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Depot project looking for help

To wander through the rustic Russell Street Train Depot is like taking a stroll through time.

Propped along a wall is an impressive collection of well-worn farm tools that once served their local owner well. Another nearby display contains common turn-of-the-century household artifacts - clothes-scrubbing boards, kerosene lanterns, cooking utensils and the like - all of which help to paint a vivid portrait of what life was like for early Hernando County settlers.

By now, Hernando Heritage Museum Association executive director Virginia Jackson had hoped that the historic landmark would once again be attracting daily visitors, as it did when it was the county's major hub of commerce. But the long anticipated restoration of the 121-year-old structure has stalled, not for lack of money, but for the manpower - or womanpower - needed to coordinate and complete the work.

Jackson, who works at the depot from noon to 3 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays, believes that with the right commitment, the restoration could be completed in time for the county's 150th anniversary celebration in October.

"All the material needed to do the work is here, and we have some volunteers who would be willing to help," Jackson said. "All it would take is somebody who is handy and really cares about wanting to make sure the the job is done right."

Built in 1885 from locally milled pine, cedar and cypress wood, the depot, which served as Brooksville's main passenger and freight terminal until the late 1940s, withstood decades of neglect before CSX Railroad decided to donate it to the Hernando Historical Museum in 1986. However, with no money to initiate repairs, the structure sat empty until 2002, when the association decided to move its genealogy and information center from the overcrowded May-Stringer Museum.

In 2003, the association was awarded an $11,000 grant to begin restoration from the state Bureau of Historic Preservation, the Florida Historical Commission and the Hernando Historical Commission. About half the money was used to pay for a new roof and to install central air conditioning. To stretch the remainder of the money, the association opted to buy the rest of the necessary materials and to use volunteer labor to complete the work.

Despite some hopeful prospects, however, nothing has panned out, said Jackson. In an effort to jump-start the restoration, the museum association recently voted to spend its own money to pay a contractor to give the building a much-needed coat of paint. Of the work that remains, the most pressing task is the installation of cypress ceiling planking and lighting fixtures in the freight room, where the main exhibits will be displayed.

Jackson admits it's a huge undertaking, and not one that she or any of her mostly elderly volunteers could undertake by themselves.

"I'm 76 years old and my days of climbing up and down ladders are pretty much done," she said. "This is something that requires a lot newer blood than mine."

Once restoration is completed, Jackson envisions the building being a popular draw for history buffs as well as a vital educational center for schoolchildren.

"It was one of the most important links to our past," she said. "People coming through will be able to get an accurate look at how Hernando County developed."

Logan Neill can be reached at lneill@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1435.

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