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Ready, Willis & Able – Curator knows history

By Janice Willis-Barnett

She knows the history of Clinchfield Railroad’s early days from the inside out. Her father, Frank Shull, and grandfather, E.D. Shull, as well as other relatives, began working for the beloved Clinchfield during its beginnings in the first decade of the 20th Century. So no wonder Martha Erwin has a wellspring of information to offer in her position as curator of Unicoi County Heritage Museum and its adjoining Clinchfield Railroad Museum. I recently took one of Martha’s railroad museum tours and was amazed at what I learned about the history and folkways of early Clinchfield Railroad workers and their families. I was also richly entertained by Martha’s sense of humor.

Martha grew up on Clinchfield Avenue in Erwin in the time when folks who lived on the surrounding streets still walked to town even if they had an automobile. She remembers when Clinchfield Railroad workers, wearing freshly laundered uniforms and carrying their dinner buckets, walked to the train yard to board trains that would take them south to Spartanburg, South Carolina or north to Elkhorn, Kentucky.  She also recalls that when these workers returned from their runs, their wives could just place their dirty work clothes on the porch for Crystal Ice and Coal to pick up and take to their laundry. In her Railroad Museum tours, Martha notes that the workers’ wives and daughters appreciated this. Then she holds up a coffee can with a railroad cap stretched over it to demonstrate what good care wives took with their husbands’ caps once they were washed.

Martha’s stories about those nostalgic and glorious days of the Clinchfield never fail to instruct and entertain as she does the museum tours. She not only knows the use and history of the memorabilia in the museum, she also shares wonderful stories from her days growing up in a railroad family. She tells about riding the train with her brother when there was no fear of letting children ride by themselves. Martha says her parents knew they could trust the railroad conductors to look after them. But they did caution Martha and her brother not to sit beside the window because cinders could hit them in the face and smoke from the train could get them dirty. They also instructed the children to mind their manners, behave, and not sit near the spittoons.

Along with her humorous tales, Martha also makes room for more somber subjects such as the blowing of the wreck whistle that let folks know there had been a wreck.  She recalls that the number of whistle blasts told whether the wreck was north or south. That way folks would know if their loved ones were involved.

Martha shares far more about railroad history and memorabilia than I can mention in this short column. So bring your family and friends and check out our Clinchfield Railroad Museum while we still have someone as knowledgeable as Martha to tell us about it.