The USS Haskell – A Little-Known Story of World War II

It has been said that there are numerous acts of heroism, bravery, and service during a war that are seldom remembered or celebrated as they should be. In my opinion, one such story is that of the USS Haskell, and the Haskell County sailor who served on her.

USS Haskell, APA 117, was the lead ship of a class of vessels known as “attack transports,” one of 119 ships of that designation, built and launched in 1944 and 45. Designed to carry troops into battle, most of these ships were named for counties across the U.S.

The Haskell was named for counties in Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas. She was 455 feet long and 62 feet wide, with a maximum speed of 17 knots (about 20 miles per hour). Her crew consisted of 56 officers and 480 enlisted men. Besides being able to carry over 1500 combat troops and their equipment, the ship had 29 landing craft for deploying them on the beach. She was also armed with numerous anti-aircraft weapons and had a complete hospital on board.

The USS Haskell, APA 117, docked at San Francisco Bay, 1945.

The Haskell was launched June 13, 1944, and commissioned September 11. She arrived in San Francisco on October 18 and began loading troops and supplies. She crossed the equator and the International Date Line before participating in the New Guinea offensive.

Throughout 1945, she repeatedly carried troops and supplies to assault enemy-held beaches. She was attacked three times by enemy submarines and survived their torpedo attacks, and came under fire in numerous air attacks. She shot down her first enemy aircraft on January 11. She participated in two hostile landings in the Philippines and another at Okinawa, where she also served as a hospital ship. During her combat, the Haskell suffered one fatality and 28 wounded.

The Haskell was in friendly waters in Seattle on August 12, when “V-J Day” was announced, but her service was not over. The ship began ferrying replacement personnel and occupation forces across the Pacific and bringing home demobilized troops. During one of these missions, the Haskell had to ride out a violent typhoon, with winds of 185 mph. She also brought over 1,400 released Allied POWs to Manila for further medical care before returning to the U.S. The ship made two more trips across the Pacific as part of “Operation Magic Carpet” before being ordered to sail for Norfolk, Virginia, via the Panama Canal. She arrived in Virginia and was decommissioned on May 22, 1946. She became part of the Reserve Fleet but was eventually scrapped on July 30, 1973. During her service, the Haskell sailed over 120,000 miles, crossed the equator four times and the International Date Line ten times. She visited more than 15 foreign countries and transported and/or landed over 14,000 allied military personnel on enemy beaches.

Serving on the Haskell during her entire tenure was a young man from Rochester, Leroy Wreyford, the son of Lawrence and Hattie Mae (Hester) Wreyford. The Wreyfords had a laundry just east of town on the Weinert Highway and were the parents of three sons and a daughter – Alton, Leroy, Donald, and Georgia – and all of the boys served in the war. Lee was born May 7, 1926.

He graduated from Rochester High in 1943 and joined the Navy. Of his service he would later say, “I boarded the USS Haskell, 10 September 1944, as a member of the landing craft crews. I was assigned as one of six to the Beach Control Boat Crew, always landing in the first wave. I remained on the Haskell the entire time she was a commissioned Naval vessel. She covered a lot of miles and did a magnificent job in her short service to her country.”

Seaman 1c Leroy Wreyford, USNR, of Rochester.

For his service on the ship, Seaman First Class Wreyford earned the World War II Victory Medal and the Navy Unit Commendation Ribbon with Bronze Star, given for “outstanding heroism in action against the enemy.” He also earned the American Campaign Medal, the Asiatic-Pacific Campaign Medal with two Bronze Stars, and the Philippines Liberation Medal with Bronze Star. He died on December 26, 2020.

So that’s the story of the USS Haskell, her service to our country, and the Rochester man who served aboard her. Many thanks to all those who helped me research and bring it to you, including Johnny & Teresa Scoggins, Billy Wayne Hester, Linda Short, Jane Short, Susan Turner, John & Mary Rike, and of course, the wonderful ladies at the Haskell County Library.

“…Lest we forget.”

Some Thoughts on Small Town Living

My wife and I first moved to Haskell in July 1980, and for 17 of the next 26 years, I served as the minister of the First Christian Church – 1980-82, 1986-92, and 1997-2006. A few years ago I moved back to my Southeast Texas roots, to live in Orange County with my dad as his caregiver. After he passed in December 2018, Kathy and I talked about it and decided that we wanted to move back to Haskell, so we bought a home here and returned during the summer of 2019.

All of that to say, we love Haskell and the many wonderful friends we’ve made here. Three of our kids were born here, and two of them graduated from Haskell County schools. I have known members of the same family for six generations and have performed second, and in some cases, even third generation weddings, funerals and baptisms. That’s rare and special for a pastor these days.

I enjoy the rhythm of life in our small town – the “regularness” of it, the familiarity of it all. I appreciate the traditions of life here, from Wild Horse Prairie Days to Friday Night Lights and how folks who haven’t had a family member playing high school football in 40 years are still holding on to their season tickets. I love our annual Lighted Christmas Parade and the Easter Egg Hunt at City Park. All of these things, and many, many more, are all part of what makes life good in Haskell.

And of course, the friendships – the wonderful relationships with people that we walk through life with. You see them at their best, you see them at their worst, and everything in between. We visit with them at Modern Way and at the post office. From weddings and funerals to the birth of babies and grandbabies and high school graduation – fiftieth anniversaries and backyard BBQs and quinceañeras – towns like Haskell are where life happens, and it’s where the people are who matter the most to us.

Other towns around the area are all also nice, each in its own unique and special way. Stamford has the Cowboy Reunion, and Rochester has its Trade Days. I have friends in just about every community around here, and I cherish all of those relationships. They help make life worth living, and they are a big part of why Kathy and I decided to buy a place and settle here. For better or worse, we have “adopted” Haskell, and it is our intention to stay. You’re stuck with us.

However, as much as I love Haskell – and I REALLY do! – there are things about our town that make me crazy. And so with all humility, I offer some thoughts about a few areas of concern I have.

At the top of the list would have to be people who are automatically opposed to anything new or different. This attitude is especially prevalent in churches, but we find it everywhere. “We’ve never done it that way before.” Just because something is new or untried doesn’t make it wonderful, of course, but just because something is old and familiar doesn’t automatically make it the best, either. Every item that we use every day – automobiles, electric lights, telephones, running water, and more – were all once new and untried. Rather than rejecting a new idea simply because it is new, we ought to be willing to at least listen and consider some fresh ideas and different approaches to problem-solving.

Closely related is the issue of being afraid or suspicious of “new” people moving into town. Yes, Haskell is a tightly-knit community with shared values and a common heritage, but that shouldn’t mean that we hate and fear all “outsiders” who come here. We all have a lot of friends and loved ones buried in Willow Cemetery, but we can’t be so devoted to honoring the dead that we neglect the next generation. Yes, we should cherish the memory of our grandparents – but we also need to make a way for our grandchildren. And sometimes, that means being willing to meet and listen to new people and hearing their thoughts.

One final concern is that sometimes, we are much too concerned with the past and not enough with the future. Have you ever noticed the size of your car’s windshield, compared to the rearview mirror? That’s because when you’re driving, you should be much more focused on where you’re going, as opposed to where you’ve been. We must absolutely have pride in our past – but we also need to have faith in the future.

I love Haskell and I’m very proud to be here. All I’m saying is, working together, we can make it better.

A Good Habit for Life

There are some habits that nearly all of us agree are good things to do on a daily, or at least a regular, basis. We may not always DO them, but we agree that they’re good ideas. Making your bed every morning, for example. Flossing your teeth. Eating a healthy diet.

And I would add, donating blood.

I started donating blood when I was 19 and in college. (More about that in a bit.) In the years following, I made a total of 80 donations – that’s five gallons of blood. But after achieving that milestone, I decided I had done enough, and somebody else could take over. I’m not sure why I came to that conclusion. I guess I felt like I had done my part, and it could now be someone’s turn. Or maybe I was busy that day, or that five gallons was a nice accomplishment – got my name on a plaque! – so now, let that be someone else’s problem.

Except that’s not how life works. I believe we all have a lifelong responsibility to be good citizens, to be good neighbors, and to do all we can to help others. And as far as I am concerned, that means being a blood donor, so I have resumed my old habit.

Giving blood usually takes about 45 minutes. It is absolutely safe. You will be asked a few basic questions about your overall health and how you are feeling. They’ll check your temperature, your blood pressure, your weight. You’ll be asked about any prescriptions you take, your travel history, and a few questions of a personal nature – but they ask only to make sure your blood is safe to give to anyone (even a little child), and ALL of your answers are kept strictly confidential.

The American Red Cross says that about 6.8 million people give blood every year, totaling up to 13.6 million units. The fact is, someone – men, women, boys, girls, infants and the elderly, cancer patients and trauma victims – someone in this country needs blood every two seconds. A typical transfusion of red blood cells requires three units of blood, and a single car accident victim can require as much as a hundred units. Burn patients often need a lot of blood, as do victims of Sickle Cell Disease and other chronic illnesses. It has been estimated that one donation of blood can save as many as three lives.

Who can give? Just about everyone. You have to be at least 16 years of age in good overall health and weigh at least 110 pounds. As for myself, I’m 65 and a Type 2 Diabetic, but even with the meds I take to keep my blood sugar in control, it didn’t disqualify me. And I got a nice T-shirt as a bonus!

There are some common-sense precautions. If you’re not feeling well, if you’re anemic, if you have a cold or other illness, don’t try to donate – wait until you’re better. Be sure to eat a good meal before, and maybe even have a little light snack just after. Drink plenty of fluids and keep the bandage on tightly for several hours. Don’t try to get up too quickly after the donation – take it easy for a few minutes and let your system adjust before you try to move too quickly. Take it from a five-gallon donor: you’ll be fine.

So my first time giving blood? It was the summer of 1976, and I was working as a ministry intern for a church in Jackson, Mississippi. One of the dear old saints in that congregation was in the final stages of her battle against leukemia, and so the senior pastor and I went down to the local hospital, to each give a unit of blood as a “credit” on her account. He was an experienced donor, but I was a “newbie.” When we were finished, he immediately jumped up and began heading for the exit. I (of course) felt that I just had to keep up with him and be as tough as he was, but with every step, I noticed my legs getting more and more wobbly, and an increasingly unpleasant sensation of dizziness. When we got to the front door, the heat and humidity of that Mississippi summer morning hit me in the face and I collapsed. The next the thing I knew, I was in the front seat of Earl’s VW Beetle, and he was asking, “Are you okay? Are you okay?”

From that inauspicious beginning, I have now given many more times, and I’m asking you to join me and over six million others and become a blood donor.

Just don’t get up too fast.

A Shot in the Arm

I turned 65 a few days ago, so I celebrated by getting a flu shot. Personally, I’m a big believer in vaccines. That is partly based on the science involved, and partly based on personal and family experience.

Back in the 50s and 60s when I was growing up, there weren’t as many vaccines available as there are now, and I ended up having a number of “childhood diseases.” One of them nearly killed me. When I was in the first grade, I had chicken pox, mumps, and measles, all within a period of a couple of months. It was while I was battling measles that my fever shot up to about 105°. I remember being in bed and “seeing” snakes crawling up and down the wall in my room. I ended up with a terrible kidney infection that put me in the hospital for a week. You can bet that when our kids were little, we made sure they had all their shots.

I also remember being in elementary school and standing in line to get a sugar cube with the polio vaccine on it, and the stories my parents told me about their classmates and cousins, pre-vaccine, who contracted polio and ended up crippled or in an iron lung. A generation before that, it was smallpox. My dad (born in 1928) carried a small round scar on his left shoulder where he received his smallpox inoculation.

Over the years, I have had numerous vaccines. I get a flu shot every year. I used to catch the flu about every other year. It would always make me sick as a big dog, and it seemed to be a month or six weeks before I was completely over it. So I don’t mess around about it anymore – I just get the shot and am done with it. It may make me feel a little “blah” for a day or two, but that’s a lot better than six weeks.

I have also been blessed to go on a couple of short-term mission trips to Central and South America. There was a long list of shots that I had to get when I was preparing to go to Peru a few years ago. I was in line with several other people for a yellow fever vaccination, and some of the folks were complaining about having to get “so many shots” for such a relatively short trip. The clinic director told us, with a seriousness that I did not mistake, that we would be given a card proving our vaccinated status, and that we needed to keep it with our passports. “Just remember,” she told us, “you don’t have to have that card to leave the country. But you will need it if you want to get back in.”

Today, thank God, we don’t have to worry about smallpox, or polio, or a whole host of other diseases, and it’s because of vaccines. Vaccines for kids do NOT cause autism. That was a rumor that was started back in the 1990s because of a published report by a British surgeon ­– except he had falsified the numbers in his study. He lost his medical license because of that lie, but the rumor persists. And the Covid vaccine does not make you sterile, it doesn’t implant microchips in your body, and it’s not the Mark of the Beast. And no, it’s not perfect, but if you get Covid, the likelihood is that you will have a relatively mild case. And the main side effect of the vaccine is, you don’t die from Covid – about 99.95% of the time.

So please, if you haven’t had yours yet, go get a Covid vaccine. Now that they have approved the booster for Moderna shots, I plan to get mine soon. And while you’re at, you can also get a flu shot – they’re saying that this flu season could be one of the worst in years.

Some people claim that requiring a vaccine somehow impinges on their “personal freedom,” but the truth is, there are all kinds of restrictions that we agree to abide by, in order to live among others as part of a community. You don’t have the “freedom” to drive your vehicle if you’re drunk. You don’t have the freedom to yell “Fire!” in a crowded theatre.

When the framers of the United States Constitution were drafting the Preamble to that historic document, part of their purpose, they said, was to “promote the general Welfare.” We need to recognize that we have responsibilities to our neighbors to behave in a way that promotes health and wellness as part of the “general Welfare” of the entire community. And surely that is also included in what Jesus meant when He told us to “love our neighbor.”

Welcome Home, Exes, and Other Random Thoughts

Scatter-shooting while thinking about sports columnist Blackie Sherrod and the great articles he used to write for the Dallas Times Herald

Welcome back to all the Haskell, Mattson, Weinert, and Rochester exes! We are glad you are here and hope you enjoy your visit. No doubt you will notice some new things, here in Haskell and elsewhere – there are several new businesses on the square and around the community, and others that have moved from their familiar locations to new sites (including the Haskell Star offices, now at 112 North Avenue E, and in with the DCOH and the Chamber!). From the football game to the street dance, to the various programs and class activities, we extend best wishes for a safe and enjoyable time with classmates, family and friends. We also pause and remember all those we have lost to Covid and other causes since the last homecoming.

Speaking of football – I love hearing and singing the National Anthem before the start of the games and wish more folks would sing out. I know it’s not an easy tune to carry, but I for one love those lyrics and the true story they tell: how Francis Scott Key was being held on a British warship after negotiating the release of a doctor who had been captured. The Brits were engaged in a fierce naval bombardment of Fort McHenry outside of Baltimore, in preparation for invasion, and Mr. Key was being held on the enemy ship and was literally up and down all night. He was watching by “the rocket’s red glare,” to see if the American flag was still flying over the fort, or if enemy forces had captured it.

By the next morning, at “dawn’s early light,” of course, it became apparent that the fort still held firm – and our flag still flew. Our daughter Brittany lives in Baltimore, and a couple of years ago, we got to visit Fort McHenry. I know we are all proud and thankful to be Americans, so let me encourage us ALL to sing those patriotic words – even if we’re not the best vocalists.

Here’s a tip of my cap to my friend Steve Allen Goen from Wichita Falls. Steve is an authority on Texas railroads and their history; he’s also an author and photographer with several books to his credit. Many of his books are beautiful “coffee table”-style collections of gorgeous color photos of different railroads around Texas. He has just released the third in a new series about railroad passenger trains – and this one will be about the Burlington Route, including the Fort Worth & Denver and the Wichita Valley railroads that served Haskell. And he tells me one chapter in this newest book will be about the Doodlebug that operated between Wichita Falls and Abilene.

I have spoken with folks from the Friends of the Haskell County Library, and they may be able to host an “author’s book-signing” later this year, so Steve could come and sell copies of his new book. Watch this space for more details.

For my birthday, my family took me to a showing of No Time to Die, the new James Bond film. I have enjoyed actor Daniel Craig’s tenure as 007. He says this will be his final appearance as the British agent, and if so, it was pretty good.

Maybe that’s an idea for a future column – rating the various Bond movies and the different actors who have portrayed author Ian Fleming’s suave agent. You can start a pretty good argument among fans of the series, wrangling over Sean Connery or Roger Moore, Pierce Brosnan or perhaps Daniel Craig, as their favorite actor-spy.

I have written before about how much I enjoy sitting on my back porch, watching and listening to all the birds as they fill the trees. It’s still something that I love to do, and especially watching the different species of avian friends who come and go with the changing seasons. Now we have new guests – monarch butterflies. These travelers are making their semi-annual visit to our area, and I love to see them as they fly around. It seems especially appropriate with the colors of the fall season, and this close to Halloween, for them to appear in their orange-and-black markings! And thank You, Lord, for the beauty in all of Your creation.

A Call to Community

According to Genesis 1, as God was creating the universe, He would pause from time to time, examine his work and pronounce that it was “good.” After God created our first parents, he surveyed them, along with everything else he had made and pronounced that it was all “very good.” Then we come to Genesis 2, where the story backs up just a bit and gives us more details about how God created the first humans. When he saw the man alone, it was the first time that God said something was “NOT good,” and so the Creator said, “I will make a helper suitable for him.”

It seems we are hard-wired for relationships. God created us that way, and He has called us to live in community.

That shouldn’t come as a galloping surprise to anyone. God himself exists within a perfect community, a union we understand as God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit. Not three gods, but one, living in perfect community within themselves. In Genesis 1:26, God said, “Let US make humans in our image” – and that “us” is a reference, I believe, to that Divine Community, or if you prefer, to the Trinity. Later, when God gave Israel the “Shema” prayer – “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one” (Deut. 6:4) – the word translated “one” is the Hebrew word, ekhad. It’s the same word that describes the “one flesh” of husband and wife. One as a union. One as a community.

When God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 20), it’s important to note that the first commandment begins with, “I AM the LORD your God who brought you out of Egypt; you will have no other gods besides me.” Please notice that: the foundation of the entire law was the covenant relationship between God and his people.

God described himself to Moses by saying, “I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” He was defining who he was, at least in part, by the relationships he had. Throughout the days of the prophets, God was constantly calling his people and inviting them into a closer relationship. Sending Jesus is the ultimate expression of God’s desire to be in community with his people. That’s why one of the names by which Jesus is known is “Immanuel” – God with us.

According to Luke 4, when Jesus was beginning his public ministry, he read the scripture from Isaiah 61 about proclaiming good news to the poor, binding up the brokenhearted, setting captives free, and rebuilding the ancient ruins – all dealing with restoring broken relationships. In Mark 12, when he was asked about the most important commandment, Jesus said, “Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, all your strength. And the second is this: Love your neighbor as yourself.”

The fact is, God has made us so that we need each other. In Romans 14:7, the Apostle Paul says, “For none of us lives for ourselves alone, and none of us dies for ourselves alone.” We are called to live in community. Indeed, in 2 Corinthians 5, Paul says that God has “committed to us the ministry of reconciliation.” And what is reconciliation, if not a fancy word for rebuilding relationships?

That community sometimes looks different. We are called the “bear one another’s burdens,” (Gal. 6:2), to “rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep,” (Rom. 12:15), and to “live at peace with everyone” (Rom. 12:18). In Revelation 21:2, heaven is described as “The New Jerusalem.” A city. Not a suburb. Not a farm. Not a solitary cabin by a lake somewhere. A city. And city implies neighbors close by, and relationships all around us.

Genuine community is risky. Relationships take a lot of work and can sometimes be messy. But God has reached out to us, and desires to be in relationship with us, and that is precisely the way we are called to reach out to one another.

Try a Little Kindness

When I was growing up in the 1960s, my favorite singer was Glen Campbell. Among the many other records of his that I had was a song entitled, Try a Little Kindness

If you see your brother standing by the road
With a heavy load from the seeds he’s sowed
And if you see your sister falling by the way
Just stop and say, you’re going the wrong way

You’ve got to try a little kindness
Yes show a little kindness
Just shine your light for everyone to see
And if you try a little kindness
Then you’ll overlook the blindness
Of narrow-minded people on the narrow-minded streets

Don’t walk around, the down and out
Lend a helping hand instead of doubt
And the kindness that you show every day
Will help someone along their way

It’s a message I’ve been thinking about lately.

A couple of years ago, the Marriott Hotel chain began running a series of TV ads based on the theme of “The Golden Rule” – they even had their own hashtag, #GoldenRule. Part of the commercial includes the question, “What if all of mankind were made up of kind women and kind men?” The ads show Marriott employees – and others – performing simple acts of kindness to help others.

I realize that expressions of kindness towards others have often been in short supply, but it seems that lately such acts of kindness are even more rare than ever, and it makes me sad for our society. When did simply being nice to another person become so rare and remarkable that it makes the national news?

This may come as a shock to some of our younger readers, but there was a time in this country when politics “ended at the shore,” when political parties would not criticize a president (even from the other party) about the way he handled foreign policy; a time when we could disagree about political issues without assuming the other side was evil and out to destroy the country; and a time when we could discuss politics without the conversation degenerating into shouting match on the level of, “You’re stupid!” “No, you’re stupid!” We were willing to recognize the humanity and basic decency of others, and to acknowledge that a political opponent was a fine person, even if we had different ideas about what was best for the country.

It seems to me that Jesus went out of his way to tell us that we should be kind to others, and not merely to those we already know or love, and especially not only to those who are able to pay us back. He told us specifically to invite to dinner those who COULDN’T pay us back. He calls us to set an example of kindness and grace to everyone.

He’s not the only one. The prophet Micah told us to “practice justice, love kindness, and walk humbly before our God” (Micah 6:8). The Apostle Paul lists “kindness” along with the other fruit of God’s Spirit. And that list is not a buffet – we don’t get to pick & choose which items we want. “Yes, I’ll take some love and a little peace, please, but no thanks on the self-control.” If God’s Spirit is alive and active inside of us, He will be producing all of those qualities in us.

The problem with kindness is that, by its very nature, it doesn’t call attention to itself; it’s more concerned with serving others than in tooting its own horn. And in our self-promoting, selfie-obsessed culture, most of us simply don’t think of how to serve others.

Caring about others – putting the needs of others first – is a learned behavior, and contrary to human nature. It’s an act of discipleship that follows in the self-sacrificing steps of our Lord. Maybe that’s why it’s so rare.

Jesus is still looking for disciples who will walk as He walked, and live as He lived. That includes showing kindness to all. Especially those who don’t deserve it.

More Haskell Railroad Memories

Last week we started telling stories of the old railroad days in Haskell. One story told by Haskell native Sam Pace involved his grandfather who owned the first Ford dealership here, and how they used to receive new automobiles in railroad box cars, dissembled and in crates, and the mechanics had to reassemble them.

Sam’s cousin, Dr. Jim Ratliff, remembers once when a dead whale was lashed to a flat car and parked on a sidetrack, in 1937 or 38. He especially recalls the awful stench of the rotting sea creature, but why the carcass was there, why it was parked in Haskell for a time, and what its destination was, are all mysteries.

He also remembers hearing stories from his parents and other family members about when the Ratliff family relocated to Haskell from Decatur, Texas, in the 1920s; he says his dad Roy, and older brother Dennis, had to ride in a cattle car with the family milk cow. (Dennis Ratliff would go on to become a successful attorney, a district judge, and a member of the Texas House of Representatives, but he when arrived in Haskell for the first time as a young man, it was in the middle of the night, riding with a milk cow on a mixed train…)

As we mentioned last week, Dr. Jim, Sam, and lots of other folks remember riding the “Doodlebug.” This was a self-propelled passenger coach that also offered mail and package service. The Wichita Valley Railroad operated a Doodlebug in the 1930s and 40s between Wichita Falls and Abilene as Trains 111 and 112.

Sam Pace says riding it is his “claim to fame.” He recalls taking a school bus to Weinert (or maybe Munday?), then riding the Doodlebug back to Haskell. Others remember the opposite, taking the Doodlebug from Haskell north to Munday or Seymour, then riding a bus back to Haskell. Woody Turnbow remembers riding it up to Munday, then walking to get an ice cream cone before boarding the bus for the trip back to Haskell. John Sam Rike III remembers when his first-grade class went on their field trip to ride the Doodlebug but says he didn’t get to go – he was out sick that day with an earache.

Students from Mrs. J.V. Vaughter’s class line up to board the Doodlebug in this 1947 photo. For many years, riding the Doodlebug was a much-anticipated field trip for Haskell students. Can you identify anyone in this picture?
(Photo from Images of America: Haskell County, by the Haskell County Historical and Genealogical Society, original photo submitted by Hess Hartsfield.)

Another Haskell native who recalls riding it was Fitzhugh Williams, son of longtime Haskell physician, Dr. T.W. Williams. Mr. Williams – known to some as “Buttermilk” – remembers boarding the Doodlebug for the trip up to Seymour, then riding a school bus back. He says the self-propelled car was a dark olive-green color with a cab that was painted red with yellow trim, and as he says, “yellow or white lettering.” One of his most vivid memories from riding the Doodlebug was going across the railroad bridge over the Brazos River just south of Seymour. He says he was very impressed and a little bit scared crossing that bridge, “because it was a long way down!”

Another detail he recalls about the Doodlebug is the name “Railway Express Agency” printed on its side. REA was a forerunner of services like UPS and FedEx. Mr. Williams says he remembers once when REA delivered a shipment of baby chicks. “They came packed in heavy cardboard,” he says, “with lots of vent holes in the cardboard. The crates were about six inches tall, and maybe 24 to 30 inches, square.” He also recalls Mr. Audie Stocks, who owned a truck and used to pick up shipments that arrived by REA and deliver them to people and businesses “all over town.”

Several of you have told me about fathers and grandfathers who drove cattle to local railroad stock pens for shipment to market; there were cattle pens north of town around Josselet switch, and others south of town, near where Overton Road is now. Numerous farmers also shipped out carloads of wheat and bales of cotton via rail – but times change.

A growing economy and changing infrastructure meant shipping by highway rather than rail. Trains are still a vital part of the national economy, and Amtrak still carries passengers between major cities, but locally, the rails were all gone from Haskell County by the mid-1990s.

But some of us recall fondly the days when railroads meant prosperity for a community. Some of us collect railroad antiques; others build and run model trains. Some of us like to read and tell stories about those days and what it was like to ride “that magic carpet made of steel.”

And some of us still get chills to hear the sound of a lonesome whistle in the middle of the night.

Railroad Memories

It’s difficult these days for us to realize how much significance our ancestors living a hundred years ago placed on the railroad, but imagine if the internet, the news media, your communications system, the mail, the future of your business, and your transportation system were all rolled up into a single entity? Throw in the chance for economic development as well as the opportunity for face-to-face social networking and interaction, and you have some idea of what the railroad meant to those who came before us.

The first community in Haskell County to see the “Iron Horse” was actually Sagerton. The Kansas City, Mexico, and Orient Railroad was building north on its way to Kansas City in the summer and fall of 1905. The story is, they wanted to go through Stamford, but a wealthy rancher blocked them, so they went a few miles west and arrived in Sagerton on December 9, 1905. The town was actually named for local landowner William Sager, who donated land for the depot, the right-of-way, and certain town lots. Later the Stamford & Northwestern arrived there in 1909 on its way to Spur, making Sagerton the only town in the county to have TWO railroads. Historical accounts state that the two depots were located “some distance apart, to the inconvenience of the public.”

The “Orient Line,” as it was known, continued on its way north, creating the towns of Rule, Rochester, and O’Brien in 1905 and 1906. The KC, M & O was sold to the Santa Fe Railroad in the 1930s; it was salvaged in 1996, although some of the historical depots remain in the communities they served. (For now, I’m having to leave out some colorful stories, including a fascinating one about residents in northwestern Haskell County who, when they realized the railroad was bypassing them, just picked up and moved the town and became part of Rochester. But I digress.)

Early histories of the county reveal some of the negotiations – along with lots of broken promises and double-dealing – in the early efforts to bring a railroad to the city of Haskell. In 1906, the Wichita Valley RR, owned by Abilene rail entrepreneur Morgan Jones, was on its way to connect Wichita Falls with Abilene. They came through Weinert first, then they arrived in Haskell at noon on August 2, 1906. In their August 4 edition two days later, the Haskell Free Press described it as a “Consummation Long Desired,” adding “Haskell is now a railroad town, bound by bands of steel to the outer world.” The WV was eventually merged into the Fort Worth & Denver, then the Burlington, and finally the Burlington Northern. It was eventually abandoned and torn up in the mid-1990s.

Did you know that Haskell once had its own streetcar? A gasoline-powered streetcar owned by Mr. M.R. Hemphill ran from the WV depot to the square, then three miles north through what would later be known as the “Shook Addition,” to Hemphill Lake, and ending near the present location of the Haskell Country Club. The line operated from 1909-10 and cost ten cents to ride. At the lake was a bandstand, a golf course, and recreation facilities.

Haskell’s streetcar was in operation from 1909-1910. Pictured are Frank Craddock at the controls; Mrs. B. Baker, front seat; Mrs. C.L. Lewis, second row.
Photo from Haskell County and Its Pioneers, by Rex A. Felker.

Many of you have been kind enough to share with me some of your train-related memories from the old days of Haskell. Sam Pace tells the story of his grandfather, William Lynn Pace Senior, who owned Haskell’s first Ford dealership, near where Kay’s Cleaners is now. Mr. Pace also knew Henry Ford, and back in the day, the new Fords would arrive in Haskell by train, disassembled and boxed up in crates. Mr. Pace’s mechanics would go down to the depot and unload the crates, reassemble the cars, pour in a cup or two of gasoline, and drive the contraptions down to the Ford house.

One common memory that I have heard from several folks has been about “riding the Doodlebug” – a self-propelled rail passenger car. For many years in the 1940s, riding that railcar was a much-anticipated school field trip. Do you remember riding it? Do you have any pictures of it, or other rail-related recollections to tell from the old days of Haskell? We would love to hear from you! We will share some of those stories, and more, in our next column.

Looking Back at a Year Gone By

It’s hard to believe but this week marks the completion of my first full year with the Haskell Star. And what a year it’s been! So here are some things that come to my mind as I reflect upon the twelve months that have gone by.

New Community Leadership. This has certainly been a year of transition and change. For one reason or another, we have new leadership in several key areas of the community. Michelle Stevens is the new CEO at Haskell Memorial Hospital. Lonnie Hise has returned to Haskell to assume the duties of Superintendent for Haskell CISD. Coach Mitch McLemore, remembered with such respect from his days in Stamford, has taken over as Haskell’s Athletic Director and Head Football Coach. And last but not least, June Ellis has begun his tenure as Haskell’s City Administrator, bringing his financial management experience to our city’s benefit.

And they are not the only ones – just in the last few weeks, the DCOH Director and the Haskell Chamber of Commerce Director have both resigned, for unrelated reasons. Of course, this means we will soon be having new leadership in those key positions, as well.

We welcome all these folks to their new posts and pray for their success, because to paraphrase outgoing President George H.W. Bush’s comments to incoming President Bill Clinton, their success will be Haskell’s success. They will undoubtedly bring some new ways of thinking and fresh ideas with them – AND THAT’S A GOOD THING! We can’t solve tomorrow’s problems with yesterday’s answers, so before we write off some “new-fangled” approach because “we’ve never done it that way,” let’s be willing to listen, to learn, and perhaps to grow.

Remember, every great idea was once just somebody’s harebrained scheme.

Haskell is Booming. Some of us were born here; others of us got here as soon as we could. (A few of us came and left and came back!) But however it happened, we are happy to be in Haskell, and we recognize the blessings of being part of a vibrant community. Part of that vibrancy is a growing number of businesses and an expanding economic base. Our Development Corporation of Haskell, the DCOH, has been a valuable part of that expansion.

Just in the last few weeks, we have seen new businesses and restaurants come in, and existing ones expand and grow. Some of these include Kaleidoscope, with its numerous venues for crafters and local artists to show their merchandise; Sunnybell Florist & Gift Shoppe, now open on the north side of the square; HASK – Roewe Outfitters, catering to this area’s hunting needs and outdoor tourism; The Ugly Mug Kitchen, planning to open soon for coffee, breakfast, and lunch; and Vista Bank, which recently moved into the historic bank building on the northwest corner of the square. The new P6 Tire Store is having their Grand Opening next month, and let’s not forget the Historic Jones & Cox Building, on the southwest corner, now providing another much-needed venue for concerts and meetings.

The Drug Store has recently changed owners but kept its commitment to service. The new Texas Star Museum honors local history. Modern Way Grocery Store & Ace Hardware celebrated their 40th anniversary a few months back. ALL our community’s establishments – new and old – deserve to be celebrated. More than that, they just want a chance. They are the ones who support our kids, our schools, and our churches, not to mention the Scouts, the athletic programs, the livestock show, and more. They are the businesses that donate and contribute so much to our way of life. They understand that they have to compete for the dollars that you spend. But before you head off to Abilene to shop at some Big Box retailer that doesn’t care about our community, please give our local businesses a chance to earn your business.

And finally, one bit of unhappy news –

Get the Shot. Coronavirus numbers are surging again. Infection rates are rising, as are the number of fatalities. Hospital ICU admissions are swelling, even at Hendrick, with dangerously rising Covid rates. And this time, it’s not primarily among the elderly, but among 20-40-year-olds. Literally thousands of children being orphaned by this disease.

And the sad part is, this time, it’s pretty much all preventable. They’re now calling it “The Pandemic of the Unvaccinated.”

I truly don’t understand how or why the decision to get vaccinated became such a politically charged controversy. It shouldn’t be – it’s a health issue, pure and simple. Yes, there are a relative handful of so-called “Breakthrough” cases, of people who have been fully vaccinated but contracted the disease anyway, but the overwhelming number of this latest wave of fatalities – something literally above 99% – are folks who could have gotten the shot, but out of pride, or fear, or some kind of stupid macho nonsense, or to make a political statement, chose not to.

The longer it takes us as a nation to become fully vaccinated, the more of these virus mutations will keep popping up, and the longer the economy will take to recover. Well over 600,000 of our fellow citizens have already died. It shouldn’t matter if you’re a Republican or a Democrat, a watcher of Fox News or CNN – just get the damn shot. Please. For yourself. For your family. For the country.