East Texas Bureau of The News
LONGVIEW, TexasIf all the noise which John W. Hedge, Longview has bottled up in a backyard storeroom should blast out at one time, it's likely people clear to Dallas would hear it and think the Trinity River had been canalized overnight.
Hedge never lets the noise escape his storeroom, except perhaps an occasional ping of a writing pen rapping brass and bronze.
But in the silence of that room, he members sounds he has heard in other places, and he knows that here he has the capability to produce some of the most haunting and nostalgic music that has ever set his eardrums to vibrating.
Hedge is a retired Church of Christ minister who now travels over the country for a church furniture company. In his spare moments he searches for and collects old steam whistles.
Now he has 165 or more whistles of all kinds, from tugboats and merchant marine ships, from sawmills, cotton gins oil refineries, sugar refineries from all over America and Mexico. He believes it may be the largest collection of its kind ever assembled.
These are the instruments that have set small craft scurrying out of the way in fog, that have called men to work and have sent them home. Some have served as village clocks.
Now Hedge shines them and imagines the sound which each would make in its own special way if the steam were to boil through it again.
Hedge has practiced his hobby of collecting steam whistles only three years. But he spent a lifetime thinking about it.
'I grew up on a farm near Kilgore,' he said. 'The I & GN Railroad went through our farm with its steam engines snorting. I got to listening to those train whistles and wondering about them.'
As a young man Hedge worked for a time around East Texas sawmills and cotton gins and he learned about their steam whistles, how they were designed and built.
In 1912 he became a Church of Christ minister at a country church near Kilgore. Later the ministry caused him to do considerable traveling, mostly by train. He used these occasions to talk to railroad men and learn about their work and, particularly, their steam whistles.
It has been said by many that perhaps I have the largest and best collection of these items of anyone. I don't know about that - but I know that I have gotten much joy in collecting these items and in polishing and putting them in shape to be seen and admired by others.
But it wasn't until 1962 that Hedge walked into an antique shop in Glad-water and saw a steam whistle for sale. He inquired and found it was from an old cotton gin that had been dismantled at Mount Pleasant.
Hedge took the corroded hunk of bronze back to his Longview home and shined it. He carried it to a Longview manufacturing plant and persuaded some workmen to hook it up to an air compressor.
They did, but then they backed away without pulling the lever. They didn't care to have their eardrums shattered, they said.
Hedge stepped boldly up, pulled the lever, and stood smiling while the chime tones of the old whistle blended into one shattering note and wilted everything in sight. Some workmen in another part of the plant said later they thought a freight train was coming through the building.
In the three years since that first whistle purchase, Hedge has wandered through the waterfront sections of ocean and river towns, has tramped through the factory districts of cities and has hiked the backwoods sawmill areas of the country in search of steam whistles.
He has encountered wide reaction.
In Arkansas he stopped at a factory and asked if they had an old steam whistle he could buy. A man said he had one they were getting ready to sell for scrap metal.
'Whatcha want that old whistle for?' the man asked. 'It hasn't blowed for years.' Hedge bought it for $10.
In a sawmill town in Louisiana, the owner was dismantling and selling out the mill. He cried when he parted with the mill whistle, saying, 'I've heard that old whistle night and day for forty years.'
He sold it for $10 to Hedge, who appreciated whistles, rather than have it thrown in a junk pile.
Hedge acquired the copper and brass whistle that used to sound as municipal fire siren in Mansfield, La. He bought the whistle from the merchant marine ship S.S. Horne and the whistle from the Mississippi River steamboat 'Okaloosa.'
One came from a tugboat on the Ohio River and another from a canning factory in Circleville, Ohio. The list is long and he has each whistle's background recorded in a book he keeps with them.
In a plant in Mississippi they gave him a whistle because he got there soon after townspeople had registered a complaint about the whistle's noise.
One of Hedge's favorites is a whistle which a railroad engineer, who apparently was a kind of creative artist, designed in 1865 especially for his wood-burning locomotive.
A simple whistle did not give him enough range, so he built a whistle with five pipes, each of a different note.
'He could have played a tune on that whistle,' Hedge said.
In the process of collecting whistles, Hedge also has acquired other items-train and plantation bells, bronze mining picks, railroad lanterns and one engine headlight.
He has no way of blowing the whistles. Even if he did, he couldn't in the city. 'They would run me out of town,' he said.
Hedge hopes some day to find an old boiler-driven tractor which he can take out in the country somewhere and use to bring his whistles to life.
If a noise comes shattering through as though every boat on the sea is on collision course and every worker in America is being summoned to the job, it probably will mean John W. Hedge found that boiler tractor and is trying out his whistles.