Plant City approves plans for new railroad museum

By on September 26, 2013
Felice and Robert Willaford used the caboose to host an annual Easter celebration at their home.

Felice and Robert Willaford used the caboose to host an annual Easter celebration at their home.

For decades, Robert Willaford has been known affectionately as Plant City’s resident railroad expert.

After nearly 43 years working as a locomotive engineer for CSX Corporation, Willaford has amassed an impressive collection of train memorabilia, including a full locomotive and caboose, which he displays on his property off Joe McIntosh Road.

Now, Willaford’s collection will get a new home.

Willaford has donated 28 railroad items, with a value totaling $212,500, to Plant City. In exchange, Plant City will rename Plant City Union Station Depot as the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum. The Plant City Commission approved Sept. 23, the agreement.

The museum’s two largest attractions include a 1963 International Car Company wide-vision caboose, valued at $90,000, and a 1942 Whitcomb 15-ton cosmetically restored shunting locomotive, valued at $18,500. The pieces will be installed in the existing green space near the depot.

“I started collecting in 1964,” Willaford said. “These items have come all the way from Miami, Georgia, Baltimore, Ohio, Vermont.”

Willaford said most of the items were salvaged from scrap yards and restored.

City Commissioner Mike Sparkman first contacted Willaford about five months ago to ask him to consider making a donation. At first, Willaford’s idea was just to donate a few small items.

“What I’ll do is I’ll get a couple of those rusty lanterns out there and a little sign,” Willaford said. “David Miller came out the next day. I just gave him the sign and a couple of lanterns. (I thought) that would be the end of it, and I wouldn’t see them any more.”

However, Sparkman and Miller had a different idea. They had their eyes on Willaford’s locomotive, caboose and other items.

“What do you want?” Willaford asked.

“Everything,” Sparkman replied.

After several months of negotiations, Willaford and the city agreed to terms.

“My main desire is for kids … later on through the years, it will be something they can enjoy,” Willaford said. “This way, it will stay in Plant City, and it will benefit the city.”

Sparkman said the new museum, coupled with the train-viewing platform, will help increase Plant City’s appeal to train enthusiasts. He hopes to utilize the amenities to host several fundraising rallies throughout the year. Money raised will pay for the cost to maintain the collection and, eventually, pay to have the museum staffed at least six days per week, he said.

“It’s such an economic engine coming to downtown Plant City; we truly need it,” Sparkman said.

Vice Mayor Rick Lott said the museum will pay homage to Plant City’s true roots.

“Most people don’t realize our history ties back to the rail and H.B. Plant,” he said. “I’ve always felt like there was something missing in our downtown to be able to help recognize our past. This museum is going to help embrace that past, as we move forward into our future.”

Commissioner Bill Dodson said he appreciated Willaford’s generosity. However, he did not feel comfortable with the proposed location of the new pieces. Dodson said their location on existing depot green space would hinder the ability for school groups and others to use the space to conduct meetings and classes.

Moreover, he said, the pieces would obstruct the view of the existing train depot building, which has been standing since before Plant City incorporated in 1885.

“I believe the train depot building, as it is, should continue as the main focal point on the property,” he said. “It is what brought people to Plant City in the beginning.”

Dodson said he didn’t receive plan proposals until Friday, Sept. 21 — just three days before the scheduled hearing. He asked his fellow commissioners to delay their decision and consider alternate locations for the museum. However, that request was not granted, and the commission approved the donation and museum as proposed.

Plant City will pay to relocate and display all the donated railroad equipment.

Contact Michael Eng at meng@plantcityobserver.com.

DONATIONS
• 1963 International Car Company wide-vision caboose, painted in SAL Colors. Refurbished to museum quality. Forty-foot access ramp included.: $90,000
• 1942 Whitcomb 15-ton cosmetically restored shunting locomotive: $18,500
• Circa 1942 Fairmont section car from the Atlantic Coast Line RR: $10,000
• Circa 1958 Fairmont motor car from the Seaboard Air Line RR: $10,000
• Circa 1943 Fairmont motor car from the Seaboard Air Line RR: $10,000
• Electric grade crossing warning signal with signage: $7,500
• Circa 1900 Fairbanks Velocipede: $7,500
• Circa 1915 Buda hand car: $7,500
• Working train order semaphore and mast: $6,500
• Two park benches fabricated from used wheel and axle sets: $5,000
• Industrial railway track diamond rail crossing: $4,900
• Honda “Railbike” fabricated by Missouri Pacific RR shop: $4,500
• Circa 1930s Atlantic Coast line RR baggage/coffin wagon: $4,000
• Circa 1930s Seaboard Air Line RR Baggage wagon: $3,950
• Circa 1940s material handling cart with brake assembly: $3,850
• Circa 1940s material handling cart, known as “bull” cart: $3,000
• Steam-era brass bell from Illinois Central locomotive: $2,500
• Child bench fabricated from used motor car wheel/axle set: $2,000
• U.S. Post Office mail crane used with the Railway Post Office: $1,950
• “Railrod” fabricated by welder in Perry, Okla.: $1,500
• Circa 1930s Atlantic Coast Line depot cast concrete planter box: $1,250
• Circa 1930s cast metal SAL Maintenance Limit sign: $1,200
• Circa 1930s cast metal “Locomotive Warning” sign: $1,200
• Circa late 1940s cast metal Great Western Railway sign: $1,200
• Circa 1950s spur track car stops: $1,000
• Circa 1950s derailing device: $750
• Circa 1930s railroad freight house scale: $750
• Atlantic Coast Line steam-era whistle post: $500
TOTAL VALUE: $212,500

IN OTHER NEWS
• Plant City commissioners approved spending $35,000 to add additional water and electrical lines to the Randy Larson Four-Plex to help expand the Greater Plant City Chamber of Commerce’s Pig Jam. The attendance for the annual barbecue event has grown from 5,000 to 15,000. To accommodate more barbecue participants, the facility needs additional infrastructure.

• The City Commission adopted the city’s 2013-14 Fiscal Year budget and millage rate.

• Plant City Fire Rescue donated recently an old billiards table to Marshall Middle School.

• The City Commission recognized members of Marshall Middle School’s Gentlemen’s Quest club. The club seeks to help its members maintain good grades, resist peer pressure and serve as an example of leadership for fellow classmates.

About Michael Eng | Executive Editor

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