“Ole Darby” Smith, 1888-1996

Every small town in Indiana that was served by a railroad at one time or another had most of its heavy mail and parcel post carried by train. This was certainly true in Rossville, Indiana, which was served by the Monon. Delivering and receiving mail by train was generally the responsibility of the “mail clerk” in town, and in the case of Rossville, it was Guy “Ole Darby” Smith.

The mail clerk’s job was to move the mail, which had been placed in special heavy-duty mailbags, between the post office and the depot in time to meet the correct train. It’s probably true that every small town served by the Monon had a mail clerk like Ole Darby working on this important job.

I was born and grew up in Rossville not too far from the Monon main line. In fact, my farmhouse home is pictured in Hilton’s book “Monon Route”, on page 202. I was used to seeing Monon trains across the pasture from our house at a very young age. By the time I got to third grade in 1951, I remember the big “F” units as being the biggest, noisiest, fastest and most awesome things we kids had ever seen.

The passenger trains carrying the mail passed through Rossville twice a day, in the morning around 9:00 and again in the evening at 6:00. Ole Darby had a homemade cart with large buggy wheels that he used for pushing the mail on the block and a half trip between our post office and Monon depot. His daily routine went like this.

In the morning Ole Darby would push his cart down the path at the end of an alley and leave it parked safely beside the section house. He would then hang the outbound mailbag on a frame called a “mail crane”. This device would hold the mailbag, which had a reinforced center section, in the right position.

The Railway Post Office (RPO) car personnel had a moveable hook, which they could maneuver to catch the bag at its reinforced center as the train moved past. At the same time the RPO personnel would literally kick the inbound mailbag out the door of the RPO car.

Normally, the inbound mailbag would tumble, skid and stop in the grass besides the track only a short distance from the platform. However, occasionally the mailbag would fall onto the track and be hit by train car wheels.

When this happened, it would look like the train had hit a flock of chickens because the small pieces of mail would be floating around in air before they finally fell to the ground to be picked up by the angry mail clerk. When this happened it obviously made his job much harder.

In Rossville, this process was repeated again in the evening when the Monon made its return trip. There was a well worn path in the grass along the tracks because of this twice-daily event.

To us youngsters, Ole Darby was a fascinating person. He was a gentle old man who would sing funny little ditties in his raspy voice as he worked. He would also recite Bible verses in his monotone voice and could tell us how to remember the names of the books of the Bible. To make sure we were always careful around the depot, he had scary stories about the times when he’d seen the inbound mailbags hit a stray dog or a cat and it would never be seen again!

One morning, I was hanging around with a couple of my friends, Jim and Larry, when Ole Darby agreed to let us follow and watch him while he delivered the mail. As we followed him to the depot he admonished us to stay out of the way of the mailbag. When we got there, he gestured over his shoulder with his stubby thumb and said, “you woung whippersnappers get over by those bushes,” which at the time seemed a long way from the track, “and stay there!”

As the train approached, we could hear its railcrossing whistles sounding. There was a curve on the Monon at the north end of Rossville, so you couldn’t see the train until it was about a quarter of a mile from the depot, Ole Darby pulled out his pocket watch and stood there saying. “he’s crossing the Wild Cat crick. He’s at Owassco. He’s at Clarence Rule’s place.” We learned much later that Darby was watching the semaphore block signal to track the train the last mile and a half into Rossville.

A couple more whistle blasts and a flash from the Mars light, and the big red and gray “F” unit was here! Our place of safety beside the bushes didn’t seem far enough away. At the moment, I remember Mom saying that if you got too close to the train, it would just suck you under its wheels.

Then it was all over. The inbound mailbag had hit the path, the outbound mailbag on the crane was gone, there was a few wisps of diesel fuel exhaust floating in the dust, and the flashing red lights on the rear of the train was getting smaller in the distance. I remember turning to my friends Jim and Larry saying, “wasn’t that something? I’ll be back at 6:00 tonight and this time I won’t blink.”

By Gene Remaly, as written in The Hoosier Line, Volume 20, Number 1

 

 

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