UNION CITY, INDIANA
'He's the little feller who draws all them 'pitchers' of railroad engines, over in the art hall.'
Yes, John Hixson may be a little fellow, but the pictures he draws and colors in light blue and pink pastels are all of the big fellows that once pulled America's proudest fleets of passenger and freight trains by steam over the complex network of high-iron that sprawled from one end of our nation to the other.
The beautiful, straight lines, the intricate spokes on the big, high iron locomotive drivers, the excellence of valve-gear detail, the rivets and leaf springs all are neatly laid out by John in the strictest sense of the master draughtsman's art. From the austere simplicity of the old DeWitt Clinton to the imposing power of latter day Hudsons and Mountain-types, John Hixson has penned the august beauty of steam locomotive evolution. Whether it's the sleek lines of a Pennsy E-6 Atlantic 4-4-0 (the fastest things on rails), the familiar portrait of old 999 which preceded it in setting world records, or the lately renowned high-stepping Hiawathas whose streamlined profiles headed the famous 100-mile-an-hour Milwaukee varnish Hixson has captured the thrilling spirit of each locomotive which, in its day, established the railroad timetables of a growing America.
For anyone attending the National Threshers Association Reunions over the years, either at Montpelier, or later at Wauseon, Ohio, stepping into the Arts and Crafts Building of the county fairgrounds the first thing that usually caught his eye was the vast array of the Hixson art-form study in the American Steam Locomotive. Neatly lined in several rows, the large hand-drafted drawings reaching sometimes fifty feet from end to end always lent an atmosphere of artistic charm to the big national reunion. Here one could bask over the clear-cut lines of his favorite steam locomotive, or all of them, much the same as art lovers and critics have ventured across the oceans to glory over original Rembrandts, Van Goghs, Millets and Holbeins at the Paris Louvre except for the fact that these are steam engines and that's what people come to the threshing reunions to see.
And, like any artist, proud of his work, John Hixson fetches his outstanding steam locomotive art display year after year to the National Threshers Reunion, not only as his unique contribution to the big show, but also as his right for being there. For, besides a leisurely hour or two offered by John in the pleasantries of reminiscing with his old cronies, there can be additional hours of pure inquisitiveness and satisfaction for any and all who appreciate the clean-cut, distinctive lines of the great locomotives that once ruled as kings of speed and power throughout the American transportation system. Indeed, in our lifetimes we boast of having seen many famous portraits of kings and queens and presidents. But to those who love steam engines there's simply nothing so fulfilling as viewing the John Hixson art gallery of Famous American Locomotives.
But not being merely satisfied to show off his own art work in behalf of the history of railroad engines, John Hixson has, over the years, gone a step further by bringing along some very excellent models, which he has acquired, to further enhance his exhibit of rail-roadiana at The National Threshers. For there is the large model of a New York Central Hudson 4-6-4 type locomotive the chassis, drive-wheels and valve-gear of which were built by some expert modeler, and which John finished by adorning it with a boiler, steam and sand-dome and stack, along with headlight and other typical accoutrements of the railroading era from the late twenties till the end of steam.
'I installed an electric motor to turn the driving wheels and rods so people can see how a locomotive looked, running,' explains Hixson. 'I have the drivers jacked up enough to clear the rails so they can turn,' quoth he.
Although the top of the locomotive model is more free-lance than scale, the fact remains that John Hixson did a pretty good job utilizing already fabricated parts of odd-lots of brass caps, tubing, wire, etc., to adorn the locomotive domes, fashion the stack, the feed-water heater and headlight and simulate the steam piping throughout to lend the finishing touch to his fine model.
Then there is the beautiful free-lance wood model of a steam threshing engine and separator which furnishes another important part of the Hixson exhibit which John attributes to the skill of Joe Ernst, retired engineer on. The Grand Trunk Western Railroad who, for many years, has taken these delightful models to The National Threshers Reunions. Hixson has belted the model engine to the separator, which he keeps running for the reunion onlookers by means of a small electric motor in the engine to lend realistic animation. Thus it is that, if one prefers threshing operations to that of railroading, the John Hixson exhibit can satisfy that too. For anything that chugs with steam, or even suggests it, pleases the Hixson ego and that, in turn, is what the typical threshing reunion is all about anyway.
Over the years that we have 'set up' at The National Threshers, we never could pass up drooling for an hour or so over the John Hixson locomotive pictures and models. During all that time there was only one brief time that I ever had a short conversation with John. Most of the time I would merely see the Hixson image passing our stand loaded with engine models and records of steam engines waving his arms as if in a tremendous hurry to get to the main dining establishment, or hunting for his lost hound, Pal. in his frequent commuting, back and forth, there was the quick, 'Hello John' (from us), and the 'Hello there,' coming back from John. Then on he'd hustle in quest of either food or dog. John was either wondering where the food was, or where his dog had wandered and folks viewing his pictures would be wondering where John was. That was the vicious cycle throughout the four-day stand of the N. T. A. conclave.
But one year, after the big show had ended and folks were leaving the parade grounds, heading in every direction for their cars and home, the wife got a brilliant idea that a big 'kittle' of chicken and noodles would be mighty handy should some of our friends and cronies come by a little hungry.
Frank McGuffin had dropped by, to bring me up on his latest 'wild tales', and John Hixson who finally had found his hound, Pal, and locked him in his car ready to depart the grounds, also was hustling past. Smelling the chicken 'n noodles simmering in the pot, he slowed down, sniffed the air, then sauntered up and took a chair. Having a hungry glint in his eye, we did the polite thing and asked him if he could stand some chicken 'n noodles. To which he replied, 'Boy, could I. 1 am hungry and was just wondering where I could find something to eat.'
McGuffin was talking quite loquaciously in his humorous but dry Irish vein. Hixson listened between polite but voracious gulps of stringy noodles and chicken broth to the usual McGuffin tales of 'Threshing Watermelons', and the time he once dismantled some old abandoned oil well riggings and sawed up the post holes and sold them to farmers who were delighted to 'buy post-holes that were already dug.' After hearing all he could stand, John Hixson then interjected with a single joke that topped them all.
'There was once a farmer who rented out a bull for breeding. Then there was the farmer who lived quite a distance away who rented the bull's services. The owner of the bull, when he delivered it, said, 'Whenever you are through with my bull, just send me a telegram and 111 come after it',' explained John.
Well, the farmer had finished with using the bull, but he was poor, and couldn't pay for more than a single word in the telegram.
'He finally figured out one word that would convey the whole message,' laughed Hixson. 'Comfortable (Come for de bull.)'
Sounded at first like it was going to be a bit dirty as a joke, but John Hixson polished it off clean as a whistle, sufficient to send even a Frank McGuffin scurrying on his way. And to out-joke Frank McGuffin is really a feat.
Besides being an expert draftsman of steam locomotives and a lover of everything about steam engines in general, John Hixson is essentially a very religious man at heart.
Handing me a few issues of THE RAILROAD EVANGELIST-a religious magazine devoted to railroad Christians John went on to explain some of his own religious activities and experiences.
'I was a personal friend of Nelson Blount the millionaire New England clam industrialist who owned the largest collection of railroad steam locomotives and even a railroad to run them on,' explained Hixson.
I recalled reading about Nelson Blount in the pages of RAILROAD MAGAZINE, several years ago, in the well-known Railroad Fans Column, written by editor, Freeman Hubbard. Later in his life, Blount had become converted to Christianity during a Billy Graham sermon, and devoted the rest of his life to leading others to Christ.
'Nelson Blount, the first time I met him, said, 'If you are for the Lord, I can use your help',' is the way John Hixson explained his conversation with the converted millionaire industrialist and railroad enthusiast. 'Whenever he would take a group through his grounds to view his locomotives, he would also give them a little talk on becoming a Christian.'
John Hixson lent some of his drawings also as an added exhibit, from time to time, at the Blount estate.
Over the years too, Hixson has been invited to bring along his exhibit to show in the lobby of the big Billy Sunday Christian Tabernacle at Winona, Indiana. To many a lover of the steam locomotive there is something akin to the Love of God. Steam power and Divine power both seem to have a way of mustering the best within the human heart. And no exception is John Hixson who has glorified both the steam locomotive and God the one in art form, the latter in his heart as a testimonial and blessing to his fellow man.
An honorary seat in our growing Hall of Iron Man Fame to one John Hixson 'the little feller who draws all them 'pitchers' of railroad engines' and hands out Gospel tracts to make other folks christians.
And John, fetch along Palthere's a seat for him too.