For the week of Sept. 10, 2018

Doodlebugs and Jitneys

By John Schlageck, Kansas Farm Bureau 

My dad read two newspapers daily when I grew up in the ‘50s. His newspapers of choice were the Kansas City Star and Denver Post.    

Both arrived on the same day and both contained the latest news from that date in history. The doodlebug or jitney brought the two papers from KC 358 miles to the east and Denver, 255 miles to our west. We farmed outside the small Sheridan County community of Seguin.

For you younger readers, people called self-propelled railroad cars doodlebugs or jitneys. Doodlebugs sometimes pulled an unpowered trailer car, but were often used singly.

They were popular with some railroads during the first to middle part of the 20th century. Jitneys provided passenger and mail service on lightly used branch lines, often in rural areas with sparse populations.

By operating these two-car trains in northwestern Kansas, the Union Pacific (UP) didn’t need to use conventional trains consisting of a locomotive and coaches. Several railroads, mostly small regional and local networks, provided their main passenger services through doodlebugs in a cost-cutting effort. This also freed up the UP to use its locomotives for the transportation of wheat, milo, barley and livestock.

Our home was located a little more than a block north of the tracks and from the time I saw my first train, I was fascinated by the sound, smoke and the sight of these hulking metal monsters. I couldn’t wait to see them, hear them, count the cars and eventually ride on one of them.

Doodlebugs were considerably quieter than the steam locomotives that carried millions and millions of bushels of grain from the breadbasket of the world where I grew up to hungry mouths around the globe. These two-car trains typically consisted of a gasoline-powered engine that turned a generator and provided electricity to traction motors, which turned the axles and wheels on the trucks.

The doodlebug that stopped in our little village, population 50 with dogs and cats, usually came mid-morning, about 10:15. Back in those days you could almost set your watch by its arrival.

And that’s how my dad received his two daily papers on the same day. A half century later after the rail lines were torn up and steam engines were a distant memory my dad subscribed to the Salina Journal. One of his neighbors, Elmer Reitcheck, subscribed to the Hays Daily News. After they’d read their copies, they’d swap.

The funny thing about this is that Dad and Elmer were now reading yesterday’s papers. To be more exact, it often took two days to receive their daily papers. That’s right. With all our technology, and lightning quick U.S postal service, it still required two days to deliver a paper 94 and 188 miles.

Talk about old news. You know the old saying, “That’s a heck’uva way to run a railroad.”  Well, I can’t remember how many times I heard my dad say, “bring back the railroads.”

I guess, you could blame part of the demise of today’s papers on transportation and the government, but they both take a beating daily anyway, so back to the story of doodlebugs and those days of yesteryear.

I took one of my first train rides on a doodlebug. I also accompanied my dad to see our relatives in Denver by way of the Rock Island Rocket. That was more than 60 years ago and the 250-mile trip on this streamliner took less than three hours. We literally flew across the plains traveling at speeds of 90 miles-per-hour in this red and silver rocket. It takes four hours to cover this same distance traveling on Interstate 70 today.

For my sixth birthday, I asked my parents for a train trip from Seguin to Oakley. It was a little less than 50 miles by train and Mom and Dad drove part of the way beside my sister, Cathy, and me as we dawdled in the doodlebug on our way to Oakley. This slowpoke traveled half the speed of the Rocket – maybe less.

During part of the trip the engineer allowed me to put my hand on the huge silver, metal throttle and as I told my friends later, “I drove the doodlebug part of the way to Oakley.”

Bet I couldn’t get anywhere near a train throttle or computer-operated engine room today. SOPs (standard operating procedure), rules and regulations being what they are.

 I’ll remember that birthday always. And who knows, maybe one day trains will once again play a vital role in transportation. One thing is certain, they won’t carry newspapers anymore.

John Schlageck is a leading commentator on agriculture and rural Kansas. Born and raised on a diversified farm in northwestern Kansas, his writing reflects a lifetime of experience, knowledge and passion.