Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 170 – Thomas the Train Boy

Part 169: Thomas the Train Boy

In December of 1875, Thomas G. Moses found himself “out of work and very little money on hand.” He finally secured a job as a train boy, commonly called a “Butcher.”

The only reference to the term “train boy” and “butcher” that I have encountered to date is in an 1884 issue of the “American machinist” where author Sam Rarus published an article titled “Some Small Explosions.” He wrote, “Our butcher (train boy) was one of these irrepressible youths who always pushed themselves to the front when anything unusual is going on, and he had got up beside me in the cab, and was reporting progress on the passengers.” Huh. Sounds like Moses at this point in his life.

1872 train that went between Grand Raids, Michigan and Sparta.
The 1875 Railway Guide advertising the Michigan Central Railroad kine. This is the line that Thomas G.Moses worked on in 1875.

Moses worked on the run from Grand Rapids, Michigan to St. Joseph. This was a new experience for Moses and he wrote, “I rather enjoyed it.” When traveling north, the train would stop at the small town of Bangor, Michigan. There, the owner of the lunchrooms exchanged free meals for Moses advising the passengers to go there. He even “peddled bills announcing the fact of ‘The best lunch room on the road.’” Moses recalled that he “must have been hungry and ate too much” as the gentlemen explained that he could no longer keep his agreement and that he would now have to purchase his meals like the rest of the train crew.

We get a little insight into Moses’ character when he explained his next course of action. He wrote, “The next day before leaving St. Joe, I laid in a stock of sandwiches, pies, doughnuts and a big coffee pot with tin cups and spoons, a small oil stove in the baggage room made the coffee. Within a half hour of Bangor, I had everyone on the train satisfied. Even the train crew. Instead of the usual two-dozen passengers getting off, there were three. When the owner of the lunchroom heard of it, he rushed to see me. There was no chance – I kept it up for a week. He paid me for working for him besides feeding me.”

Although Moses commented that he “had a great many exciting incident during my train boy experience,” it came time to return to the theater. His work on the train had left him well-traveled and well-fed, but his artistic soul was suffering. Working as a train boy was no different than any other service job that he could get near Sterling. He had promised Ella that he would return to marry her and in order to do that he needed to make a good living and a name for himself.

While waiting for one train to depart, he had extra time to stroll around town and found the stage door of the Powers Theatre. Moses wrote, “I went in and found an artist at work on the paint frame. I called up for permission to go up. I found that I knew the artist – He was from Chicago. He had an Odd Fellow Hall to decorate and needed help. I agreed to quit my job within a week and help him out. I did the thing I thought was best and Christmas found me very busy on all kinds of decoration.”

The view Thomas G. Moses would have seen in 1875 as he headed to Powers Opera House. This is Pearl Street looking west. Powers Opera House is on the right.

Power’s Opera House in Grand Rapids, Michigan opened on May 12, 1874. The Powers’ Opera House Block provided entertainment from 1874 until 1979 when it was demolished. Here is the timeline: Powers’ Opera House (1874), Powers’ Grand Opera House (1887), Powers’ Theatre (1902), Foto News (1944), Midtown Theatre (1948–1972), Civic Theatre (Under Renovation 1975–1977), Demolished (Jan 1979). The website: Powers Behind Grand Rapids is a lovely source of information and picture. Here is the link: https://powersbehindgr.wordpress.com/powers-theatre/

The planning and construction of this venue is of note. In 1873 construction began. The building was designed by architect Graham of Chicago and modeled after Hooley’s Opera House (Chicago). On May 12, 1874 the grand opening celebration included Edwin Booth’s niece, Blance DeBar of McVicker’s Theatrical Company (Chicago). Six years later in 1880, William T. Powers organized the Grand Rapids Electric Light & Power Company. Obviously, he installed electric lighting in his opera house. A massive renovation of the space occurred from April-August, 1883. The theatre floor was lowered to add a third balcony gallery designed by architect Col. James M. Wood of Chicago. By September 3, the 1883–84 Season commenced in Power’ New Opera House, now on the ground floor.

To be continued…

2 thoughts on “Tales from a Scenic Artist and Scholar: Acquiring the Fort Scott Scenery Collection for the Minnesota Masonic Heritage Center. Part 170 – Thomas the Train Boy”

  1. Jim, thank you for sharing the link! Having never come across any reference to Solomon E. White, I really appreciate the information. Of course, I also haven’t been looking for him. I am adding White to my North American Scenic Artist Database. Now that he is on my radar, I will keep out an eye for his work.

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