Friday, April 6, 2012

This One Time? Up Home? We Discovered the Underground Railroad. And the Soul Train.

(post copyright 2012, Dawn Weber. Image made at

We were just kids.

But clearly, we were going to be famous.

That's because we found the Underground Railroad, back there by Mr. Nesbitt's tree.

Word around New Springfield was the famous freedom train ran through our town in the 1800s. Some said the ancient bar down the road - the Springfield Inn - had been one of its stops.

At age seven, or maybe eight, I had this all figured out. Of course I did have you met me? In my mind, a giant black steam engine - just like the cartoon at the beginning of "Soul Train" - roared and pulsed underground hundreds of miles from down South - through a giant underground tunnel - bringing the slaves North to freedom. And the Springfield Inn.

I pictured this, but really didn't give it too much thought. It was ancient history. Marshall the Neighbor Boy and I were very busy - things to do, you know. We spent a good bit of the 1970s - and probably part of the 80s - merrily and obliviously ruining the yard of our other neighbor, Mr. Nesbitt.

After the rains, around his place, we dug into all the mud we could find. We climbed each of his trees and broke the branches. We slid barefoot in the marshy puddles of his grass until we wore it to a bog.

Mr. Nesbitt watched us from his porch chair, with a PBR and a smile, but worried eyes. He didn't say much about our havoc. At the end of each week, he scooped out great handfuls of grass seed from a bag and scattered it over our paths of destruction.

Mr. Nesbitt had to scatter a lot of grass seed.

His tormented yard was where we found the Underground Railroad one summer day in 1977 or so, industriously demolishing digging around the base of his old maple tree with our mothers' garden spades. Marshall's hole was deeper than mine. This made me mad, and I was busily trying to catch up when he pulled something from the dirt.

"Look!" he yelled. He held up a rusty nail.

"Wow!" I replied.

Fascinating! Obviously, we were perched on the edge of something fantastic.

We stepped up our mining efforts. My spade hit a rotted piece of old lumber, and I tugged it from the dirt.

"Whoa. . ." I sat back on my heels.

Marshall looked at my finding, then me, and jumped up to get his sister Shelly.

She was a few years older than us - the prettiest girl in town - and I worshipped the very flip-flops on which she flapped. I was a tiny, scrawny, raggedy little thing, but Shell never let anyone pick on me. Marshall and I consulted her on all urgent matters. Such as arguments, kickball and lunch.

On this particular day, we knew she needed to see our trash discoveries and help us figure out what trash we found. I sat holding and examining the timber and the rusty nail when she approached, with Marshall jogging up behind her.

"Look, Shell, look at this stuff," I put the garbage items in her hands. She turned the nail and the board over, held them closer to her face, and squinted at them. Then she looked at us with raised eyebrows.

"Do you guys know what this is?" she asked.

 We did not. We shrugged.

"I bet you this is part of the Underground Railroad!" she said. "If you find it, you'll be famous. Mom will call the news - they'll put you on TV and in the (Youngstown) Vindicator . . ."

Marshall and I gaped at each other, simultaneously dropping our jaws. We fell to our knees and began plowing furiously at the earth. Without speaking, we knew that we would dig until we found the railroad and the tunnel. And the Soul Train.

Shelly hung around to supervise our efforts, and even helped us dig some. We found lots more rubbage things, like old, broken blue Milk of Magnesia bottles and clear liquor containers.

"The slaves probably used this stuff on the train," she told us.

Though she didn't stick around too long, Marshall and I kept mining. Wasn't easy, burrowing through tree roots, but this did not stop us from our mission. We were going to find the tunnel. And the Soul Train.

We failed to locate it that day. Exhausted and muddy - but still excited - we each went home at dusk. I relayed our discovery to my mother.

"Hey Mom. . . Mom. We found the Underground Railroad back by Mr. Nesbitt's tree!"

She looked up from the Vindicator, and gave me a slow smile. "You did? Wow. . ."

"But we didn't get down to the tunnel yet . . ." I told her.

She held her smile, but quickly looked back to the paper. "Well, keep digging then."

Marshall called me on the phone that night, said his mom told him the same thing.

So the next day, we reported back for duty back at the tree. Marshall brought a bigger shovel, I still had Mom's little garden spade.

"Where's Shelly?" I asked.

"She said she'd come out here later," he told me. And he sliced the shovel into the mud.

We dug. And dug. And then we dug some more.

The day wore on, and we worked hard, but we weren't unearthing bottles or nails anymore.  Nothing but dirt. When Marshall walked over to the tall, weedy field to pee, I made sure he wasn't looking back towards me. I put my ear to the ground to listen for the train.

This is the kind of genius I was.

Shelly didn't show up. But Marshall and I kept digging, like our moms told us to, and met up again the following day with our archeological tools, the garden spade and the coal shovel. We gave up on our deeper holes, moving all around the tree, plowing up smaller cavities.

Mr. Nesbitt was running out of grass. Fast.

We kept at it. On the third or fourth day, while Marshall and I sweated in the sun, I looked up and across the yards to see Shelly languidly hanging out on her front porch.

"Hey Shell!" I yelled. "We aren't finding much anymore - just a bunch of dirt and worms and sticks. How far down do you think this underground railroad is?"

She turned her head to me.  "Just keep digging!" she hollered back.

Huh. She wore the same slow smile as my mother did a few days before. Odd.

But one does not have time to ponder facial expressions when one is making history.

So we did as we were told. We kept digging. Missed "Happy Days," AND "Laverne and Shirley" on the TV that week. Missed the "Lawrence Welk Show," which was fine by me, but we missed Saturday morning cartoons too.

That was a shame.

We dug in the dewy morning, in the afternoon hot sun. We dug until the streetlights came on.

We dug all damn week.

But we never did find the tunnel. Or the Underground Railroad. Or the Soul Train.

Saturday night's streetlights popped on, and finally - sweaty, muddy and defeated - Marshall the Neighbor Boy and I gave up. We stood from the ground, brushed off our dirty knees and began dragging the shovels home.

Old Mr. Nesbitt, with worried eyes and a smile, put down a PBR, rose from the porch chair, picked up his bag and walked out to the maple tree.

There, he scattered great handfuls of grass seed.

Marshall the Neighbor Boy and I, 30-plus years later. Not Famous. We tried.


  1. Fantastic story, Dawn!! made me remember all sorts of adventures from my youth & the stories that were how all the monsters (Frankenstein, Dracula, the Wolfman & even the Wicked Witch!)lived together in the warehouse at the back of the field & how we once got lost in the corn field on our way to the train tracks to flatten pennies & came upon the cab of a rusty old pick-up, how the creek that ran through our neighborhood with it's storm pipe was really 'sewage'& this one time, in my friend's backyard, we really thought we were going to dig to China....We didn't need no stinking Mario Brothers!

  2. Fantastic read. As a young mother I worried about the things I didn't teach my children. You know, I never dug with them on their trek to China. Did I even tell them it was possible? You think it's too late now? Keep digging. There are treasures out there and in your words. Love it.

  3. It would really be great if you would stop making me cry in your posts. Thanks! :)

    Love it. And BDB, you'll be famous someday!

    But seriously, how cool is Mr. Nesbitt??? I'm pretty sure my uptight neighbors in Mass would've beaten me with the shovel if I tried digging around their trees! Ahhh.

  4. Thank you for bringing me back to my New Middletown childhood where the woods behind my parents home were, in our minds, Ancient Indian Burial Grounds! Mr. Sprankel (the property owner) was the evil huntsman and we were top notch investigators of course! Love it Dawn - and growing up in Springfield Township!

  5. I am now in love with Marshall.



  6. Great story. Time has been good to you. :D

  7. What a beautiful post, and written so lovingly, it had me smiling throughout. The pic of you both grown, still friends, and smiling out at the camera, is quite priceless. What a darling, long-suffering and patient neighbour Mr. Nesbitt was..!

  8. Cute story.

    My childhood wasn't so adventuresome. All I ever did was tie M80s to G.I. Joe and blowed the poor guy up.

  9. isn't it funny how after all these years, people do the digging. I dig you Dawn. Great story

    thanks for the little space for email comments!

  10. If I ever need to dig a foundation I know who to call.

  11. Okay, I looked it up on the map so I wouldn't seem like a dumb-ass...but why is North Lima, Ohio 244 miles away from Lima, Ohio??

    Because I was going to ask you if you ever dated my husband. He went to Parkway High School in Rockford, which is near Lima, but not North Lima. Go figure. Anyway, don't worry about it, because I'm pretty sure he only dated 2 girls and one was his 2nd cousin.

    I wish I had grown up in a small town and was still friends with the kids I played in the dirt with. Guippe? Guippe Grantham? Are you out there somewhere?

  12. I was all set to throw up (ooh, poor choice of words) one of my "wiseguy" comments. But, I can't.
    Even though I'm a man (a decidedly little man) who is not given to expressing myself in a "poofy" manner, I have to say:
    That was one sweet story.
    Very nicely done.

  13. As if this story weren't fabulous enough, you've blown me away by its happy ending. I was nearly in tears of hysteria when you waited for Marshall to turn around so you could put your ear to the ground and listen for the (Soul) Train. Now I officially love this duo - i.e., Marshall the Neighbor Boy and you.


  14. A great saga. Two things. A: What is a PBR sandwich? and second: Why did you discontinue digging?, I bet you were real close to hearing your shovels touch the iron horse of the underground railroad.
    Of well, we'll never know now.
    Regardless,I enjoyed reading this.

  15. A great saga. Two things. A: What is a PBR sandwich? and second: Why did you discontinue digging?, I bet you were real close to hearing your shovels touch the iron horse of the underground railroad.
    Of well, we'll never know now.
    Regardless,I enjoyed reading this.

  16. This was an awesome story. Made remember a couple of stories of searches in my youth as well. We were going to invent golden glue, as I recall, by combining amber colored glue and Elmers. Oh, we had big ideas. Thanks for writing!

  17. Great story and what an patient and understanding Mr. Nesbitt.

  18. This totally reminds me of a Rod Serling "Night Gallery" episode I saw as a kid starring John the very creepy John Carradine. I tried to find a link to the actual video, but unfortunately could only find the synopsis"

    Three schoolboys, Chris, Dan, and Jason, walk home from school and approach the farmhouse of Old Man Hawkins. Hawkins sees them and dares Chris to come over. When the boy reluctantly does, Hawkins says that he and his friends should go to an oak tree in a field, mark off ten paces, and then dig four feet down. Hawkins promises the boy that he'll find a big surprise buried there and laughs.

    Chris convinces his friends to go to the field to them, although Jason wonders if Hawkins is playing a prank on them. The other two don't see what the point would be, and figure that there's buried treasure. They borrow some shovels from a nearby farm and start digging, but Jason only does so reluctantly and Dan finally gets bored. Chris keeps digging on his own and finally unearths a wooden chest. It starts to open on its own and Chris crawls back in horror. He stares in shock as Old Man Hawkins emerges from the chest and says, "Surprise!"

  19. What an adventure! And a coincidence--I just spent time in Key Biscayne where I learned about the underground railroad there!

  20. Gosh, Dawn. That's a great one. Thoroughly enjoyed reading it.

    I'm betting the reason you never found the Soul Train was because you had no rhythm. Maybe you needed to dig in time, alternating digs between the two of you.


    Try again...I bet you can do it...if you put your mind to it...

  21. Sly smiles are often the best. You remind me of Brat and her antics, or Yoda. Yoda lives next door and works out with his light saber when he isn't up a tree wearing his storm trooper helmet. Still ... it makes a quirky bit of sense that a railroad would need a locomotive. You hit this one out of the park.

  22. Kerbi - EXACTLY my point. We didn't need no stinkin' Mario Bros. We had our (crazy) imaginations.
    Wanda - I am sure you were a wonderful mother. :) Can't imagine you being anything but wonderful.
    MTM - Do NOT cry. All is well here! Except we didn't find the dang Underground Railroad. Crappity crap.
    Suz (Anon.) - Thx for reading,dear old pal. Yeah, we had some fun up home, huh? :)
    Pearl - I don't blame you. All the chicks dig Marshall the Neighbor Boy. ;)
    Bama - Why, thank you. ;)
    Shrinky - Thanks for your kind words and for joining me here! Yes, "long-suffering" was the perfect why to describe Mr. Nesbitt. He was awesome.
    Audubon Ron- Oh, Marshall the NB and I blew up an action figure or two, don't you worry.
    RJ - Dig ya too, buddy. I never did find out how to put in email comments. Sorry. :(
    Dawn - Lima IS very far from North Lima. I currently live nearer to Lima than North Lima. Sigh.
    Penwasser - You know how I love your smartass comments. But I also loved your "poofy" comment here. So thanks. :)
    Robyn - You're so kind. :) And yes, I listened hard for the dang Soul Train. And I got...nothin'.
    Anthony - PBR is Pabst Blue Ribbon. Now a beer for hipsters, who think they're being ironic, but then it was a working-class older man's beer.
    Ruth - Mr. Nesbitt was certainly saintly. ;)
    Robert - loved that story! What a PERFECT Halloween tale. :) Thanks for looking it up!
    Lisa - I tried to Google the U. RR in our area for more info., but didn't get much. I think many towns have this type of Underground Railroad legends. Who knows if they're true or not. . .
    Susan - Ha! I can totally picture that, just like some of the old movies where people dig in rhythm. Perfect.
    Diva - I have read of the lovely Brat over at your place. She was trouble. I like her. :)

  23. Wow. Poor Mr. Nesbitt. I hope your parents paid him for grass seed. lol

    I remember finding bones once in the yard. We were going to find a dinosaur or so we swore as we destroyed moms flowerbed.

  24. You had me convinced! Yep. I was right there rooting for you every muddy step of the way. What a charming and fun read. And your neighbor was a saint!

  25. Pixie - Bones! Oooh...Intriguing! Let me get my garden spade...I'll be right over....
    Jayne - Oh Jayne. We dug and dug and got...nothin'. haha. Coupla goofy kids. Thanks. :)

  26. This was such a cool story, with such a cool neighbour, and you are such a good writer! /applauds/

    anyway, love your blog! /follows/
    ^ ^ -seedy wink-

  27. Wow. Weren't you worried at all about ending up in China?