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Mack Williams: ‘Southern Railway Serves the South’ (in a chicken house)

Due to the prices of some varieties of wood nowadays, a certain type of “reclamation” has become profitable. The floors of two levels of the newer building of the Danville Science Center are laid with cube-like sections of poplar wood taken from trees long submerged in a lake. “Non-waterlogged” poplar wood costs a lot more.

Some of these little blocks even show where minerals in solution have seeped in and precipitated solid deposits within the wood grain, the first stages of fossilization.

I am suddenly reminded of salt water’s preservative effects on the wood of old Spanish galleons. Perhaps the same goes for freshwater too.

I’ve heard of the wood from old tobacco barns being re-used in the construction of some “cabin-style” houses. This is an example of wood’s “second use,” as opposed to the long-delayed “first use” of that poplar wood for the science building’s floors.

Years ago (not “fossil time,” but the 1950s), another case of wood’s second-use was made possible when old wooden railway boxcars were being scrapped at Southern Railway’s Spencer Yard. The railroad told their employees there that they could take the wood home with them to do anything they wanted with it.

This reminds me of reading about the time the railroad told the people of Danville, Virginia, in 1903 that they could use the wood of the wrecked, splintered boxcars of the Old 97 for firewood (with the likely ulterior motive of “assisting the cleanup”).

Not long ago, someone posted in one of Facebook’s “You might be from” groups about some Spencer yard railroad men using that old boxcar wood for flooring (presumably brought to a much finer shine than in its first use).

My father used the railroad’s “gift of wood” not for flooring, but for the fashioning of an entire structure, complete with floor, walls and ceiling: a chicken house.

That old chicken house was torn down years ago, the wood comprising it having gone from “first use” to “second use” to its “final use” of the feeding of beetles and worms. (If burned, the decomposition process was accelerated, but cheating the palates of the beetles and worms.) Even though there are different sets of decomposers for both land and water, for everything once alive, the final fate is the same (despite formaldehyde).

Returning from the macabre to those late-1950s days, I would sometimes be the one to go out to the chicken house to feed the chickens.

There, I fed the adults and their fuzzy, yellow “babies.” Hearing again in my mind the sound that chicks make, I think of the classic, “marshmallowey” Easter candy (some of which also comes in purple).

Speaking of “yellow babies,” I am reminded of that boxcar of canaries carried by the ill-fated “Old 97” on Sept. 27, 1903. Not a canary was killed in the derailment, and I don’t know whether or not it’s true, but I’ve heard tell that afterwards, they were perched throughout the wreckage. It is also said that they were collected at the end of the day.

Our little flock of chicks comprised the similarly “yellow cargo” of the “boxcar” in our back yard.

One special “chicken house memory” I always have. Before crossing time’s reverse threshold with me, please remember that our old chicken house was made of salvaged, Southern Railway boxcar wood.

After feeding those chickens, “both great and small,” I always glanced the length of the building’s interior before my exit. Displayed in the back wall was a goodly portion of the old Southern Railway symbol and logo: sections of the great “SR,” and “Southern Railway Serves the South.”

As I think about this, I realize that for the railroad’s symbol and logo to be that much identifiable, my father must have purposely re-joined a few of those letter-painted boards to achieve a certain “effect.”

But that doesn’t surprise me, for he was very quick of mind, and had a fine sense of humor.

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