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Menasha’s red caboose gets a spruce

This past summer, multiple organizations in the Menasha area worked together to patch up a red caboose residing in Menasha’s Smith Park. While this little engine will never “choo choo” down the railroad again, it has a shiny new paint job to boast about. The funds to restore the caboose came entirely from the Menasha Historical Society’s budget, costing $14,000 in repairs. Though the restoration process was expensive, it was important to the members of the historical society to preserve this piece of history.

Before being spruced up, the interior and exterior of the caboose were in need of some TLC. “The paint was all cracked and peeling and the metal parts rusted. We were faced with the choice of either maintaining it and keeping it, or letting it go,” says Dick Loehning, board member of the Menasha Historical Society.

LeksIII Construction met with city officials and the Menasha Historical society on July 31 for project planning. On Sept. 18, the caboose was wrapped in two layers of reinforced polymer on the ground, a layer all the way along the outside, and a layer in the inside to ensure a safe removal of the paint. Since the original layer of paint contained lead, its removal required the cooperation of Menasha’s Parks and Recreation, and the Menasha Health Department. “Lead being in the paint changed the whole process … there are stringent laws against lead paint removal because its toxic,” says John Leksander, owner of LeksIII Construction. “So basically we entirely encapsulated the whole thing so that it was in a big bubble.”

The project was a unique learning experience for LeksIII Construction. “We build homes, work on apartment remodels, and are involved with electrical and building contractors … we do just about everything for businesses, franchises and commercial residences,” Leksander says, explaining his typical work. “For us it was a fun and interesting project. We had never done anything like it before, and we appreciated the opportunity to be involved with it,” Leksander says.

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Despite the cost, restoring the caboose was important because it is a part of a rare breed. “In about 1970, railways did away with cabooses,” Loehning says. “Otherwise, the caboose was always at the end of each freight train. It housed the conductor who was actually the boss — when the train starts and stops, and how fast it goes. With him in the caboose was usually a switchman or break man. They traveled with the train from the beginning of its destination because they stopped along with them to pick up or drop off cars. They don’t do it that way anymore, but that’s the way they did it then.”

Menasha’s little red caboose was made in 1921 in Michigan City, Ind. and was operating for 50 years. The caboose was donated to the city of Menasha in 1971, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Wisconsin Central Railroad. Transporting the caboose needed to be handled with care. “It was trucked here in 1972. They took the wood part off the top and the wheels separate because it was so heavy,” Loehning says. At the time it was moved to Smith Park, it received new paint, making its recent facelift the first in more than 40 years.

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Menasha’s Smith Park became the location for this piece of history with the help of Geroge Banta III. “He was a big historian, and had a big interest in the railroad. He was the president of the Wisconsin Historical Society, which is a pretty prestigious job. He had the money and he knew the right kind of people, so he got the funds together to do it,” Loehning says.

Now that this important piece of history has been restored, tours can be scheduled through the Menasha Historical Society when the weather is appropriate. “There will be a Smith Park celebration on May 16 2015,” says board member, Kathy Humski. The tours will go inside of the caboose where the functions of its parts will be explained by the tour guide. Now that it has been restored, the work finished on the caboose should be good for another 20-30 years, according to Leksander.

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While the fundraising efforts of the Menasha Historical Society have allowed them to cover part of the cost, they are still working on recovering the cost of this rejuvenated red caboose. If you are interested in donating to the efforts put into its revival, wish to schedule a tour or have any questions, call the Menasha Historical Society at 840-4373 or e-mail menashahistorical@yahoo.com.

— By Jessica Morgan

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