Hopping a Freight to the World's Fair
The Texas Story Project.
Editor's note: This is the story of Allen Felps' adventurous trip in 1933 from Fred, Texas, to the Chicago World's Fair as told to his son, Dan Felps.
Well, nothing was going on in Fred, Texas, in Tyler County.
No jobs to be had. We couldn't get a paper and didn't have a radio. There was no communication except for hollerin'. If somebody got hurt read bad and needed some 'coon grease, you could holler over to a neighbor, but that was about it. The Progressive Farmer came once a month. It let us know about the 1933 World's Fair going on in Chicago. I wanted to go pretty badly and so did my good friend, Thorpe Hutto. We decided to just go up on a train.
When we had the crop laid by in September, we decided it was time to go. We each rolled up one suit of clothes and hitchhiked to Silsbee. Thorpe had five dollars and I went by the bank and got $25 and stuck it in the little watch pocket of my jeans. The train always come easin' through Silsbee, so we ran alongside, grabbed a hold, and swung on. And just like that, we was gone.
That train went through Louisiana and up into Shreveport. The hobos told us which way to go and what trains to catch. They said to catch the Missouri Pacific out of the Rio Grande Valley, on up through Arkansas, then go on to East St. Louis. From there we were to get on the Illinois Central. That sounded pretty good to us. It sort of sounds silly, but you know, if it's the only way you got, that's the only way you got.
We couldn't get in a box car because everything was loaded. We rode between two cars hanging onto the couplings. There was a place on each side of the couplings just big enough for my feet. Below East St. Louis, we came to a river and some hills. All of a sudden the back end of the train took up the slack toward the front and jammed my feet. I hurt my foot, my heel, and my toe. I finally got my shoe unlaced and got my foot out. What a relief! But there I was, no shoes, riding a train, a thousand miles from home. I kept my hands and my eyes on my shoes. Pretty soon that thing took up the slack again and my shoes came loose. I sure was glad because I'd have had to turn back if I'd lost my shoes. It would've taken $5 or $6 to replace them. On this trip, we spent about 25 cents a meal. We'd buy a can of wiener sausages and a box of crackers or a nickel loaf of bread. You could get potted meat for a nickel or a dime. We ate about two meals a day and maybe squeezed in a Baby Ruth candy bar.
One of the nice hobos told us how to get on the Illinois Central. He said, “You get over yonder by that track, and when that guy toots that whistle twice, that means he's fixin' to move. He might be switching there for thirty minutes, but when he finally gets that train made up, he'll pull out. You better get you a boxcar right then.” We got ready. The old boy tooted his horn, and we hopped on. After a piece, they switched our boxcar off and we had to ride an oil tanker. There was a 12-inch- wide walkboard all the way around the tanker. By nighttime, I was so sleepy. I'd been going two days and two nights now. I went to sleep with that train going wide open. Thorpe woke me up saying, “You'll kill yourself. You better stay awake!”
That train took us into Chicago, near Lake Michigan, right down within a few blocks of the fairgrounds. We got off on Pennsylvania Avenue. Thorpe and I decided we didn't want to pay the dollar to get in every day. So we bought $1.50 worth of groceries (pretty nice little bag), paid our admission and went in. First thing we did was look for a place to hide the bag. We found an old abandoned VFW building, with old flags and rags thrown behind it, and we hid our groceries there. Then we went down by the lake, and behold, there were men swimming out there in the nude, just taking a bath. I said, “Thorpe, it don't look too good but if they're doing it, why shouldn't we?" Somebody gave us a little piece of soap and we bathed up, cleaned up, and felt good. Telephoning was out of the question, so we decided we'd better mail a postcard to our mamas and daddies. We told them where we were and when we'd be back. I imagine they thought we were bad boys gone crazy.
You know the World's Fair is a pretty big thing. We had a tremendous time in there and tried to take in all we could without paying for anything. We ate breakfast and supper from the grocery bag and bought ten-cent hamburgers for lunch. We went from morning until about 10 o'clock each night. The thing I remember most was the automobiles. They had an endurance track and that '33 model Plymouth just tore up the country. We decided right then and there that it was about the best, toughest car that could be built. One night the police almost caught us behind the VFW building, but we eluded them by getting off to one side and getting real still until they passed by.
We had a tremendous time for three days. Then we decided we'd better start for home. We walked down the railroad tracks and crawled into a boxcar and fell asleep. We didn't worry when we felt the train move. We figured, “This is the Illinois Central. It's got to go to St. Louis.” Next morning, we woke up. The sun was shining. Where were we? We got out and walked about a mile down the tracks and came to the spot where we'd gotten on. So we lost a mile that night. Next, here comes a pretty fast train. I hopped on and looked back and saw Thorpe bent over with a pain in his side. I knew he had very little money left and I thought, “If I stay on this train, I may not see Thorpe again. If I jump off, I'm liable to break a leg.” The train was getting faster all the time. I sailed off. It almost throwed me for a flip, but not quite.
We caught another train together, went to East St. Louis, changed to the Missouri Pacific and fell asleep with Fred, Texas, on our mind. When we woke up, our car had been switched off on a side track and the train was gone. The next train through was a passenger train. Choo! Choo! The engineer gave it the throttle. We ran but that engineer saw us and let off that throttle. “You boys ain't ridin' this train. Get back!” It was 24 hours before another train came along. We caught it.
A little way down, riding through the swamplands of Louisiana where the alligators grow, I realized it was October 2nd, my 21st birthday. We rolled on into Beaumont, Texas, and caught a ride on to Fred. It's miraculous to realize the money we didn't spend. We had $15 on us when we got home and we had not missed a meal. We'd done everything we wanted to do for 15 days, and even ate hamburgers at the Chicago World's Fair.
Posted February 21, 2015