The Life and Times of a Railroad Engineer
If you use county road B or the Sand Road, both west of Shell Lake, for your morning commute, you've no doubt seen two people out for their daily walk. Bud and Jerrilyn Hoekstra have taken this 3.8-mile walk five days a week since forever.
They walk in the rain, the snow, in way below zero temperature and they do it for their health. Both are in marvelous shape, and Jerrilyn says that if you dress appropriately, you don't feel the weather.
They haven't always lived in the woods; Bud was born and raised on the south side of Chicago, the oldest of eight children.
His mom said that when he was little, he was interested in trains. She told him that when a particular cereal box had a train printed on it, he would sit fascinated by it for hours.
In 1959, when he was just sixteen, there was an ad in the paper looking for high school boys to work on the mail platform of the Illinois Central Railroad at Twelfth and Michigan sorting parcel post packages from November 18 until the end of December. He and his buddy applied and they were both hired, along with eighteen other high school boys. They made $18.66 for eight hours of work, but suddenly Bud realized that his dream to become a train engineer could happen.
To get to his end goal, he first had to be eighteen years old and a fireman. When the railroad called him a few days after his work had ended for the year and asked him back, it was an easy decision to drop out of school and become a full-time Illinois Central employee.
The job of fireman had changed over the years, especially when the diesel locomotives became popular. His job, once he turned eighteen, was to be more of a lookout man for the engineer, and he loved it.
In 1962 he heeded the call of his country and enlisted in the U.S. Army. Most of his service was stateside, but some of his three-year hitch he spent in Korea.
Once out he married and moved back to Illinois and the railroad. His goal was still to be an engineer. He studied and took the test. His first was an eight to ten-hour oral exam based on his knowledge of the machinery. The next test was twelve hours on air brakes. The final thirteen-hour test was on the Book of Rules. This is the book that covers everything an engineer would need to know about everything involved with his job from the big things down to the minutia.
The year after he returned from serving his country, he became an engineer. He kept that position for twelve years before he moved on to the Soo Line in Superior, a position he held for twenty-two years.
Where Illinois was coal and merchandise, Superior was grain, all the varieties that were grown in the vast fields of America's Bread Basket, the Midwest. This is the grain that would eventually be loaded into the big ships that went to foreign parts; some was shipped by train to more local ports of call like Ladysmith, Wisconsin and Glenwood City and Bemidji, Minnesota.
Once retired, Bud and his wife moved to Shell Lake sixteen years ago, and that's when he started his train layout in his basement. They both created the scenes using plants they gathered on their walks and driftwood from Lake Superior. He chose the HO scale so he could build a large layout, twelve by twenty feet, that would seem bigger due to the size of the smaller train.
He owns over four hundred and fifty cars and fifty locomotives, so he is never far from his beloved railroad.
He also wrote a book in 2012 entitled The Life and Times of a Railroad Engineer. It's a generous 320-page read, and so far he's sold over 900 books across the United States. That's quite a feat seeing these have all been sold on site to individuals.
The Hoekstras will be moving soon to be closer to grandchildren who live near the Twin Cities.
He'll have to dismantle his elaborate train layout and find another route for him and his wife to walk, but he'll introduce lots of new people to his book and always have a glow about him because no matter what else happens he got to live his dream.
If you're interested reading his book, give him a call in Shell Lake at 715-468-7759, but don't call between 8a and 9a, they'll be on the road again.