Some people collect model trains. Robert "R.W." Willaford collects trains. • A 1964 caboose, once part of the now-defunct Seaboard Air Line Railroad, sits on a stretch of track in his front yard. Just opposite: a 1942 Whitcomb locomotive, sandblasted and painted a crisp yellow, purple and silver. • Elsewhere in the yard are a collection of gate crossings and posts, an early 20th century baggage cart, a whistle post, benches made from train axles and a mustard-yellow motor cart to ferry maintenance workers along tracks. • What started as vocation for Willaford, a retired train engineer, has turned into a post-career love of all things train-related.
He caught the collecting bug 10 years ago and in 2005 rescued the caboose — along with some track and switches — from a weed-strewn rail yard between Wildwood and Leesburg. It was destined for a scrap yard in Georgia when Willaford showed up with a checkbook.
He won't say how much he paid or what the restored caboose — fire-engine red on the outside and sea-foam green inside — is worth now. One thing is clear: It isn't for sale.
"I've had plenty of offers but turned them down," he said. "A lot of people have money, but not everybody's got a caboose."
If his wife, Felice, didn't know what she was getting into when meeting Willaford, she got the message on Dec. 9, 2000, when the couple wed in an Amtrak dining car at Milepost 832, between Auburndale and Haines City.
"It's his thing," she says, "and I like helping him with it."
Willaford, 75, says he's trying to preserve a chapter of American history. He's also putting smiles on children's faces. Every Easter and Christmas, he and his wife share their collection with the public, giving talks and letting children and parents explore the caboose.
"There are a lot of needy kids in this community, and this is something these kids look forward to," he said. "We've been getting calls the last two months from people asking if we're going to have it open again this year."
In its day, the Seaboard caboose signified the best in train technology: twin elevated cupolas with reversible chairs, a tiny bathroom, and a kitchenette with a sink and primitive refrigerator chilled by hunks of ice.
Also on display are lanterns, an old radio and other devices. A mannequin models a vintage dark-blue conductor's uniform with four brass buttons. The right sleeve is frayed at the cuff from years of use. Willaford figures the uniform's first owner used that hand to punch the tickets.
"A lot of guys buy and sell things," said Willaford, who retired in 1999 after 42 years as a train engineer. "I'm not a speculator. If I see something I like, I buy it to keep."
The caboose is open today and Saturday for children to meet Santa and get their pictures taken. The photos are free, and there's no admission. The annual event, in cooperation with Operation Lifesaver, a highway-rail crossing safety program, runs from 2 to 6 p.m. at 908 Joe McIntosh Road in Plant City.
Last year, 350 children showed up.
"When you see a child's eyes light up, there's nothing better than that," Willaford said.
Rich Shopes can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 661-2454.