Reflections

Stories About Railroad Men Among Favorite Memories


By Charles Cooper


Hello everyone, hope you’re having a good week.  Again I want to thank Jack Gurner for the story about Lucius Dunn, son of famed railroad engineer, Charlie Dunn.  I have a particular interest in stories and pictures about Water Valley railroad men.     This leads me into this week’s column which is a profile of another engineer with a personal connection to me.  Norman Braxton Cooper was born on January 1, 1894 in the Orwood community to Braxton Bragg Cooper and Mary Spears Cooper.  

He was the second son with an older brother, Harry (Joe) and three younger brothers, Porter, John and Gilmer and sisters, Sallie Bee, Margaret, and Elizabeth. He also had two siblings that died in infancy.      

Grandpa Bragg was a tenant farmer, but was a skilled carpenter who built and remodeled many houses in the area. He taught all the boys the trade and they were all good carpenters and my dad, Norman was a cabinet maker.  

In those hard scrabble days with a large family there wasn’t enough carpenter work to feed a family so they survived as farmers.  

Dad told me that when he was a teenager he would go up to the Orwood store on Saturday afternoon – the only time he got off from the farm – and would set men on a stump and cut their hair for a dime.  

He said that was where he got his money for smoking tobacco.  He also said that he was convinced that the old North State sack tobacco was the sweepings of the tobacco company when they made the cigarettes, called “rady rolls” in those days.  

The Cooper boys were all tall, Dad in his prime was six-four and weighed about 240.  In late 1916, Dad and Uncle Porter, tired of the hard farm life, went to Chicago and worked in the railroad yards.  

When World War I broke out in April of 1917, they both came back and went into the Army but in different outfits.  Uncle Porter was in the Water Valley Battery A and would attend their reunions in later years.  Uncle Joe was in the Rainbow Division and recalled seeing the Division Commander, General Douglas MacArthur on several occasions.      Dad got to France after the Armistice and spent most of his time guarding prisoners of war.  When he returned to Mississippi he went to work in January 1919 for Illinois Central as a fireman in the Water Valley division.  

He was credited for his time in Chicago toward seniority and he was able to work on a fairly regular basis.  His family had moved to a farm owned by Papa Badley and he started dating the youngest Badley daughter, Mary Elizabeth (Maebeth) and they were married in June of 1921.  Not long after they bought their first car, a Ford Model T Phaeton and they thought they had really hit the big time.  

They lived for several years on Central Street and I was born in a house about where the bank is now across from the park.  By this time they had owned a Chevrolet and a Model A Ford.      

Dad had an eye problem that kept him from being promoted but it also kept him in regular work due to his fireman seniority.  He fired for many of the old time engineers, among them Charlie Dunn, Frank Storms, Ben Barrett, and Skinny Hartwell.  Dad was an avid sportsman, as a hunter and fisherman.  Once he built a John boat and it looked as professional as a factory boat.  

In 1929 he was at the top of the fireman seniority list in the Water Valley division. This meant that even in the depression he was able to work on a semi-regular basis although sometimes away from Water Valley.  We lived in Winfield, Alabama where IC had a 12-mile section of tracks to the coal mines.      

There they would interline with The Frisco and the coal would be carried all over the country.  Dad was the fastidious dresser and wore Stetson hats and Edwin Clapp shoes and what was considered good suits in those days.  I’ve heard it said that he was considered the best dressed man in Water Valley.  

In later years after he moved, Bob Halliwell and Hamric Henry  had that distinction.  He transferred to the Memphis division in 1935 and worked there until his retirement in June of 1964. During World War II he was promoted to Engineer and ran the City Of New Orleans for several years.      In over 45 years he he never had a demerit and only one fatality which he was declared not at fault. A car pulled out in front of his train, which ran at speeds of over 90 miles per hour in those days.  

He was in bad health and in December was found to have terminal cancer.  He died in February of 1965 and is buried at Forrest Hill cemetery in Memphis.  I thought it fitting to profile him as we start the eighth year of “Reflections”.     

The next generation will have no direct connection to the railroad and that era will pass into history.  I’m proud of my Dad and all the others in that generation.  

If any of you want to share your memories, railroad or otherwise, let me hear from you.  My email address is charlescooper3616@sbcglobal.net or write me at P.O. Box 613189 Memphis, Tn 38101 and have a good week.

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