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THE RED CABOOSE

July 10, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have considered what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Upstate Forever, 507 Pettigru Street, Greenville, SC 29601, (864) 250-0500, https://www.upstateforever.org/           

In pre-pandemic times, I enjoyed breakfast at the Skillet at least once every week. The grill is a local eatery and popular gathering place in Spartanburg, South Carolina, the crossroads of the South, my hometown. The restaurant is in a shotgun arrangement with tables and chairs down the left side and a long curving counter down the right side. On most days, three cooks vie for position at the grill behind the counter.    

Early one morning, a fellow sat next to me on one of the spinning stools at the counter, sipping coffee as we watched our eggs, bacon, and grits being prepared.

“Are you Kirk Neely?” he inquired.

“Yes,” I responded, shaking his hand.

He commented on this column, “By the Way,” saying he was a regular reader.

“I am a little older than you are, but I enjoy your point of view.”

It was then that our conversation turned to the many changes that have occurred during our lifetime. We listed several things that have vanished. Some things are best relegated to the past, such as water fountains identified as white and colored, for example.

Other things had probably made life better. I asked him if he, as a child, had ever caught a crawfish on a chicken gizzard or kicked a tin can down a country road. A bunch of kids playing baseball until they wanted to do something else was better than having to wear a uniform and play for a certain number of innings surrounded by eager adults more interested in who wins and who loses the game.

After I left the Skillet that morning, I stopped by the public library, another of my favorite places. While there, I began thinking of the parts of my life as a boy that I really miss now. I miss the lumberyard and the fragrance of pinesap mingled with cigar smoke. In a journal that I usually have with me, I started making a list.  Of course, the most important entries were the people who have left this life for the next. But I also listed such simple memories as a slice of Mammy’s warm apple pie topped with vanilla ice cream, fishing in a farm pond with Pappy, swapping yarns with my uncles, listening to my dad whistle, hearing my mother sing. At the bottom of my list, I jotted the words red caboose.

Several years ago, I was invited to hold a book signing at Magnolia Station, Spartanburg’s historic railroad terminal. Nearby was the Hub City Farmer’s Market, crowded with shoppers purchasing freshly baked bread and homegrown produce.  Local vendors offered squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, and sweet corn.

I was positioned under a canopy near the newly-restored Southern Railway bright red caboose. It is a thing of beauty.  Those who worked on its restoration gave great attention to detail. It is well worth a trip to Magnolia Station to view the caboose. Take your children or your grandchildren with you. They might not ever see another caboose.

Later that day, I watched a Norfolk Southern freight, having two engines and perhaps eighty cars, rumble past my house. That train is just one of eighteen or so that travel along the tracks located at the rear of our property every day. Not a single one of those trains has a caboose at the end.

A train without a caboose is like a good breakfast without a cup of coffee. A train with no caboose is incomplete; it is an unfinished symphony, a mystery novel with the last page ripped out. What happened to the familiar red caboose that signaled the end of every train?

It is generally thought that the name caboose came from the Dutch word for a ship’s galley, kabuis, indicating that a primary function was to provide a place where food for the crew was prepared.

In the early 1800s, the first caboose was merely a wooden shack built on an empty flatcar that protected the train crew from the weather. Railroad companies realized that it offered a good vantage point to observe the tail end of the train. A cupola was added to provide a lookout post atop the caboose. The caboose’s role as a form of shelter was transformed into being an essential safety feature.

During the nineteenth and the early twentieth centuries, the caboose carried a conductor, a brakeman, and a flagman. Before the era of automatic air brakes, the engineer signaled by whistle the need to slow down or stop. The rear brakeman’s job was to climb over the moving train and make his way forward, turning brake wheels on each car. When the train stopped, the flagman signaled approaching trains to halt. The crew sitting in the cupola of the moving train watched for smoke from overheated wheels called hotboxes or other signs of trouble.

By the 1970s, the caboose had become a thing of the past. Railroad crews call the new technology that has replaced the caboose FRED (Flashing Rear End Device). A FRED is attached to the last car’s rear coupler and connected to the train’s air brake line. The device radios telemetry to the engineer, including brake pressure at the rear of the train, the movement of the last car, and the working condition of the flashing red light during darkness.

The disappointing side of the new technology is that FRED cannot wave to children watching the passing train.

So why should I care about the end of the caboose?

Allow me to share a story from my family history.

—–

“Is that pie ready yet?” were his last words.

The aroma of an apple pie baking in a wood stove wafted up to the cupola of the caboose located at the end of the moving freight train. Tantalized by the aroma, the brakeman, posted on top, leaned over the railing, shouting above the clatter of the rumbling train to the cook below.

Somewhere near Tullahoma, Tennessee, he was jolted from his perch at a bend on the mountain grade, hurling him to the double tracks below. Unconscious and unnoticed, the brakeman was struck and killed by a speeding train traveling from Murfreesboro on the opposing tracks.

Billy Neely, as he was called, was William Morgan Neely, a tall man with dark eyes and a full mustache. He was my great-grandfather. His death is somewhat mysterious. Some speculated that a hobo robbed him and threw him from the moving train. Presumably, the motion of the train dislodged him from the roof of the caboose. Whatever the reason for his demise, he had been robbed of everything except his gold railroad pocket watch by the time his body was located.

Tullahoma, Tennessee, was usually as far south as my great-grandfather traveled on his job as a brakeman for the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad. Another man would take his position atop the caboose as the train continued to Chattanooga. Billy Neely would work the freight back to Murfreesboro.

Tullahoma was not only his turnaround place; it was also the area famous for Tennessee sipping whiskey. George Dickel and Jack Daniel established their distilleries eleven miles apart between Tullahoma and Lynchburg. Frequently, Billy Neely took a bottle with him on the return trip to Murfreesboro. Maybe that’s why he fell off the train. Perhaps it was apple pie and whiskey. He had a weakness for both.

William Morgan Neely was buried in the family plot on his father’s farm below Short Mountain near Fosterville, Tennessee. His grave is within two hundred yards of the mainline of the Nashville, Chattanooga, and St. Louis Railroad.

For years, a caboose was attached to every train that passed. No more. The caboose is a thing of the past, an interesting exhibit at a railroad museum like Magnolia Station.

The red caboose is one of the things I miss. Though I never met my great-grandfather, every time I see a red caboose, I think of him and the story of his death.

By the way, before my grandfather died, he told me the story and showed me Billy Neely’s pocket watch. That’s better than a red caboose.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

INDEPENDENCE DAY IN SOUTH CAROLINA

July 3, 2021

My mother, Louise Hudson Neely, was born July 4, 1922. When I was a little boy, I was impressed that everybody took the day off on her birthday. The entire Neely family, as many as fifty-six of us, gathered at the farm near Walnut Grove for the afternoon. We enjoyed a picnic featuring fried chicken, soggy tomato sandwiches, Mammy’s coleslaw, potato salad, deviled eggs, and blackberry cobbler. We went swimming in the pond. Some tried fishing, but the mosquitoes bit more than the fish. After a supper of leftovers, we watched as our uncles put on a fireworks display.

Because it was Mama’s birthday, it took me a while to realize that all of the festivities were not in her honor. Instead, we were celebrating the birth of our nation.   

On July 4, Americans will again observe Independence Day. We celebrate that in 1776, the Second Continental Congress unanimously adopted the Declaration of Independence. The American colonies officially separated themselves from the authority of England.

When I was a student at Cooperative School, now E. P. Todd School, one of my teachers required the class to memorize a brief passage from the Declaration. At the family picnic on July fourth, we pledged allegiance to the flag of the United States of America. My grandfather led us all in a blessing, not only for the good food and our family but also for our country. Those of us who had memorized the selection from the Declaration of Independence repeated it by heart.

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

Independence Day celebrations were observed soon after the nation’s birth. The Moravians of Salem, North Carolina, were among the first to mark the day with a torchlight procession around the village square singing “Now Thank We All Our God.” When Clare and I lived in Winston-Salem, we always took our children to Old Salem to experience the reenactment of that simple celebration.

Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were the first to observe Independence Day west of the Mississippi. On July 4, 1804, traveling along the Missouri River through what is now Kansas, the expedition stopped for the night at the mouth of a stream. They fired a cannon at sunset and distributed an extra ration of whiskey to their men to celebrate. Independence Creek was named in honor of the day.

It was not until after the War of 1812 that the holiday became a nationwide celebration. Parades were part of the festivities. Politicians used the occasions to give rousing speeches. Events like groundbreaking ceremonies for the Erie Canal and the Baltimore and Ohio Railroads were scheduled to coincide with July Fourth celebrations.

Several years ago, Clare, our children, and I celebrated Independence Day at Pawley’s Island. Residents and summer guests put on one of the most interesting parades I have ever seen. The route included two causeways and a stretch of road along the oceanfront. All were invited to participate. Vintage cars, convertibles, pickup trucks including some towing boats, bicycles pulling red wagons, costumed people on rollerblades, senior citizens walking their grandchildren or their dogs, and one old codger leading a Billy goat all joined in. Music was provided by a sound system on the back of a rollback wrecker. Everything and everybody was decorated in red, white, and blue. The entire procession was accompanied by vigorous flag-waving.

The most unusual feature of the Pawley’s Parade was the water battles all along the route. Onlookers armed with water guns, water balloons, and water hoses doused the marchers. Those in the parade were equally well prepared for a counterattack. In good-natured fun, everyone got soaked. On a hot July day on the coast of South Carolina, a cool drenching was welcomed. Even the goat seemed to enjoy it.

John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, the second and third presidents of the United States, both died on July 4, 1826, the 50th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson wrote the Declaration, and John Adams was its strongest supporter in the Continental Congress. They were political opponents after the Revolutionary War and ran against each other for president. John Adams’s last words were, “Thomas Jefferson still survives.” In fact, Jefferson had died a few hours before.

Five years later, on July 4, 1831, James Monroe, our fifth president, died.

Independence Day was not only Mama’s birthday. This celebration is much bigger than any one person. This is the birthday of the United States of America.

Many Americans recognize some of the words that are contained in our nation’s founding document; sadly, many others do not. Perhaps the most familiar sentence is found in the first lines of the second paragraph of the Declaration. “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”  

The fifty-six signers of the Declaration of Independence were committing an act of treason against King George III. Though the names Franklin, Adams, Hancock, and Jefferson are familiar, few can name the four South Carolinians who placed their signatures on this document.

Following is a brief biography of each one. More complete information can be found in The South Carolina Encyclopedia, edited by Dr. Walter Edgar.

Edward Rutledge was the youngest child of a physician who had emigrated from Ireland. Rutledge was born in 1749 near Charleston. As a young man, he studied law in England, as did all four of the South Carolina signers. In 1774 Rutledge was named one of five delegates to the First Continental Congress. He was the leader of his congressional delegation when the Declarationwas adopted. At the age of twenty-six, Rutledge was the youngest of the signers.

Following the war, Rutledge served in the state legislature. His wealth increased through his law practice and investments in plantations. The people of South Carolina chose Rutledge as Governor in 1796. When he died in 1800 at the age of fifty, he was buried at St. Philip’s Episcopal Church in Charleston.

Thomas Heyward, Jr., was born in 1746 in St. Helena’s Parish, near Savannah. In 1771 he returned to South Carolina after studying abroad in London and began practicing law. He was elected to the colonial legislature, which was feuding with the Royal Governor over the issue of taxation.

In the summer of 1774, Heyward attended a provincial convention that chose delegates to the Continental Congress. He signed the Articles of Confederation, as well as the Declaration. He then became a circuit court judge and represented Charleston in the state legislature.

In 1779 Heyward was wounded during a British attack near his home, White Hall, on Port Royal Island. The British plundered the house the following year, taking numerous objects of value.

After the war, Heyward resumed his position as a circuit court judge, concurrently serving two terms in the state legislature. The last to survive among the South Carolina signers, he died in 1809 at the age of sixty-two and was interred in the family cemetery at Old House Plantation.

Thomas Lynch, Jr., was an aristocratic planter like two of the three other South Carolina signers, Heyward and Middleton.

Thomash Lynch was born in 1749 at Hopsewee Plantation, located on the North Santee River in present Georgetown County. During the years 1774-76, while his father served in the Continental Congress, he served on the home front, attending the first and second provincial congresses as well as the first state legislature. He became a captain in the 1st South Carolina Regiment of Continentals. On a recruiting trip to North Carolina, young Lynch contracted fever, rendering him a partial invalid.

Early in 1776 at Philadelphia, the elder Lynch suffered a stroke that incapacitated him and prevented further public service. His concerned colleagues in South Carolina elected his son to the Continental Congress. Although ill himself, the younger Lynch traveled to Philadelphia, staying long enough to vote for and sign the Declaration of Independence. His father was unable to take part in the ceremony.

By the end of the year, the failing health of both men compelled them to begin the trip home. In route, a second stroke took the life of the senior Lynch. His son, who was broken in spirit and physically unable to continue in politics, retired to his plantation.

In 1779 he and his wife, heading for southern France in an attempt to regain his health, perished at sea. He was thirty years old.

Arthur Middleton was born in 1742 at the family estate on the Ashley River near Charleston. He graduated from Cambridge University and studied law in London. In 1776, while engaged in helping draft a state constitution, Middleton was elected to follow his father in the Continental Congress. In the same year, he and William Henry Drayton designed the Great Seal of South Carolina.

After the war, Middleton returned to serve briefly in Congress, then retired to Middleton Place. He restored his home, which had been ravaged by the British during the Revolution, and resumed his life as a planter. He died in 1787 at the age of 44. He is buried at Middleton Place.

These four men knew the risks they were taking when they signed the Declaration. Each had more to lose from revolution than he had to gain by it. The penalty for treason was death by hanging. Thomas Lynch, Jr.’s heart and health were broken in the cause for freedom. He died at a younger age than any other signer of the Declaration.

In the siege of Charleston in 1780, the British captured the three remaining South Carolina signers:  Edward Rutledge, Arthur Middleton, and Thomas Heyward, Jr. As prisoners of war, they were incarcerated in St. Augustine, Florida, but released in a prisoner exchange at the end of the war. During this time of turmoil in America’s history, the British devastated each man’s home.

These signers of the Declaration of Independence certainly made no idle boast when they promised, “And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine providence, we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honor.”

Many Americans view the holiday as an opportunity to pursue happiness. Whatever your holiday plans may be, consider a dip in a farm pond, an ice-cold watermelon, a juicy cantaloupe, or homemade peach ice cream.

The fourth of July is a special day for many reasons. Whatever your celebration includes, please take a moment to recall our patriots and their courageous sacrifice. And please be careful. We don’t want to lose a single one of you.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com

SOUTHERN PEACHES

June 26, 2021

Note to readers: During these difficult days for many people, Clare and I have been considering what we might do to help those in need. We have decided to continue our support for the charitable nonprofit organizations that are serving our community. Each week in this space, I will ask you to consider helping one charity. This week, please volunteer or donate, as you are able, to Piedmont Care, Inc., a nonprofit organization serving the Spartanburg, Cherokee, and Union communities by providing HIV/AIDS prevention, care, and advocacy. International Center, 101 North Pine Street, Suite 200, Spartanburg, South Carolina 29302, (864) 582-7773.

Shelby Foote, the author of a three-volume work on The American Civil War, is the grandson of a Confederate soldier. The historian from Mississippi even looks like a gray-uniformed officer. In 1990, New York critic John Leonard, upon listening to Foote’s description of the Battle of Sharpsburg, pointed out that Foote’s Southern drawl and deep interest in details made him a celebrity of the Ken Burns’ documentary on the Civil War. A memorable scene is his description of General Stonewall Jackson eating a peach astride his horse as he witnessed the battle.

That story is just one more example of the reason peaches are identified with the South.

Last Sunday, Clare had a telephone conversation with a treasured friend in Cincinnati. The friend announced, “We just got a basket of fresh peaches. Every year they come on a big truck from Georgia. We are planning on making peach cobbler today topped with vanilla ice cream.”

We were surprised that Georgia peaches had arrived in Ohio before South Carolina peaches were available locally. Just a few days later, Clare and I purchased the first peaches of the season. The peaches were June Gold, a cling variety grown in Spartanburg County. Sun-kissed peaches are delicious and nutritious, good tasting, and good for you. A tree-ripened peach is soul food.

The first bite of the first peach tastes exactly the way summertime is supposed to taste, sweet and flavorful with peach juice running down your chin. In my case, a double chin with a beard.           

The peach is the state fruit of South Carolina and of Georgia. Georgia is home to baseball player Ty Cobb, nicknamed the Georgia Peach. Though Georgia is known as the Peach State, South Carolina produces three times more peaches than any other Southern state. The Spartanburg Peaches was the minor league baseball team that played their home games at Duncan Park for several years.  No matter which corner of the Palmetto State you visit, you’ll find roadside stands selling peaches in summer.           

Travel across the Upstate, and you’ll see green hills covered with peach orchards. Abbott Farms, Belue Farms, Cash Farms, Cooley Farms, Cotton Hope Peach Farm, Fisher Orchards, Hood Farms, Gramling Farms, Lemmons Farms, McDowell Farms, Peach Country, Perdeaux Fruit Farm, and Ragan Orchards all suffered from a mid-March frost this year. Usually, a dip in the thermometer to a few degrees below freezing will serve to thin the crop. There have been minor losses with late freezes in Greenville and Spartanburg counties this spring, but the outlook for the Upstate is positive.

Peach cobbler, peach pie, and peach ice cream will abound! 

The South Carolina Peach Festival will be held in Cherokee County from July 10 to July 18, 2021. From an inauspicious weekend event in 1977 to this year’s forty-fourth-anniversary extravaganza, the Peach Festival has become the premier summer event in the Upstate.           

The Festival first gained national attention in 1978 when volunteers prepared the World’s Largest Peach Pie.

In 1981, the largest of all peaches was unveiled—a one million-gallon water tank known as the Peachoid. In Gaffney, the Peachoid is more than a water tower. It has become an international tourist attraction. The Peachoid is located along Interstate 85 and serves as the gateway to the town of Gaffney.

In 1989, the South Carolina Peach Festival broke the Guinness world record for having the most guitarists playing and vocalists singing the same song, “Louie, Louie.” The event was broadcast on national television.

This two-week-long event salutes the peach industry with concerts, sporting events, a parade, truck and tractor pulls, and delicious peach desserts.

For complete information, go to southcarolinapeachfestival.weebly.com.

At Cooley Springs on Highway 11, travelers find a favorite stopping place. Strawberry Hill features not only ripe red berries in spring but also blushing peaches in summer. The restaurant serves a hearty breakfast, a delicious lunch, and hand-dipped ice cream. The stylized peach shed features fresh produce most of the year.           

James Cooley is a third-generation peach farmer. He won recognition in 2013 as the South Carolina Farmer of the Year and was awarded the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year in October of 2013. Cooley has an establishment that is the epitome of Southern hospitality. Visitors are greeted as if they were friends and neighbors. While members of the Cooley clan and other employees wait on retail customers, James will probably be on his forklift, loading palettes of peaches on tractor-trailers headed for markets across the southeast.           

Along with cherries, plums, and apricots, peaches are stone fruits. The fuzzy fruit comes in many varieties of either yellow or white flesh. My favorite varieties are the yellow freestones, O’Henry and Monroe, and the white Georgia Belle.

The nectarine, a non-fuzzy cousin, is also a southern favorite. Clare prefers the Spartanburg County-grown yellow nectarines.           

The scientific name persica, along with the word peach, derives from an early European belief that peaches were native to Persia. The consensus now is that they originated in China and were introduced to Persia and the Mediterranean region along the Silk Road. Peaches were mentioned in Chinese documents as far back as the tenth-century B.C.E.  They were a favored fruit of the emperors.           

The peach was brought to America by Spanish explorers in the sixteenth century. In Queen Victoria’s day, many a meal was made complete with a fresh peach presented in a cotton napkin.           

Although Thomas Jefferson had peach trees at Monticello, farmers in the United States did not begin commercial production until the nineteenth century.

Today, peaches are second only to apples as the largest commercial fruit crop in the States.           

I grew up enjoying Upstate peaches. My mother-in-law made peach jam that was the perfect companion to her melt-in-your-mouth biscuits. My grandmother and my mother made the best peach cobbler in the world. Though their original recipe probably was slightly different, the one below is close.

PEACH COBBLER

INGREDIENTS

8 fresh peaches – peeled, pitted, and sliced into thin wedges

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1/4 teaspoon ground cinnamon

1/8 teaspoon ground nutmeg

1 teaspoon fresh lemon juice

2 teaspoons cornstarch

1 cup all-purpose flour

1/4 cup white sugar

1/4 cup brown sugar

1 teaspoon baking powder

1/2 teaspoon salt

6 tablespoons unsalted butter, chilled, and cut into small pieces

1/4 cup boiling water

MIX TOGETHER:

3 tablespoons white sugar

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

DIRECTIONS

Preheat oven to 425 degrees F (220 degrees C).

In a large bowl, combine peaches, 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, 1/4 teaspoon cinnamon, nutmeg, lemon juice, and cornstarch. Toss to coat evenly, and pour into a 2-quart baking dish. Bake in preheated oven for 10 minutes.           

Meanwhile, in a large bowl, combine flour, 1/4 cup white sugar, 1/4 cup brown sugar, baking powder, and salt. Blend in butter with an old-fashion hand pastry blender until the mixture resembles coarse meal. Stir in water until just combined.

Remove peaches from the oven, and drop spoonsful of batter mixture over them. Sprinkle the entire cobbler with the sugar and cinnamon mixture. Bake until topping is golden brown, about 30 minutes.

Serve this peach cobbler warm with vanilla ice cream.

I’ll make you a promise. If you eat enough of this peach cobbler, you, too, can have peach juice running down your own double chin.

Kirk H. Neely is a freelance writer, a teacher, a pastoral counselor, and a retired pastor. He can be reached at kirkhneely44@gmail.com