LLINWOOD — Mary Jo Cunningham vividly remembers when U.S. travelers moved primarily by railroad, when the penetrating sound of a whistle and the clickety clack of a train on the track could mean a vacation was in store.
With her passion for the details of history, of the everyday life, of the foods, the smells, and clothing, she collects all things railroad. "I traveled on the train all of the time," said Mary Jo.
And the things you could see riding the tracks. She describes majestic mountains, towering buildings, the slums of Chicago, rivers and the construction of I-70 in Colorado which seemed to hang on the edge of the mountain. "I loved riding the railroad," she said. "You could see everything."
However, one thing Mary Jo rarely saw was the plains of Kansas, even though she grew up in Ellinwood and traveled to and from there frequently. "I always had to be picked up in the middle of the night, coming and going," she said.
She didn’t know for sure why that was, but suspected it might be because Kansas was a dry state, and the railroads had to close down serving adult beverages in the club car. "You couldn’t get drinks in Kansas; they always announced the drink cars were closed in Kansas," she said.
The eating was good, too. All of the lines had signature meals, depending upon your destination. "If you were going to Washington, you’d get salmon, and in Michigan, white fish," Mary Jo. "Here you’d get prime rib. It was very good."
Extra special to Mary Jo, though, were the dishes and her eyes light up when she talks about them. Each line had their own china, but the hobbyist’s favorites were the dishes from the Baltimore-Ohio line. "Each dish has so much history," she said. "The B&O has been the most collected pattern of RR china. It is getting rare because so many people collect it."
She said during those golden years, you could buy the dishes at the souvenir counter in the lounge car for $1 boxed. "It was boxed to keep it from breaking," the collector said.
Dining cars were often decorated to highlight the region through which that they traveled. The Superchief, running between Chicago and Los Angeles in the 1930s, had Navajo sand paintings, Indian blanket upholstery, and wood veneer.
The city of Ellinwood was served by a self-propelled coach called a "Doodlebug." It was a single car with its own engine. Mary Jo remembers purchasing her first peanut butter sandwich ever in a wax paper wrapper on the train. Her orange juice came in a cardboard cone shaped cup with a stopper.
Although this never happened to her, Mary Jo laughs recalling stories that when the Doodlebug was south of Lyons, someone had to exit the train to open the pasture gates.
She rode the train at every opportunity. However, there were no frequent rider miles. Mary Jo said discounts were given for travel for 30 day periods according to regions of the country.
Besides the collection of plates, Mary Jo and husband Ron also collect miniature trains, lanterns, and antiques of all kinds.
A song called Chattanooga Choo Choo from 40s sung by the Andrews Sisters with the Glen Miller band sums up the outlook of Mary Jo- "Dinner in the diner, nothing could be finer." With a curiosity that cannot be taught, Mary Jo always yearns to learn something about a lot.