Railroad brings innovation in early days

Railroad brings innovation in early days

By Tracy Lawson

In her 1990 book Wylie Area Heritage, historian Beb Fulkerson wrote that the coming of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe Railway in 1886 “changed the face of several sleepy hamlets.” Indeed, a favorable location near a railroad depot would bring growth and prosperity to a small town. 

As railway agents and surveyors plotted the route of the G.C. & S.F. ‘s Northeastern Branch across Ellis, Dallas, and Collin counties, communities in its potential path made donations to support, and influence, the final route. Nickelville’s $70 donation was one of the smallest, but it demonstrated the community’s desire to become a railroad town all the same.

Ultimately, the railway bypassed Nickelville and established the new town of Wylie less than a mile away, and many of Nickelville’s residents relocated. People came from other small communities as well. Some, like Wylie merchant and real estate developer Tom Brown, even brought their houses with them. 

With the establishment of the Gulf, Colorado, and Santa Fe line, and the arrival of the St. Louis and South western (known as the Cotton Belt) line in 1887, local farmers could efficiently ship livestock, cotton, onions, and other produce to market. This helped keep up the cash trade in town, where merchants stocked their shelves and filled their warehouses to serve the needs of railroad workers and families that flocked to the area. By 1906, Wylie had three general stores, two dry goods stores, a harness shop, four groceries, a butcher, two restaurants, two clothing stores, two barbers, a bank, a telephone exchange, and five saloons in the first block of North Ballard Avenue alone. 

Up to this point in history, men were usually responsible for earning money. They were more likely to spend time in town, and in the company of coworkers or clients. Women  were expected to care for the children and maintain the home, which, without modern conveniences, meant near-constant toil. Especially in the rural districts, life at home could be isolated.

The coming of the railroad also brought with it an innovation that has been called both a symbol of abundance and progress and an object of fantasy and desire.  

It was the mail-order catalog. 

In 1872, the year the first railway in Collin County reached McKinney, well over half the country’s population lived outside cities. The idea of selling goods through mail order catalogs and shipping the orders by rail to customers was just starting to take hold. 

Aaron Montgomery Ward’s new mail-order business offered wholesale prices on clothing, furniture, and hardware. His promise of “satisfaction guaranteed or your money back,” won him a willing consumer base among rural farm families. Sears Roebuck, another mail-order giant, came on the scene in 1889.

Ward reasoned that as long as a consumer could get to the latest rail station and pick up their purchase, they could take advantage of a larger selection and lower prices.

Mail-order shopping was the Amazon of its time. People could shop from home, place an order by mail (or later by telephone) and pay COD—charge on delivery when your package arrived at the depot. Of course, that could take weeks or even months, so we may assume the concept of the impulse buy developed later.

The catalog companies catered to families that might only rarely come to town–and they had to overcome a major logistical problem. The postal service at the time did not deliver packages, only letters, and folks that lived outside town had to come pick those up at the post office.

Farmers’ advocacy groups and the catalog companies lobbied hard to establish Rural Free Delivery, which was authorized by Congress in 1896 and available nationwide by 1902. This enabled home delivery of catalogs–and once parcel post delivery began in 1913, Americans were fully on the mail-order bandwagon.

By 1919, Americans were spending more than $500 million annually via mail-order catalogs—half of that with Sears and Wards alone. For the first time, consumers all over the country shared a shopping experience. 

With access to catalogs that offered literally everything a person could need or desire, mail-order shopping increased women’s buying power, a dynamic that exists to this day, when women make an estimated 80% of the buying decisions in the home. 

Evidence of how railroads and mail order catalogs influenced national culture exists in Wylie today: the Welcome Center at the Tom and Mattie Brown House.

Tom Brown was Wylie’s first real estate developer, a merchant and alderman. His 1905 Queen Anne-style house remains a commanding presence at the northern end of the downtown historic district. 

In the late 1800s, Queen Anne architecture became popular nationwide. The turned porch posts, millwork and trim, and embellishments we see in doorways and on rooflines were affordably mass-produced in factories that used steam and electric power, rather than having to be handmade. Manufacturers published pattern books and catalogs of their products so people could order the new style, which is known as America’s first vernacular house.

For more information about trains and their impact on Victorian travel, communication, commerce, and culture, stop in the Welcome Center at Brown House and view the free exhibit, “Train, Time, and Telegraphs: How They Changed the World,” on display through the end of July. You can see a working telegraph, photos and memorabilia, and leaf through replica Montgomery Ward and Sears Roebuck catalogs. 

Tracy Lawson is the guest service specialist at the Welcome Center at Brown House.