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Station Agent Tells Story - (Rochester Post Bulletin, 1961)

Racine Railway Depot Closes,

Leaving Only Memories of Past

By Gary Sukow, Post-Bulletin Staff Writer (Rochester, Minn.)

Locked Door - Racine Great Western Railroad Station agent Harold Tolstead stands before the locked door of the Racine depot on a platform once bustling with activity. The depot was closed last Thursday. Tolstead retired after nearly 50 years with the railroad. Only an occasional freight train now goes by the deserted platform. (Post-Bulletin Photo)


RACINE, MN - The Great Western Railroad depot here is closed. (As of October 31, 1961) Station agent Harold Tolstead, is retired.

Except for an occasional passing freight, Racine and the ribbon of track which gave the village birth, have parted company. The depot closed last Thursday. Already, all equipment has been taken out of the clapboard building by the railroad track. Tolstead is at home in his modern aqua-colored home at the end of Main street. For the first time in just a few months shy of 50 years, he has no association with the railroad. No association, that is, except 50 years of memories. Those memories span the great years of Midwest railroading.

For Within A lifetime, men like Tolstead saw the railroads of the Midwest rise, level off, recede. With the railroads rose villages on the prairie that leveled off and began to recede. Tolstead has been the last station agent in two area stations - Taopi and now Racine. Another he worked has been closed for years. But he remembers when the rush of passengers at the ticket window caused the agents to simply brush the paper money off the ticket counter onto the floor, to be swept up later. The story of railroading in most southeastern Minnesota villages can be told through the lives of men like Tolstead.

When he was a boy, telegraphy was the first thing a prospective station agent had to know. Those wires stretched on poles up and down the roadbeds were the total link of communications that kept the heavy flow of heavy engines and freight and passenger cars in an orderly pattern. Tolstead, now 67, learned telegraphy from his father, (L.A. Tolstead) who was station agent at Stanton, Minn. The boy copied his first train order at 14, when the key began to clatter unexpectedly and his father was off plowing the garden. In June 1913, when he was 17, Tolstead took his first permanent job as a telegrapher on the night shift at Dennison, "down the line" from Stanton. He remembers that his first year in the business he served for a while as a relief operatior in Rochester, under Agent Guy F. Boyce. It was here that the crowds of passengers would be lined up in long queues at the ticket window, and Boyce would scrape the money off the counter, onto the floor. "It wouldn't be picked up until after the last ticket was sold," Tolstead says.

In March 1925, he was transferred to the station at Renova, Minn., between Dexter and Brownsdale. Renova, which never boasted a population over 35, had two elevators and shipped whole trainloads of grain. Tolstead and his wife lived on the second floor of the general store. That station was closed before World War II and was torn down shortly after the war. Shortly after that assignment, Tolstead was transferred to Taopi, where there was a joint station operated by the CGW and the Milwaukee Road. L.R. Goddard, now the agent for the Milwaukee at Spring Valley, was agent there. Tolstead remembers that agents worked "seven days a week, 365 days a year."

"When I started with the railroad, there were no automatic block systems--just the old hand ones," he said. "There were no dispatcher phones and no radio or teletype, Now radio and teletype have replaced much of the telegraphy." Tolstead worked at Taopi until 1947. Then that station closed. He was transferred to Racine where he has been the agent the past 16 years.

He remembers that passenger service began to decline in the 1930's, but that World War II was probably the busiest time of all. Then there was a constant flow of trains, carrying troops and equipment. Exciting times? There were derailments and accidents--the things other people might thing exciting but which to the railroader are tragedy. Tolstead recalled as an example a time in World War I when a train heavily loaded with passengers was stalled in a 1917 blizzard at McIntire, Iowa. The passengers ate up the food supply in McIntire, so the train with the aid of men with shovels, battled up the line to Taopi, where the again ate up the town's food supply. By that time, luckily, the storm ended.

"All groceries, meat, bread--came by train," said Tolstead. "We carried everything." He remembers, too, that his duties would include filling oil lamps around the station platform and operating a 15 horsepower engine that pumped water into the "stand pipe" where steam engines took on water. And through villages like Racine or Taopi or Renova or McIntire, there were 10 or 12 or 16 passenger trains every day.

For many years, there have been no passengers. Freight trains have occasionally come whistling through.

But in villages like Racine, even the need for freights has virtually come to an end. Trucks bring groceries and meat and bread and most other things now. "The lumber yard has closed up here too, you know," he said. When Tolstead began, the proud seal of Wells, Fargo and Co., Express, glistened in read sealing wax on the envelope of many a day's reports.

There is a third generation of Tolstead's, to carry on railroading. Harold's oldest son, Donald, is a roadmaster for the CGW at Hayfield. [There would be a forth generation Tolstead to work for the CGW, first in Stewartville, then in Rochester Minnesota, but that is another story. - Tom T.] Another son, Robert, has made a career of another type of transportation. He has made a career of the Air Force and is stationed in France.

A daughter, Mrs. Wilbur C. Thompson, lives in Austin. And two more daughters, Mrs. Phillip Meyer and Mrs. Vern R. Smith live in Rochester, where their husbands operate the Farm and Home Store near Crossroads Shopping Center.

Tolstead doesn't know about the future of the railroads. For himself, he says: "I worked so many years I think I'll enjoy staying home and gardening and helping Ma with the flowers. Then I'm quite a hand to read. And we'll be doing some traveling--on the train!"

Copyright 1998 Tom Tolstead

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