Mary Sue Polleys’ childhood revolved around lonesome train whistles.
At 9 in the morning, a whistle told children it was time for school. At 1 in the afternoon, it announced recess was over. At 3 p.m., it told teachers and students that school was almost over. At 9 that night, a whistle said it was time for bed.
“My grandmother told us we had to beat the train to bed,” she said, starting a race to get under the covers.
Such was the lazy life of Cataula, Ga., the first stop north of Columbus on the Central of Georgia line. Four times a day in the 1950s, life stopped for the Man o’ War.
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These days it is nostalgic memories triggered by a 1955 newspaper advertisement that invited people tired of driving to Atlanta to relax on the Man o’ War. A round trip ticket cost $4.65, and according to the ad, it was cheaper than going by car.
Superior Court Judge Gil McBride started the wave of memories. He’s from a railroad family, and he posted the old ad on Facebook, inspiring the former chair of the Muscogee County School Board to share recollections of Cataula, where her father operated a store next to railroad tracks.
Her grandfather founded the store in 1888. He was also the depot agent, and he sent and received telegrams that brought news of faraway births and deaths via the dots and dashes of Morse code.
During her father’s time, the Man o’ War connected Columbus and Atlanta on a train named for a historic race horse, with sleek silver cars named for Army posts.
His cousin was a conductor, and he waved at children who gathered on the platform to watch. But more than children were watching.
Her daddy always stopped what he was doing, and she asked him why.
“Doesn’t it look just like it did yesterday?”
“Sure it does, but I want to see how many cars it had today.”
It was an era when female passengers wore hats, gloves and heels and men wore suits and ties, and one where a small town enjoyed the sounds and smells of a train they thought would always be part of their lives.
And in many ways, it is.
Richard Hyatt is an independent correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org