman tank—so loud in fact that neither of us could hear the other. We went down the line maybe a mile or two, stopped, put the locomotive in reverse and backed back to the plant, the diesel roaring loud.
Two weeks later I had done more homework and located an equipment dealer who sold Jefferson Lake Sulfur Company that locomotive in the first place. It was Mr. Earl Calkins of Mustang Tractor and Equipment Company of Houston, an acquaintance who became a friend, then a mentor, also a consultant, even an angel. Mr. Calkins offered to line up financing for me with CIT Financial in Chicago, and in that regard he was also a teacher. I was greatly flattered when he volunteered to go on my term note to buy Tibby’s locomotive.

Ultimately I closed the deal with Tibby when we got together on the price for his junk sulfur. I sold it to boyhood farmer friends, the Stahmanns, in Las Cruces, New Mexico who put it around their pecan trees. Things were going fairly well in my emerging chemical junk business.
* * * * *
What I didn’t know was how long it would take for me to sell the locomotive, or as Charis came to call it, “the albatross.” Weeks turned into months, and soon we entered the third year of my having a locomotive “half collection.” Ads in used equipment magazines produced few leads. It didn’t take long for Charis to note my fascination with the locomotive had turned around 180 degrees. Soon I loathed my locomotive, and Charis liked it even less.

Because we were buying a locomotive, we could not afford a better car. When the chemical junk business was punk, I would have to look to Charis to make the monthly payments to CIT Commercial Finance (with interest north of 14%) out of her skinny teacher’s salary from Elliott Elementary School. Asking Charis to make the monthly locomotive payment was becoming an embarrassing monthly ritual.

(For more by David Smith’s “Texas Spirit” go to www.totalrecallpress.com or www.amazon.com.)