January 17, 2013

The Bunk Car Lady

Sadye Smith was born on January 6, 1898 to Francis "Frank" Marion Smith and Nettie Watson of Sicily Island.  She married Marvin Bishop Nolen, Sr. in May of 1920.  Marvin was born in Maberry, Sebastian County, Arkansas on January 12, 1894 to George and Minnie Nolen.

Mary Scott Hair wrote an article about Sadye entitled, "Bunk Car Lady --- Life on a Railroad Work Train", which appeared in the March 1956 edition of The Ozarks Mountaineer.  The following is a transcription of this article.

The work train, passing through sleepy little towns and on across the countryside on its way to a job of several weeks more or less, brings a sigh of speculation from a weary farm wife living along the way.  As she pauses to watch the train go by...a pastime that costs nothing, one that, through the years, has never grown old...she too wonders about the bunk car with the white curtains at the windows.  Wonders who lives in it.  Wonders what it would be like to travel from place to place, taking one's home right along on wheels.  Trailer houses, common as automobiles, are one thing, but bunk car living is quite another thing!! 

To the passerby the smiling woman, hanging her washing out on a clothes line built along the right of way where a work train, and a bunk car with white window curtains, occupied the siding at Clever, Missouri, might have been any resident of that community.  She spoke in a charming southern drawl.  "O, I'm just so tickled about my new clothesline that nice Mr. Vickroy from Hurley made me!  It's the only clothesline I've had in all of my 36 years of housekeeping!"
Well now, this is something I thought.  There must be quite a story back of such pleasure about a mere clothesline.  It looked about like one I had at home, only the poles bore the unmistakable marking of railroad crossing markers.
And so I met and visited with Sadye Smith Nolen, wife of Marvin Nolen who operates the one and only Little American ditcher on the Missouri Pacific railroad.  After 36 years of keeping house on a bunk car, which always travels with the locomotive ditcher and the crew, Mrs. Nolen is an authority on all phases of living on the train.  The story she told me, though perhaps not altogether typical of all folks who live in bunk cars, makes ordinary housekeeping seem pretty lame.
In the Smith family, whose home is in Sicily Island, Louisiana, railroading is in the blood.  Two of Sadye's older sisters married railroad men.  And her twin brother, also "one of them" was really the cause of Sadye becoming involved in a locomotive ditcher. 
This twin brother was working for Marvin Nolen on a job in Arkansas when he became quite ill and had to go home.  In the ensuing weeks of the brother's illness Sadye wrote to his boss, letting him know how the patient was getting along.  And the first thing she knew they had quite a budding romance, via correspondence.  The brother returned to his job and Sadye started keeping company with the boss.
One lovely Sunday morning in May of 1920, Sadie Smith became Mrs. Marvin Nolen in a simple, though lovely, ceremony which took place in Little Rock.  The groom planned to take his bride to Hot Springs on a honeymoon.  Instead he was called back to work the very same day.  And the new Mrs. Nolen began an adventure that has taken her to many small towns and cities.  Everywhere the bunk car "settles" on the siding for even a week or so, Sadye Nolen makes new friends.
"Bunking" as bunk car living is called, had its problems for Sadye Nolen when she first started housekeeping.  One had to keep things caught up, such as washing every day, and then food storage was a problem when the ditcher worked some distance from town.  But she managed.  Managed, too, when a baby, Marvin, Jr., joined the ditcher crew, managed so well that the little boy knew the bunk car as home the first six years of his life.  When Christmas and Thanksgiving came, the Nolens went back to Sicily Island to be with their people, for after all, that's what such holy days are for.
When there were six candles on young Marvin's birthday cake, Mrs. Nolen and her little boy told the bunk car goodbye and went back home for Marvin to start to school.  But vacation time was a special time, something to look forward to, for then the two them sought out the work train, sometimes traveling by train to get there, sometimes by automobile, and there they lived with Mr. Nolen, sharing his triumphs and joys, his problems and the times when things didn't always go just right.  With a piece of equipment as huge as the ditcher, breakdowns often occur.  And when they happen, they pull up stakes and go home until the ditcher is on the job again, cleaning out ditches, filling in for bridges, lifting heavy materials and the like.
In their 36 years of "bunking" the Nolens have lived in only two different cars.  It seems they do not go out of style like automobiles and other things do.  But this present one, Sadye proudly told us, is much nicer than the first.  It has half partitions, the kitchen is handy as a pocket on a shirt, the living room is comfortable with its pot-bellied stove bolted to the floor, and in the bedroom there's a real clothes closet.  The floor coverings are inlaid linoleum, dainty white curtains at the windows can be seen from quite a distance, and the wall lamps which once burned kerosene are now wired for electricity.  Three years, now, the car has boasted electricity!
Sadye is a wonderful cook, you just ought to eat her black walnut cake!  And she loves company, often entertains enough friends to fill the bunk car to overflowing, even has occasional overnight guests.  A well stocked frigidaire is most important for obvious reasons.  She cooks on a Perfection oil stove which is bolted to the floor, uses a large electric roaster oven and a Presto cooker.  Always there are hot biscuits on the breakfast table.  Other meals are about like yours and mine except they do not overlook the fact that rice grows in Louisiana and they're great rice boosters.
Strange as it may seem, Sadye's friends have not been railroad people for she hasn't had many opportunities of meeting them.  Last summer, she told us, the bulldozer man's family bunked with him in North Little Rock and their cars were on the siding close enough for the families to neighbor back and forth.
In Newark, a kitten came to them one night out of a rainstorm, a poor, half starved little bit of fur and fluff.  It stayed with them, going on to Newark.  Then the ditcher broke down and had to be hauled in to the shops in Little Rock and Sadye bade Snookie, the kitten, goodbye and went back to Sicily Island.  That was her only "bunking" pet.
Some women might find such a life a lonely one, but not Sadye Nolen.  All up and down the line where the Nolens have traveled over a period of 36 years, folks remember them.  They were in Clever 16 years ago and at that time the Solomon family gave Sadye pictures of their youngsters for her scrapbook.  They were her first visitors when the car stopped on the siding last fall where it remained for several weeks...long enough that the cows got used to the ditcher at work...long enough for Sadye to further endear herself to a host of new friends.  She joined a club in Clever, attended church and was a real citizen and neighbor while she was there.
Her bulging scrapbooks, six of them, are her hobby.  Through the years she has kept clippings and poems, pictures, letters, postmarks, stamps, oh, just lots of little keepsakes dear to a woman's heart.  She does her sewing by hand, enjoys making pretty gifts for her friends and listens to the radio.  Time never hangs heavy on her hands, there are so many interesting things to do and such nice people to meet.
When the ditcher broke down in January and had to be hauled in to the shops in Sedalia for repairs, Mrs. Nolen waited here in Hurley with her friends, the Vickroys, for Mr. Nolen's return when they would then drive back to their home in Louisiana.  She watched from the window as the bunk car with white curtains at windows, passed through.  As she waved she said, "Goodbye, old bunk car.  It may be some time before I see you again!"
Spring will come soon.  A whole new cycle will begin.  For those of us who wistfully watch from the window or stop by the tracks as a train goes by...it's still a thrilling pastime that costs nothing...should there be a bunk car with white curtains at the windows, we will wave a greeting as we remember smiling Sadye Nolen, our Bunk Car Lady!
Sadye Smith Nolen died on May 28, 1957.  She is buried in the Old Pine Hill Cemetery in Sicily Island alongside her husband, Marvin, who died on June 27, 1976.

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