To be sure, the old Santa Fe caboose had seen happier days. Once a rolling home for conductors on cross-continental freight journeys, it had since fallen prey to the ravages of disuse. Water leaked through the ceiling. Ruined drywall, installed during a stint as a tourist information booth, had collapsed onto a mildewing carpet. Rust had eaten through parts of the unit as multicolored layers of paint chipped off its sides.
“We just had a picture to go by,” said Jerry Boshears. “That’s all we had.”
But that was all they needed to give the retired railcar another chance at life at its new home in back of the on Second Street. Boshears is the husband of Dorothy Boshears, director of the museum. Since purchasing the caboose in 2003, the institution has been working on and off to revamp the carriage. Today, it sports new windows, a brightly restored paint job and freshly varnished yellow pine floor and walls.
The smaller details haven’t been forgotten either. The sleeping areas inside for the conductor, the viewing chair in the cupola, a small sink and even an old stove have been added. Replica kerosene lamps light the interior with incandescent bulbs.
Most of the work was done by Jerry with some help and materials donated to the effort by others.
“It’s been restored inside and out,” said Dorothy. “It looks just like it did the day it came off of the line.”
The effort received its biggest boost just last year, an infusion of cash from a local branch of the International Questers organization. The chapter, based in the Heritage of Hawk Ridge area of Lake St. Louis, had long had links with the museum, having adopted it as a project. More recently they’d begun raising funds to complete the caboose renovation doing everything from a spring fashion show raffle to a silent St. Patrick’s Day auction which brought in over $1,000.
By May, the group’s efforts were enough to convince its parent organization to kick in more than $4,500 to the cause at its international convention in Phoenix.
“We were thrilled to pieces,” said Pat Goddard, a member of the local group. “We were the only Missouri chapter to get a grant this year.”
The Questers backed the interior work while exterior renovations were funded by supporters of the museum.
Goddard said that Frenchtown has a special place in her heart. She ran an antique shop there for a decade and a half and noted that the area can sometimes be overshadowed by nearby Main Street. She hopes the caboose will help boost its image.
“I’ve been in love with Frenchtown since 1980,” she said.
The restored caboose was already opened during the holidays for a period but now that it’s fully finished it will be ready for patrons full-time. The grand opening event is set for April 16 from noon to 4 p.m.
“They’ll be face painting for the kids. We’ll have cookies and punch,” said Dorothy Boshears. “It’s just to let people know we are there. The Frenchtown Museum is the best-kept secret in St. Charles.”
Goddard said one local Quester will even be on hand to tell stories to the children about her grandfather who worked as a conductor on the railroad. That will be appropriate since the purpose of the caboose will be to educate the next generation about the history of railroading.
“I think it’s pretty neat that she’s got a little bit of history there,” Goddard said.
Not that adults can’t learn from it as well. Jerry Boshears said that he knew little about the operations of cabooses, which began going out of use in the 1970s, until he began putting one back together. The Boshears are still investigating the history of the railcar, which was built in 1929, but it may have local roots. The ACF Industries facility a few blocks from the museum could have built the caboose or it may have been manufactured by ACF in Chicago. After its retirement it was left on the West Coast for a period before coming to St. Charles for use as a privately-run tourist information booth. Dorothy Boshears said it had been vacant for about a decade by the time the Frenchtown Museum bought it.
Regardless of its origins, the relic has found a new home.
“With the date approaching, there seems to be so much interest,” said Goddard. “I think that’s just wonderful. It’s also wonderful for Frenchtown.”