Antique railroad car back on track

The wooden car has been restored to its pre-1880s glory in hopes it will draw tourists to the Brooksville Depot.

Published September 30, 2006

BROOKSVILLE - The antique railroad cook car is back home.

Well, back to its third home, anyway.

The car now rests at the Brooksville Depot on Russell Avenue, where officials hope it will draw tourists and history buffs to see its spiffy restoration and the adjacent train station.

The pre-1880s wooden car started life in a cypress timberland east of Dade City. Owner Cummer Cypress Co. was harvesting the forest and maintained its own railroad for the enterprise.

The Southwest Florida Water Management District bought the property, known locally as Green Swamp, in 1983. On a site inspection, a worker from Withlacoochee Electric Cooperative discovered the car, according to Jan Knowles, then president of the Hernando Heritage Museum.

"It was in petty bad shape," she said this week, "but it was intact."

It was hauled from the swamp to the city's long-closed train depot.

"It just sat abandoned. We didn't have the money to do anything with it," Knowles said.

In 2004, along came LandMar Group, with plans to develop Southern Hills Plantation off U.S. 41 south of Brooksville. The aims was to market the upscale community with a tie in to Hernando's history. It offered to restore the train car and give it a prime attraction space in front of the developer's sales office.

The sales office was ultimately built to resemble an old-time train depot. LandMar promised it would return the car to the community within five years.

The return came early.

On Friday, Knowles watched nervously as the 150-ton crane lifted the car onto a 45-foot flatbed trailer. The cargo included the car itself, the chassis and two sets of rail wheels.

Watching, Knowles leafed through a folder of papers on the history and rehab of the car and nibbled her fingernails.

"I cried the whole time it was going out there to Southern Hills," Knowles said. "And I'll cry the whole way 'til it's back home."

But she was perky at 1:45 p.m. as the trailers were about to make their final turn, starting on U.S. 41, onto from Main Street, then into Russell Avenue.

Knowles had kept the vigil from 9 a.m., along with Ron Daniels, now president of the Heritage Board and the one who worked with restoration plans and handled the hand-back transactions.

LandMar spent more than $25,000 on the restoration, said spokeswoman Margie Martin.

While the Heritage Museum contributed period pieces - pots, pans, baskets, cutlery, lanterns and more - for decor, LandMar had two moveable mannequins built to represent railroad cooks.

All have been turned over to the Heritage Museum, whose staff will put the attraction back together.

The depot itself has had exterior paint applied, and work is nearly finished to air-condition the building. The front area where passengers bought tickets has been restored and the baggage area has been converted to hold a "cracker country" display of history from sugar harvest to bootlegging to homemaking.

It also is the Heritage group's resource center for genealogy.

A dedication of the train car and depot as a museum is tentatively scheduled for Brooksville's Founders Week, beginning Oct. 14. The depot has been open only two days a week at this point, but after the dedication, the plan is to keep it open all week, Knowles said.

As the crane and trailer left, Knowles said with a sigh: "My baby is back home."

Beth Gray can be contacted at graybethn@earthlink.net.