Invasion of the Gandy Dancers

Ed Rood

It was on a bright spring morning in 1955 when Mother warned me to “watch out for the Gandy Dancers.”

I could tell she had something bothering her when I sat down at the kitchen table, but the possibility of imposing danger just didn’t seem to exist in our little town. 

At the time, I had no idea what a Gandy Dancer was but it had a nice ring to it. Yet as cool as the name sounded, I knew a serious mother-to-son talk was about to take place.

She sat across from me as I consumed eggs and bacon, and gravely explained what had been bothering her.

Ed Rood

“Gandy Dancers are what people call rough and rowdy workers the railroad companies bring in to work on rails and ties,” she said. “They came into Madrid several years ago and we had all sorts of problems.”

She went on to explain that several train boxcars were now sitting on a sidetrack in the north part of town. That’s where the workers would live while working here. She said they probably won’t cause many problems during the week but watch out on the weekends. She warned me to stay away from that part of town.

Wow, I thought, this should be a lot of fun. Of course, I didn’t say that to Mom. ... I wasn’t that dumb.

The Gandy Dancers were all we talked about the next few days at school. Nearly everyone in my class had been warned of them as well. 

A few hours later, Slick and I “accidentally” made the acquaintance of a few Gandy Dancers. They didn’t seem so bad to us. Of course, that was during the week. We never did wander up that way on the weekends.

My father told me the reason all the workers were in town was because of the need to rework the Milwaukee tracks. They had to be strengthened and the ties replaced for the fast trains that would soon be shooting east and west through town. 

That was another exciting happening. The new streamliners would be “flying” by at 60 to 70 miles an hour. Not only that, they would be pulling train cars with domed windows. 

As I remember, the workers were in Slater all spring, summer and fall. Cambridge, Madrid and Huxley also had workers staying there. 

Years after the Gandy Dancers had departed, I was told an interesting story that had taken place during their stay. Seems the town’s funeral director had received a call on a Saturday night. He was told to come out to the railroad tracks just west of town. Besides being the town’s undertaker, his funeral coach also served as the town’s ambulance. 

A railroad worker had him pull his vehicle along the rails to a spot where several officials were standing around. They told him one of the workers had been accidentally stuck by a train and killed. Workers loaded the body into his coach and instructed him to prepare the body for burial.

The funeral director said he could see a board laying next to the tracks. He figured the board had been used to prop the worker up before he had been struck by the train.

Ed Rood is the former publisher of the Tri-County Times.