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Relics of depot recall days of bustle

Eight decades ago, wagons laden with citrus and timber pulled up to the warehouse doors on the west side of the old Dade City train depot and workers unloaded the goods, bound for elsewhere.

Perhaps it was such a worker who left behind the initials "F.V.C." and the date 7-31-15 on one of the warehouse doors.

Bills of sale still stuck to large wooden doors on the east side of the depot show that in the 1920s and 1930s, Havana was the destination for cattle shipped from Dade City along the Atlantic Coastline Railroad.

Standing in the warehouse section today, a person can easily imagine what a bustling depot it must have been.

In a year or so, it won't take imagination to picture the 1912 red brick depot as a lively place. If all goes as planned, that's exactly what it will be.

A $250,000 grant from federal and state sources will be used to refurbish the depot, and by the end of next summer it could be ready for use. The depot is at the end of Meridian Avenue, along the U.S. 98 bypass.

While many Dade City residents are excited about the renovation, the grant raises a question: Just what in the world should be done with the depot?

Gail Hamilton, executive director of the Downtown Dade City Main Street Group, which encourages and works with businesses, makes the one point on which everyone seems to agree:

"We need to use it daily," she says, rather than "fix it up and lock the door and drive away and say, "Don't we have a pretty building?' "

The board of Downtown Dade City Main Street voted last week to propose the depot as a visitor's center with fixed displays detailing the area's history. Vending machines would provide soft drinks and snacks for travelers.

"Some of the plans that have been forwarded have been a little ambitious," says board president Kurt Browning. "What we're saying is let us start with something a little more modest. If we do that, maybe a year down the line we say, "Gosh, this is working' or we say, "This isn't working, let's think about bringing in a business (to lease space).' "

A recent public hearing brought out mostly the same folks who always turn out to give their opinions. To encourage those not likely to attend a commission meeting, city officials are asking anyone with an opinion to call the city manager's office at (904) 523-5050 from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday.

Early on in the renovation project, a popular suggestion was putting a restaurant in the warehouse end of the 6,000-square-foot depot. Since then, that idea has been downplayed because the depot has just 17 parking spaces. Moreover, some have wondered if adding a kitchen and all the other fixings needed for a restaurant would restrict its future use.

Using the space for a bookstore has been mentioned. Browning said that came up during the board meeting and was envisioned as a "Barnes & Noble junior" with a cafe section where coffee, soft drinks and light food would be sold. The visitor's center also has been an enduring suggestion.

City Manager Richard Diamond is sending along such suggestions in a report to the Florida Department of Transportation, one of the agencies that has provided funds for the grant. DOT will oversee the project, bringing in the architect and approving the plans.

Diamond has remained non-committal on the subject of what should go in to the refurbished depot. There's still plenty of time to make such decisions, and he seems intent on allowing residents to have a big say in what happens to the building.

Because the building is on the National Register of Historic Places, thin walls that break part of the interior into offices will be removed, and the depot will be restored, as much as possible, to its original condition.

CSX Transportation, which owned the building until the city bought it for the renovation, used one of those offices. CSX recently moved into office space at city hall. City officials hope Amtrak will move into one of the depot offices on the building's north end.

The Downtown Dade City Main Street Group might move into the other office.

The 22,039 passengers who have used Amtrak service out of Dade City since 1990 have been subject to the elements because the depot is locked. There's one pay phone and a bench outside without much protection from foul weather.

Greeting a reporter and photographer waiting in the afternoon heat to take a tour of the building, city planner Doug Sanders laughed and said, "Now you see why we need to fix the depot."

Sanders proves an animated guide. He mentions the bills of sale stuck to the door. He points out initials, dates and messages left behind on the warehouse doors and walls.

"We're hopeful that all of these markings can stay," he says.

He leads the way to a door on the west side of the building where rail passengers used to walk up for tickets. It still has a Seaboard Coastline Railroad sticker on it. For years, the door was covered with plywood.

"The plywood perfectly preserved the door all these years," Sanders says.

An old wall telephone in the office across the hall connected directly to nearby depots. There is also an old desk that was left behind. Sanders isn't sure if it will stay or go when the renovation occurs.

When the Amtrak trains pull in, the building shakes like crazy, Sanders says. But it has withstood the test of time remarkably well.

A Department of Transportation study found that except for a loading dock added to the south end of the depot, the structure is in good condition. That is due in part to three-brick thick exterior walls, Sanders says.

The DOT plan calls for removing the loading dock, which isn't original to the building. Besides interior walls that were added to create office space, the depot mostly looks as it did in 1912.

It still bears the floor plan designed for those segregated days. There no longer is any indication which is which, but one waiting room and set of restrooms was for white people only. Both were the same size.

That aspect of the depot will be a historical footnote as it is renovated. Work is expected to begin in the spring.

"It's exciting. We're just thrilled that we're moving along on the project," Browning says, adding that he is pleased the depot has aged so well.

"It's just beautiful," he says. "It's just absolutely gorgeous in a historical sense."

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