Memories of trains around the Reidsville Passenger Depot and the American Tobacco Factory

By Garfield Withers

I grew up on a tobacco farm on Lick Fork Creek Road near Ruffin in the late 1940s. We children were seldom taken to town due to farm work and chores. But occasionally, about four or five times a year, an exciting event occurred. Mama and Daddy would take my older sister and me to Reidsville. When we were told about this exciting trip, we were outside in the car thirty minutes before Mama and Daddy were ready to go.

When we arrived in Reidsville, Daddy would always park the old “38” Ford in the grove of oak trees near the Governor Reid house and the railroad tracks. From this vantage point, I could look down the tracks towards the passenger depot and the American Tobacco factory.

Mama and Daddy would always take us across the tracks to visit Roses 5 & 10 Cent Store, as well as J.J. Newberry, United Department Store and Sears Roebuck. We wished for many of the toys and other goodies we saw while browsing behind our parents.

As the day went on, Mama would buy a loaf of bread, a half pint of mayonnaise, a pound of bologna and some soda and take us back to the car for a snack. (Fast food restaurants were not an option at that time.) Mama made bologna sandwiches for everybody and then she told us to remain in the car while she and Daddy went across the railroad tracks to do “some trading.” Remember, this was back in the day when parents could leave children in the car, tell them to stay, and expect them to stay there without worry for the children’s safety. For the next hour, with the bologna sandwich in my hand and my nose pressed to the car window, I watched for trains to pass.

trainwhistleWhen I could hear a whistle in the distance, my excitement grew! I could feel the ground vibrate as the massive steam locomotive thundered into sight. I loved the south bound locomotives because when one stopped at the American Tobacco Factory, the locomotive would be positioned on the track just across from where we were parked. What a sight for an eight-year-old farm boy who seldom saw such a massive piece of machinery! The huge 70 inch drivers were much taller than me. Steam bellowed out from beneath and I breathed that strong smell of burning coal. The engineer would lean out of the cab window to look down the long string of freight cars as he watched for a signal from the brakeman. In my mind, I imagined that a man driving a machine as big as this must be on a par with Superman.

After a while, the engineer would wave his gloved hand toward the brakeman and turn back inside the cab. Suddenly a dense plume of black smoke would bellow out of the smoke stack and then turn almost white. I could hear the clanking of the couplers as the slack was taken up between the cars as the big locomotive moved forward.

The engineer would give several long blasts on the whistle and then I could see him reach for the throttle. Those big drivers would slowly begin to turn. Sometimes the drivers would slip (spin on the rails) as the locomotive strained to move forward. The engineer would give a blast of sand to the rails in front of the drivers and they would grab hold so the locomotive could slowly move forward. With several more blasts of the whistle, the train’s speed increased and made the dense smoke thin out as the locomotive moved along. The wheels of the cars could be heard click clacking over the rail joints as the long string of boxcars, flatcars and gondolas sped past me.

CabooseThe names on the cars gave some indication of their origin, such as Western Pacific, Milwaukee Road, Southern Pacific, Texas & Pacific and Vermont Northern. I wondered what would be their destinations as the train continued to gather speed heading south.

One car that I really loved finally came into view at the rear end of the train – that red caboose. The stove pipe chimney always had a little wisp of smoke coming out of it. As the caboose moved past, I could see some of the train crew milling around inside. I guessed that they were preparing their evening meal and I often wondered if they were having bologna, too.

RailPictures.Net Photo: X201 Southern Railway Caboose

As an adult, Garfield Withers love of trains continued. When the Reidsville Depot was demolished, Mr. Withers salvaged some of the materials. He wrote to Southern Railroad and requested a copy of the engineering drawings for the depot and they obliged. Using these items and other materials, he created a model of the original depot. It is on display at the MARC. 

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  1. Cissy Murphy says:

    Garfield Withers, you evoked so many memories of downtown Reidsville as well as trains. My dad used to tell us about the times that he walked/rode to Reidsville from our tobacco farm in Bethany to watch the trains carrying a President or other notable politician pass through or make a whistle stop. Please write more of your memories.

    • Jordan says:

      Cissy Murphy, thank you for sharing your memories of your father! Mr. Withers has made many wonderful contributions to MARC, including his hand-crafted model of the Reidsville Passenger Depot on display in our transportation gallery.

  2. Beth Williams says:

    When we were much younger( I was born in 1951) Daddy and Momma used to take us to the train station to see the train station. Thank you for posting this! This was a Sunday afternoon tradition to go there and then go “get ice cream”.

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