Living in Boxcar Home Rekindles Memories and Questions
IOWA CITY — Ron Hall grew up dirt poor in a railroad boxcar in Iowa City with an extended family that numbered 13 at one time, but he wants to know more.
"I’d like to get any photos of that time," says Ron, 62, executive chef at Mercy of Iowa City. "Any information about everyone involved, obviously, if there were three fires."
That’s how this story begins, with a fire on March 22, 1947, that destroyed the family’s home on Riverside Drive in Iowa City across from the city dump. His grandfather built the house from salvaged lumber. A Gazette story said it was the third fire to chase the family from its home.
"Wow, the third time," Ron says, hearing that for the first time.
Ron hadn’t been born. His grandparents, Ira and Bessie Hall, along with six children — Eunice, 14, Dick, 11, Margaret, 9, twins Dan and Dale, 8, and Ruby, 3 — lived in the home. Their son Ira Hall Jr., who would become Ron’s father, was in the Army for the occupation of Japan.
The fire began when Eunice was stirring coals in the stove and embers fell to the floor.
Community support gave the Halls more clothes than they could use. They received about $700, including $125 from Hillcrest Dormitory. And Travis Kramer of Cedar Rapids sold Ira and Bessie a railroad boxcar for $250, which was $50 less than the going rate,
Within a week, the boxcar was moved over the old foundation. It was divided into a kitchen, living room and bedroom. Windows were cut in its sides. An addition was built to hold the expanding family. For, after Ira Jr. married Virginia Young and they had three children, including Ron on Jan. 24, 1950, they remained in the home that at one time had 13 residents.
"It was what it was," Ron says today as he puts together a family history. He and his wife, Pat, who live in large farmhouse a couple miles north of Washington, Iowa, have four children and 11 grandchildren.
"When we went to school," Ron adds, "we were treated different."
Ira Hall scraped together a living as a yard man for Home Fuel Co., and by reselling scrap from area dumps, visiting up to five in a day. For Christmas, they’d drag home a discarded tree. The boxcar house always seemed to be full of dogs, cats and cockroaches. Ron’s mother left before he was old enough to remember her. But his father shoveled coal at Mercy Hospital.
"I have memories of going to the hospital here, the coal room and the boilers," Ron says. "I’ve come full circle."
Ron only finished 8th grade, but in 1966 went to Pleasanton, Calif., learning to cook in the Job Corps. With a GED and other education, he cooked for years at the Lark Supper Club in Tiffin and the Red Garter in North Liberty. He’s been with Mercy for 20 years.
Most of Ron’s family is gone. He knows a fire in 1950 destroyed the family’s greenhouse. But, whatever happened to the boxcar house?"That," Ron says, "I don’t know."