ELY: Stephen Lee/Lea, son of Solomon Leander and Mary Elizabeth "Lizzie" BAWDEN, savant, Ph.D in philosophy, spends high school summer in Des Moines Round House
Excerpts following from a letter written by Stephen Lee ELY’s friend Richard W. BALLARD of Denver, Colorado - Memorial Day 1985. Richard’s father owned BALLARD Drug and Dental, on 2nd St. in Davenport where many of the BAWDENs shopped.
“He was by all current standards a true savant, but a very well-balanced one; he sight-read Latin (even Cicero) to the extent the teacher was certain he had a ‘pony’ hidden over-leaf. There was none. In spite of his mastery of just about everything with a once-over-light, he didn’t appear to be bored, or even arrogant, as some of these unfortunates are likely to be.”
[In his letter, Mr. BALLARD refers to “Stiffen Lea”. This was a nickname - Lee Ely’s father’s middle name was Leander, a name which had become humorous to school boys by 1900, and the name ‘Stiffen’ referred to an occasional overindulgence of alcohol during his high school days.]
Lea ELY was a strike-breaker or scab, of which I’m one. Summer of 1922, the Maintenance of Way Union went out nationally. They were shop and round house, and gandy dancers (section hands) but the Brotherhoods didn’t support them. Even so, their work on locomotives and cars and right-of-way was beginning to be felt by June, and we’d just graduated from DHS - pretty cocky, us! (Central High School, Davenport, Iowa).
A classmate wrote that unbelievable wages were being paid, and come on to join him. We took the night day-coach for Des Moines; even then strikers were riding the trains, looking for strike-breakers. When identified as such, they were treated roughly, even before they were employed as such. Lea and I, both using our Boy Scout packs, said we were on our way to a Boy Scout Camp, and we were allowed to go on. We got a room at the ‘Y’ opposite the Brown Hotel that night, and went to 15th & Walnut, early next morning with our Boy Scout packs. We were hired as fire-builders.
I’d spent some time at Rowland WILLIAMS father’s farm in Cordova [Illinois], where he made a living repairing Stanley Steamers, and I had a fair idea of steam engines, their care and feeding, after a few summers of doing the grunt work. Lea had absolutely not the foggiest of what it was about but he was quick to take at anything. Lea elected to work the night trick, and I the day shift, as night wasn’t very busy, and he could pick up what the job was easiest that way.
Please understand a steam locomotive is the contrariest, hardest to lubricate, expensive to maintain AND inefficient invention of modern man. That’s why they only last a hundred years - 1840 to 1940, when the railroads discovered the Diesel. The locos Des Moines Union owned never got on the main line, but were Yard Goats, so their fires had to be pulled at the end of each shift, the grates turned over, and new fires started. That was our job; hitching up a blower to the smoke box, throwing kindling (old ties) up on the deck to see if there was water in the boiler, set the brakes, toss in oily rags, and when there was a good fire, load her up with coal.
It took about 3 hours to get one ready for the job with enough steam to get out of the yard, So we had several ‘tallow pots’ at once under our car. We worked different shifts for another purpose; to guard the other guy’s belongings. There were about 45 stiffs like us doing the work of 175 union men; we didn’t do it well, but there were no breakdowns in service. Maybe some engines didn’t steam as well as they might. Unions truly do great jobs!
The food started out good, but as the strike degenerated, so did the food. About the middle of August, we got stewed raisins that were half flies, so we quit, wired our money home, and started walking; we couldn’t figure why there was no eastbound traffic. It was opening day of the State Fair! We walked as far as Altoona (about 25 miles) with no water, no food, so we slept in a school house, and each ate an apple from the teacher’s desk that night. Both Lea and I never forgave ourselves for that, but it was a life-saver. Next morning, we caught a ride clear to Davenport. Two weeks later, Lea went to Wisconsin, I went to Iowa (University of), but we were the best of friends. Last time I saw him was summer of 1926 (we’d graduated); he was sitting in a car, smoking a cigarette, a bit drunk, and explained the Fourth Dimension!