The Byrd Finally Flew North

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17837 Lindenwood Road, Lindenwood, Illinois 61049

Living in north central Illinois puts our farm right in the migration path of those beautiful Canadian geese. It was always an 'event' when I was a kid, to see the first V of geese going south for the winter or north in the spring. Matter-of-fact, when I couldn't see them in the fall of second grade, Mom knew I needed glasses.

Once in a while it's been known in nature that biological clocks get confused. That's exactly what happened at our place in mid-September this year. A very rare species of rail byrd made a fast-flying trip to our farm before the winter cold set in.

This species is known for its sensitivity to harsh weather conditions owing to the fact it was born and bred in the southern hills of Tennessee. Flying first class in a Ford pickup, our good friend Billy Byrd of Madisonville, Kentucky came up north to see us thresh. Regular readers of IMA have met Billy through his frequent articles or letters. That is how I got acquainted with Billy several years ago.

Billy is one of the most gracious individuals I have had the pleasure to meet. I answered his request in a letter to Anna Mae for the names of Nichols and Shepard owners. He replied within a week that he was trying to put together a list of owners and engines. I am probably one of the worst letter writers around. I wait for months before I write and then promptly forget to mail it. In this case I waited five years before I wrote again. While home recuperating from surgery, I ran across Billy's first letter. Since resting was the most comfortable thing to do, I decided to reintroduce myself and see if his Nichols list ever got done. That was the beginning of a semi-regular letter exchange that has lasted for more than two years now.

Billy related to us his history as a Tennessee boy, railroad engineer, and currently a steam engine enthusiast. His love for the 'Pride of Battle creek' was evident. Generous to a fault, he's donated lots of time to community events and activities. His engine's often the center of attraction in local parades. Little did I know when I first wrote to him that this was the same man I had seen Charles Kuralt interview for a CBS 'On The Road' special. That in itself is a story to hear Billy tell.

We kept trying to get Billy up north to visit. Due to family illnesses, inclement weather, etc. it never seemed to happen. June 1989 our family decided that we would take a trip south to visit the Tennessee Valley Rail Museum where Billy still runs a steam locomotive during the summer. When we got there, the museum had the engine in the shed, down for repairs, and we still didn't get to see Billy. In February, we have a 'cabin fever' get-together. This year it started to snow that morning and we had one of the few snow squalls of the season. Billy had to call off his plans to come up. Up to that point we had hardly any snow to speak of all winter. It got to be a joke in our letters that northern Illinois weather was just too cold for that southern Byrd in the winter and too hot and humid in the summer. Just couldn't please him!

Joe decided this was the year to get the 32 inch Red River Special restored and thresh our wheat. The week before, I called Billy to renew the standing invitation to come up for the weekend. Now keep in mind the last time he didn't come because it was too cold. Well, he thought he might but it was awful hot that week, (over 100 degrees F in Madisonville) and he wasn't sure about coming that far in all that heat. That was the last straw. The staunch Nichols man who had stooped to buy a scale Case was now telling me the weather was all wrong again. I immediately addressed him, 'Mr. Byrd, I can't seem to please you no matter what I do. In February you pick the coldest, snowiest weekend to come up and then it's too cold. You wait until September when the temperature should be comfortable and now it's still too hot. I give up! There's no pleasin' you!'

It worked. Friday evening before we threshed on Sunday, flying into the yard just like it knew where to land, came a blue Ford truck. Out stepped a gentleman with a Nichols patch on his shirt. The soft spoken southern accent gave him away. The Byrd finally flew north. We enjoyed Billy to ourselves Friday evening. The colorful descriptions of his personal experiences with steam railroading enrapture his listeners. I could never capture them adequately to repeat them now. Hopefully we won't have to rely on our memories and Billy will put them into print for all to enjoy.

Saturday, Joe's dad, Howard, and Billy traveled a little farther north to Howard and Harlan Wade's of Wisconsin. The Wades have one of the best collections of Nichols engines around. Billy's little indiscretion with Cases was forgiven when he described being at Wades as 'Heaven-on-Earth to a Nichols man.' As more friends arrived for the weekend we kept Billy busy telling his tales. He even got a shot at running the 25-85 double around the farm.

There's no denying it, Billy is a steam man all the way. You'll never find a man who's more concerned for those who need it, committed to his convictions, true to his friends and fun to be around. From this point on he'll be the standard to which we measure a true southern gentleman.