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Boost the Caboose

By Staff | Jun 19, 2015

For more than a century the caboose was a fixture at the end of every freight train in America. Like the red schoolhouse and the red barn, the red caboose has become an American icon. There are conflicting versions of how the caboose got its name and where the word was first used. One popular story points to a Dutch derivation of the word “kabuis,” meaning a little room or hut.

Like trains in general, the caboose evokes memories of the golden age of railroading, a memory that needs to be cherished as well as preserved. That is why it is imperative that the Great Northern X-415 caboose located at the Prairie Village Museum in Rugby get’s the tender loving care that it deserves.

The Great Northern Railway built many cabooses of varying types over the years. Models like the X415 at the Prairie Village Museum were built between 1907 and 1911. The build date on the museum caboose is Nov. 2, 1911. It was moved to Rugby on November 16, 1973. The caboose was donated by the Burlington Northern Railroad Company, and came from the station in Penn, according to an article published by the Pierce County Tribune on November 28, 1973. According to the article, the caboose, weighing in excess of 16 tons, rode to its retirement, not on rails, but on a lowboy truck furnished by Pierce County and driven by George Lesmeister. The X415 caboose is a typical caboose of the era, but cabooses like this are becoming more and more rare as they succumb to time.

The Great Northern Caboose at Prairie Village Museum in Rugby is showing its age. It’s been patched and painted a few times over the past 45 years, but museum director Cathy Jelsing says restoration is needed now to prevent irreparable damage.

“During a recent Saturday morning rainstorm,” Jelsing said, “water was running through the caboose ceiling in so many places I didn’t know where to put the buckets.”

Museum grounds manager Gerald Harmel repaired and sealed the roof on the caboose cupola, but Jelsing said, “much more needs to be done.” Last fall, as Harmel was repairing window frames on the west side of the caboose, he discovered severe rot below one of the windows. The Geographical Center Historical Society board placed the caboose on the museum’s “urgent” repair list. The leaking roof this spring pushed the caboose from the urgent to the critical list.

Museum staff members are gathering estimates for replacing wood siding, rebuilding windows, sandblasting and repainting railings, repainting the caboose inside and out, reupholstering the caboose seats, and re-stenciling the Great Northern Railway logo.

During its service years the caboose served multiple functions, one of which was as an office for the conductor. Another function was that the caboose carried the brakeman and a flagman, as the train would wind its way through the countryside.

In the days before automatic air brakes, the engineer had to signal the caboose by blowing his whistle when he wanted to slow down or stop. The brakeman then would climb out and make his way forward, twisting the brake-wheels atop the cars with a stout club. Another brakeman riding the engine would work his way toward the rear. Once the train was stopped, the flagman would descend from the caboose and walk back to a safe distance with lanterns, flags and other warning devices to stop any approaching trains.

The cupola in the caboose also performed an important function. The trainmen would sit up in the cupola and watch for smoke or other signs of trouble from overheated wheel journals (called hotboxes).

Still another function of the caboose was it was a home away from home for the conductor. Conductors took great pride in decorating their car’s interior with many homey touches, including curtains and family photos. Some of the most important additions were ingredients for cooking meals that became a part of American folklore.

An office, a home, a workplace, this can all be seen when you walk through the caboose at the Prairie Village Museum. You can feel the history. It is all there so adults can reflect and children can learn, but it needs your help.

The Prairie Village Museum is going to do all it can to preserve the history of this treasured relic of days past to honor the great tradition of the railroad in Pierce County. Roger Sittter, president of the historical society shared, “we’ve launched a ‘Boost the Caboose’ campaign to raise money for the project and to match possible grant funds. At this point we don’t know what the cost will be, but we do know we want the job done right.”

Museum director Cathy Jelsing shared, when asked, do they have a specific number in mind they would like to raise to assure sufficient funds for repairs, “Our goal is to raise $5,000. Depending on material costs and how much labor is paid and volunteered, that should be enough for the renovation. If we raise more money, or if there is any money leftover, we’ll establish a savings account earmarked for future caboose repairs and maintenance. We have similar funds for the Norway House, Gronvold House and Silva School and would like to have more of our structures supported in this way.”

Jelsing was asked if they have a plan B just in case enough can’t be raised to complete restoration and she responded, “Plan B is to make repairs as funds become available.” She continued, “We were able to repair the cupola roof because historical society member Ryan Wurgler of Stillwater, Minn., heard the caboose was in trouble (from his mom and board member Edie Wurgler) and immediately sent us a check for $500.”

Cathy Jelsing also declared,” we are using previously planned events as fundraisers for the caboose. The big one coming up is our third annual Rhubarb Festival on June 28. This year all proceeds from the rhubarb samples, rhubarb cookbook, food sales and any donations to Friends of the Museum will go to Boost the Caboose.”

The caboose has become a great fixture within the museum. According to Jelsing, “During recent years the caboose has appeared in wedding photos, served as a stage backdrop for Village Fair performers, carried Museum Camp “homesteaders” to Pierce County, and served as a favorite play station for kids of all ages.” Some things in life are worth saving. The X415 red caboose at the Prairie Village Museum is one of those things. As described in an article published in the Pierce County Tribune on November 28, 1973, “the dedicated museum curator” G. U. Austin considered the addition of the red caboose as ” the most valuable addition to the many fine things already at the museum.” Mr. Austin concluded by saying, “it will become more valuable with the passing of time, of that there will be no doubt.”

Let’s make G.U. Austin’s prophecy a reality. Get involved; make a difference, let’s not let any more history fall to the decay of time. If it’s a dollar, five dollars, ten dollars, fifty dollars, a hundred or a thousand dollars just give something, be part of the solution. It matters.

In addition to financial contributions, the historical society is seeking volunteers interested in conducting research on the caboose, gathering estimates for materials and labor, locating contractors and doing the restoration work. To get involved in the Boost the Caboose campaign, stop at the museum or call 701-776-6414.

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