Catching up with Don Hofsommer

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Historian Don Hofsommer, pictured recently in his study in his St. Cloud, Minn., home. Kevin P. Keefe photo
A brief assignment last week in St. Cloud, Minn., afforded me the chance to catch up with an old friend and one of our most accomplished authors.

Don Hofsommer is familiar to a couple of generations of Classic Trains and Trains readers. He’s been a frequent contributor to both magazines over the years, and he’s written (by my count) at least 17 books on railroading. Some of them are indispensable, especially when it comes to railroads of the granger Midwest.

Don is retired now after a long academic career as a professor of history, most recently at St. Cloud State University, and he continues his research and writing from the comfortable study in his home on a wooded street in that college town.

But retirement is a relative term, especially for a writer, and Don continues to have a pretty full schedule of research and writing, along with his longtime stewardship of the Lexington Group in Transportation History, that famously loose-knit and self-described “spontaneous” organization of transportation scholars, professional railroaders, and other hangers-on, such as me.

Don’s title with Lexington is technically treasurer; H. Roger Grant of Clemson University is the current president. But I think Roger would agree with me: Hofsommer is the soul of the organization. Don’s good-humored prodding of members and his editorship of the Lexington Quarterly are what keep the machine well oiled.

Hofsommer's first big splash in front of a large audience was in May 1974 Trains magazine. 'Finest Dirt-Track Railroad on the Great Plains' chronicled the Katy's line into the Oklahoma Panhandle. In November 1972, a Katy GP7 shepherds 40-foot boxcars of wheat near Mouser, Okla. Don Hofsommer photo
As a writer, Don’s first big splash in front of a large audience came in the May 1974 issue of Trains, when Editor David P. Morgan ran his memorable story “Finest Dirt-Track Railroad on the Great Plains,” a flavorful account of Missouri-Kansas-Texas’ old Northwestern District in the Panhandle of Oklahoma, which began life in 1905 as the Wichita Falls & Northwestern.

Don had caught up with Katy’s bucolic prairie railroad on its last legs. His bittersweet account captured the boom-and-bust nature of railroading in that part of the world, dependent as it was on the wild swings of oil, drilling equipment, grain, and other traffic. His narrative was an improbable mix of such personalities as Clark Gable, William N. Deramus III, and John W. Barriger III. And it was, as Don’s lonely photographs of the lightly built, minimally maintained property show, truly a “dirt track road.”

“The successful utilization of earth as ‘ballast’ is predicated on regular systematic grooming,” Don wrote. “But after 1956, the scarcity of sectionmen on the district was exceeded only by the paucity of repair materials. So when the trade area received unprecedented rainfall in late 1964, the railroad disappeared in a sea of mud.”

That article culminated later in book form, Katy Northwest (Pruett, 1976). Don taught for a time in Plainview, Texas, not all that far from Katy territory, “and I guess I fell in love with that part of the world.”

There are so many more Hofsommer books to note, most with a distinctly Midwestern theme. In The Quanah Route (Texas A&M, 1991), he chronicled a railroad as woebegone as that in Katy Northwest. He’s a fine biographer, having profiled Grand Trunk Western’s John H. Burdakin for Michigan State in 2015. And in The Tootin’ Louie (University of Minnesota, 2004), Don told the story of the Minneapolis & St. Louis, his favorite railroad growing up in Iowa.

“When I was young I worked on an M&StL section gang, and always wanted to work for that railroad later,” he says. “But it went away.”

Hofsommer grew up in Callender, Iowa, south of Fort Dodge on the Minneapolis & St. Louis. 'I felt like it was my railroad,' he says of the M&StL. Here, Minneapolis–Des Moines train 2 makes its Callender stop in fall 1950. Don Hofsommer photo
Don was born in 1938 deep in Tootin’ Louie country — Fort Dodge — and his family later lived in the hamlet of Callender just a few miles to the south. “Everywhere I lived, it seemed like the M&StL was there. I felt like it was my railroad.”

As an author, Don hasn’t confined himself to the Midwest. His The Great Northern Railway: A History (University of Minnesota, 2004), written with collaborators Ralph W. Hidy, Muriel E. Hidy, and Roy V. Scott, is a definitive account of one of the nation’s major transcontinentals.

Then there’s The Southern Pacific: 1901-1985 (Texas A&M, 1986), perhaps his greatest achievement as an author. To write this sprawling story, Don left academia for nearly six years, hiring on with SP to immerse himself in the necessary research. He set up shop in the p.r. department at the railroad’s famous headquarters on Market Street in San Francisco. “The job they had for me was ‘special representative-historical writer,’” he recalls. “I basically reported directly to the president, Ben Biaggini.”

Don says Biaggini’s predecessor, D. J. Russell, was known for his consistent, steady management approach. Biaggini, on the other hand, was “mercurial,” and “unpredictable.” But both men made their own separate legends at SP.

Don’s made a bit of his own legend, as well. Scores of historians and writers have felt his influence, either through his books, or through association with him in the Lexington Group. Back in 1995, the Railway & Locomotive Historical Society saw fit to acknowledge his status with its Gerald M. Best Senior Achievement Award.

“In my mind, Don is Mr. Railroad Historian,” says Roger Grant, himself a distinguished rail scholar and an occasional collaborator with Hofsommer. “I know of no other professional railroad historian who has been so productive over such a long period of time. Not to be overlooked has been his support of others, professional and amateur.”

But Don Hofsommer seems uncomfortable with such folderol. Make too much of his work and he’ll cut you off with a friendly wave of his hand. There’s always another project. When I left him, he was ready to plunge back into research for his next book, a fresh appraisal of the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern interurban, for Chicago’s Central Electric Railfans Association. For Don, there’s always room for more stories about Iowa.

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