Imagine living in a railroad boxcar as your home!
People in the 1930s converted railroad boxcars into homes for families. Boxcar villages sprang up all over the United States during the Depression Era.
A growing population needed homes for their families. Boxcars were easy buildings to convert into livable family homes.
Boxcar homes rented for $3-$5 a month, so these homes were appealing to those who could not afford a house.
Sibley had a boxcar village that had 13 boxcar houses. It was located on the west side of Sibley across the railroad tracks on the north side of the street.
I interviewed Jack and Evelyn McCarthy for the information for this column. Jack is a resident of Sheldon and lived in a boxcar in Sibley when he was a little tyke.
One day he stopped me and all he said was, “Did you know I lived in a boxcar when I was little?”
I tried to find information about boxcars, but found very little. I finally decided to talk to him, and this is what he told me.
Lloyd and Louise McCarthy and their six children — Marilyn, Lloyd Junior, Audrey, Jack, Gilda and Shirley — moved from Melvin to Sibley and rented a boxcar for their home.
Lloyd did odd jobs for a living and his wife was busy making meals, doing laundry, caring for the children and keeping house.
The boxcar was divided into three areas: the kids’ bedroom, living room/kitchen, and the parents’ bedroom.
Curtains were strung across the boxcar to divide the three areas and provide privacy.
Three bunk beds were located in the kids’ bedroom for the six children. Their extra clothing was placed in boxes or placed on nails on the walls. There were no closets.
A bed was in the parents’ bedroom.
A cookstove and a table were in the middle section, and there was no sink. A pan with water was placed on the table to wash dishes. They had to go outside to get their water from a pump which was shared by eight families.
There was a tiny high window in each of the bedrooms.
The wheels on the boxcar had been removed. One step was placed by the door to aid in stepping into the boxcar.
Every two boxcars shared an outhouse which was located behind the boxcars.
There was no tub available to bathe the family, so I presume sponge baths were used.
A wooden box for cobs and a coal bucket stood by the cookstove. The children picked up coal on the tracks that had fallen off trains and put it in a burlap sack to carry it to the coal bucket in the kitchen.
The stove provided heat in the winter, but not enough heat because water would freeze overnight.
In the summer it was beastly hot, so they were outside until it was bedtime.
Clothes lines were strung outside to dry clothes in the summer, but in the winter, clothes lines were strung in the house to dry clothes.
They had no car, so walking was their means of transportation.
When Jack started school, he had to walk across the railroad tracks and through town to get to school.
One time when he was on his way home from school, he stopped at the depot to get warm. He backed up to the potbellied stove in the depot and burned a hole in the back of his coat that his mother had just made for him.
Jack started his first year of school in Sibley and finished the school year in the Sheldon school system after the McCarthys moved to Sheldon in 1937.
They moved into a house on the west side of the Sheldon City Park. David, the seventh child of the family, was born in Sheldon. Lloyd found employment at Armour’s in Sheldon.
Today Jack and his wife live in a lovely home, which is definitely a castle compared to his early life in a boxcar home. Jack has used his talent to design and build several fabulous pieces of their furniture, plus many other creations.
Millie Vos is the secretary/treasurer of the Sheldon Historical Society and the museum director and a board member of the Sheldon Prairie Museum, 319 10th St. This is part of a series of historical articles about Sheldon. Members of the Sheldon Historical Society receive a yearly newsletter with articles like this. To join the society, call her at 712-324-3235 or stop by the museum.