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Column: Worthington was once for the birds (pigeons, especially)

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WORTHINGTON — In the beginning, in the first years of the oldest area communities, there were no grain elevators. Grain dealers built long, trackside warehouses. Grain elevators in the local region came with the last years of the 19th century. At Worthington the elevators — Hubbard, Palmer, later Nobles County Co-op — were clustered around the depot along First Avenue. There was a track that actually crossed First Avenue to serve the elevators on the north side.

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I was thinking of this when I drove by the depot lately. In another time, a drive by the depot on a winter morning would have meant stirring up great flocks of sparrows that would be feeding on grain which fell from grain cars and wagons. Like the elevators, the sparrows crowded in the depot neighborhood.

I see sparrows still, although I don’t see as many. It is my impression that today we may have dozens of sparrows where in another time they might be numbered in the thousands. Sparrows are not popular birds, I know. Some people scorn them, and most people I know who fill bird feeders are not pleased to find sparrows among their daily visitors.

The other birds attracted by the grain elevators were pigeons. There were flocks of pigeons that equaled the flocks of sparrows on some days. I also think of the pigeons when I drive by the depot today. The pigeons never left. There is enough corn spilled from the grain trains to keep a sizable pigeon flock fed well. You see them huddled around and near the depot chimney on days of the kind we have had lately. Dozens of pigeons. Several colors. Pigeons have been a plague on the depot through all its days.

The depot platform has an elevated roof on the west. That area, especially under the shelter of the roof, might be called Worthington’s Pigeon House. The pigeons have won out through many discouragements and many long battles. One railroad worker once mounted a mock owl under the Pigeon House roof. The old story is that owls frighten pigeons away. The depot pigeons seem to welcome the stuffed owl as a bit of novel décor.

In an earlier time, when the grain elevators were still along First Avenue and food was truly abundant, pigeons came to be a plague over much of Worthington’s business district. The police department issued authorizations, and businessmen/sportsmen roamed 10th Street sidewalks with shotguns on summer evenings. Hunters would shoot pigeons by the score. The birds flocked, especially, on the Hotel Thompson. Why shoot pigeons? Look at the depot platform where pigeons congregate today. You will see the answer on the bricks.

Worthington, the depot, the pigeons — they bring to mind a favorite story —

J.G. Duncan was night baggage man at Worthington’s Omaha depot. When passenger trains rolled to a stop, Mr. Duncan jumped aboard the baggage cars to lift out luggage and special freight.

Beginning in 1936, J.G. Duncan also became a key agent for the St. Paul Racing Pigeon Association.

St. Paul had a colony of racing pigeon or homing pigeon breeders. (Recall, “On the Waterfront.”) Each summer, the pigeon people would pit their birds in contests. They would carefully place prize pigeons into large crates and they would send their crates to Worthington.

Duncan, an agreeable gentleman, would wrestle the pigeon crates off their train and carry them to the park on the east side of the depot. He then would open the crates, dashing to get all crates open within the same minute or two.

At daybreak on a Sunday in August 1937 — one example — Mr. Duncan freed 800 birds. The newspaper headline: “Sun Dimmed by Flight of 800 Homing Pigeons Liberated Here.”

The mysterious fact, of course, is, that all the birds flew back to their St. Paul roosts. The first birds back to their homes won trophies.

Mr. Duncan was commended for his prompt and dependable releases. Duncan learned that if he simply opened crates, the birds would lift up, circle two or three times, and then make bee-lines for their homes. If the crates were faced north, the birds would lift up and begin their homeward journeys instantly, sometimes gaining several minutes.

Ray Crippen is a former editor of the Daily Globe. His column appears on Saturdays.

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