Biographies of boxcars
The 1930s and 1940s were a time of tremendous sacrifice in America. Nearly everyone was affected by the Great Depression and the Second World War. A few families in Southeast Iowa who were down on their luck made their homes in what were once railroad boxcars.
Don Dayton, who now lives in Washington, grew up outside Kalona during the Depression. For the first 13 years of his life he lived in a rundown home. His parents sought better living conditions, and found a boxcar for $153.
While it may be hard to believe, Dayton said the boxcar was a step up from his former house.
“The boxcar was much warmer and just generally better than the house,” he said.
The house had no electricity nor running water. Dayton said the family obtained water from a spring one-quarter mile away, and carried water from the spring to the house.
Dayton said the boxcar was warmer because it was better sealed and thus less drafty than the house. The boxcar, like the house before it, did not have running water nor electricity. For light, the Dayton family used kerosene lamps. The boxcar had a coal-burning stove, unlike the wood-burning stove at the house.
Dayton said he knew that many other families in that era were poor, but he thought that his family had it especially rough.
“The country was in that Depression period, and I always thought we were at the bottom of the heap,” he said.
Dayton lived in the boxcar with his mother, father and younger brother, David. He said the boxcar did not seem cramped to him and that the boxcar’s interior was divided into rooms by hanging sheets from the ceiling.
Dayton did not let his humble beginnings hamstring his ambitions. He was the first person in his family to graduate from high school. While there, he hit the books hard and participated in extracurricular activities.
“I played basketball and I played the trombone,” he said. “I was first chair in the high school band when I was in eighth grade. My belief was that if I excelled at something, I would be accepted.”
Upon graduation, Dayton enlisted in the Navy and served in the Pacific Theater. While he was away from home, his father and grandmother died. His family sold the boxcar and moved into his grandmother’s former home. The boxcar was sold to area farmer Ray Westrick, who used it to store grain.
Dayton did not know of anybody else ever living in a
car. Just within the past week, he became acquainted with Ron Hall of rural Washington, who also grew up in a boxcar.
Hall and his sister, Stephanie Sinclair of Nichols, and their brother Butch (now deceased) were raised in a boxcar in Iowa City.
Before Hall and his siblings were born, his family suffered from frequent fires, which forced them to move three times. The last of those came in 1947, when their home at the north edge of the airport burned to the ground.
A man from Cedar Rapids named Travis Kramer sold the Hall family a wooden boxcar for $300 to convert into a home, which was $50 less than the usual price according to a local newspaper report from that time. The boxcar was placed on the former home’s foundation, which allowed the family to continue using the basement.
The boxcar’s close proximity to the airport was a source of entertainment for the young children, who climbed onto the roof to watch the planes take off and land.
At one time, that boxcar housed as many as 13 persons, including two grandparents and six aunts and uncles. The Halls’ parents, Ira Jr. and Virginia, got divorced in the 1950s when the three children were young, and Virginia moved out of the boxcar and to another town. Ron said he has no memory of his mother.
Although the family built on a few additions such as a porch, the boxcar was still very cramped. Ron and Stephanie said they never invited any of their friends to their house, and that if they played it was always outdoors or at a friend’s house.
Stephanie said she and her brothers were not aware they were any different from anybody else until they went to school. While there, they found out that their home lacked the amenities common in their classmates’ homes. Stephanie said the other kids in school knew not to insult the Halls to their face because that was asking for a fight.
Ron remarked that the family seemed to be a generation behind everybody else in town. The family did not have running water and so relied on an outhouse in the backyard and an electric pump in the basement. The home had electricity but it was fed to the house on bare wires. Ron remembers getting shocked from the wires in the basement.
A potbelly stove heated the home in the wintertime. The Halls could see frost on the nail heads inside the boxcar and along the ceiling.
Ron remembers that, “You got up quickly in the winter and either got dressed or stood as close to the stove as you could stand.”
Money was in short supply in the Hall household. Ron and Stephanie recall that birthdays and holidays such as Christmas were not treated as special occasions and that they rarely received gifts on those days.
One source of income for the family was to scour the dump for precious metals such as copper, brass, tin and iron. Once they had collected enough metal, they drove to Cedar Rapids or Davenport to sell it.
The Halls lived in the boxcar for about 13 years, from 1947 to 1960. The boxcar was sold to the trailer court, which was at that time adjacent to their house but is now part of Alexis Park Inn and Suites.
The Halls’ new ranch home was scarcely larger than the boxcar. The new house had indoor plumbing but there was an outhouse there as well.
Ron and Stephanie hope that they can find more photos of the boxcar they lived in, or find people who knew their grandparents, Ira Ishmael Sr. (1907-1969) and Bessie Marie Cosco (1908-1986). Ira’s brother Roy Hall donated land to the City of Riverside which was turned into a park and named in his honor, Hall Park.
Ron can be reached at 319-461-3763.