CLEMSON, S.C. (AP) – When it comes to rail, some people like to train spot, while others are model train hobbyists or simply enjoy traveling by rail. Roger Grant likes all of it, however, and has made his living writing and teaching about the people, places and history of railroads and their effect on American culture.
A CSPAN crew taped the Clemson history professor recently while he gives a lecture in his Hardin Hall classroom about American interurban lines – the pre-World War II versions of the light rail services popping up in many large cities across the U.S. It will be broadcast at a later date.
Grant, 72, grew up in Albia, Iowa, a small county seat southeast of Des Moines. The town was serviced by the Wabash and the Minneapolis and St. Louis and other rail lines, plus a couple of electric interurban lines, and he and friends played in the local rail yard. It was in that boyhood that Grant acquired an affinity for railway timetables – the leaflets rail carriers published that stated what towns they serviced and days and times for arrivals and departures.
“I’m not sure why, really,” Grant chuckled earlier this month in his Hardin Hall office. “It helped me learn geography in school, though.”
From Albia, Grant went first to Simpson College in Indianola, Iowa, and then onto the University of Missouri in Columbia for graduate school. He first studied and wrote about different subjects, including the American Progressive era in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It wasn’t until later, as a member of the University of Akron faculty, that he discovered a niche that lined up with his boyhood interest in trains and railroads.
“I wrote ‘The Corn Belt Route: A History of the Chicago Great Western Railroad Company' in 1984,” Grant said. “It sold like hotcakes. I guess, as a historian, you like getting those royalty checks, but people really read this book . one woman wrote to me and said when she would read it to her dying husband, he would really respond. I thought that if my work makes somebody happy in their dying weeks, that’s an accomplishment.”
Grant joined Clemson’s history faculty in 1996.
“I was amazed when I came here to interview and saw the hand holding there was in the department, and how student friendly Clemson was . I was delighted when the job offer came,” Grant recalled.
While his course offerings have extended beyond rail to related transportation themes and other subjects, he has kept his teaching and writing focus mostly on railroads and how they have shaped modern America. His office is noticeably tidy, but filled to capacity with books, model train engines, railway timetables, rail-themed greeting cards and art and unique curios – including old tools used in rail yards and train engines.
His work as an author includes histories of old railroad companies, their executives, employees and the roles they all played in the greater culture. He has also written about local railroads of yore, like the Georgia and Florida line, which he called “really a woebegone 500-mile carrier, but I found it fascinating.”
The best-seller is “Railroads and the American People” (2012), one of several titles he has written for the Indiana University Press.
“It doesn’t hurt sales when your book gets reviewed by the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal,” he said with a proud smile.
The septuagenarian shares his Central home with wife, Martha, a retired social worker, and the couple has one daughter, Julia, who works in development at Northwestern University. Clemson has honored Grant as a centennial professor, to go along with several other awards and prizes he has collected over his four-decade career, and he doesn’t plan to quit writing or teaching any time soon.
“As long as I can find my classroom and remember to give exams, I’m here,” said Grant.
Information from: Anderson Independent-Mail, http://www.andersonsc.com