Christmas on the Rails
THE IDLE AMERICAN
Commentary by Dr. Don Newbury
Less is heard about trains these days, particularly since the homegoing of Johnny Cash. He always loved train songs. Accounts of a single railroad car are even rarer, despite the jump start provided in 1930 by “The Little Engine That Could,” a children’s book.
This piece about Christmas centers on a single 1950-model dormitory lounge car which trailed behind the Santa Fe Super Chief for several decades before it was idled in Lake Charles, Louisiana.
That’s where the late Donald Rassmussen found it 26 years ago. He was known as the “quiet founder” of ESPN (Entertainment and Sports Programming Network). A lifelong entrepreneur, he spent several years in Brownwood, relocating the railcar to a remote area where Camp Bowie was operative during World War II.
No doubt residents scratched their heads in wonderment about someone laying track for one railcar, not to mention paying the freight bill. Today, its location is still remote, opening as the “Classic Car Diner” after a year’s renovation. It’s a virtual rural setting, with only the junior high school and a scattering of industries, homes and apartments in the neighborhood.
In 2004, Kim Bruton noticed online that the diner was for sale. Weary of the corporate world, she and her then husband decided to buy it. They moved from the Metroplex to Brownwood with sons ages one, two and five. She has operated it since that time, naming it “The Runaway Train”. She was divorced in 2006, and in 2009, married firefighter Brent Bruton, who is in partnership with her in real estate ventures. Together, they have five sons, all of whom grew up in the café environment.
Kim credits customers with much, including her becoming a Christian in 2008. On Christmas Day, 2010, seasonal magic began. Kim and the boys noticed that a frequent visitor always walked to the diner. He didn’t own an automobile, and was on their hearts when it was decided to serve free meals on Christmas Day, 1-3 p.m. The walker–and several other patrons–showed up, responding to a homemade sign on the front door.
“It was a joyous experience, one we have repeated annually,” Kim said.
Crowds grew, with 300 or so now claiming free chili Frito pie and ice cream. Many who previously were “partakers” now are “giver-outers.” Count her and her family among those believing that it is more blessed to give than receive.
Kim Bruton with sons Atticus, left, and Zach
Kim now focuses largely on “The Intermission Bookshop,” her charming bookstore downtown. It is housed in an old movie theater building. (Brownwood had eight downtown movie houses around 1950.) She’s turning over “train” management to son Zach, 19, with son Atticus, 18, alongside. Folks still flock to the diner that has original features, plus a 10-foot extension on one side for the kitchen. They’ve shortened operating hours since COVID. Customers still find their way to 3600 Stephen F. Austin Blvd. “on purpose.”
Maintaining social distancing challenges, but patrons may dine in, grab food to go or sit at outdoor picnic tables, Christmas Day or whenever. The community also has a Thanksgiving Feast each year for whoever wants to partake. It was introduced in 1983 by the late Ronald Gray, Brownwood Bulletin publisher, and Harold Preston, Howard Payne University CFO. Ten years later, Bill Fishback, Preston’s successor, directed the event for 27 years. When he retired, Ron Keener, pastor of Northlake Community Church, took over.
They’ve served some 60,000 meals–most of them at Howard Payne University–for the past 38 years. Some 2,000 persons have been served annually for several years. Area residents and businesses underwrite feast food costs.
Brownwood also has the Lehnis Railroad Museum. The city’s mantra is “feels like home.” And it does.
We wish everyone a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. God willing, I’ll begin my 21^st year of weekly ramblings come February, hoping always to provide smiles.
Dr. Newbury was a longtime university president. He continues to write weekly and speak regularly throughout Texas. Contact information: Phone, 817-447-3872. Email: email@example.com/ <mailto:firstname.lastname@example.org>/. Facebook: Don Newbury