SHIRLEY — After a 45-year career as a locomotive engineer, Maurice Lewman couldn’t help but swing by his hometown of Shirley this week to watch a century-old caboose find a new home in the community’s historic center.
“I’d like to have a nickle for every time I went through this town on a train,” said Lewman, 85, of Knightstown. Then a smirk: “Well, a dollar would be better.”
Camera in hand, Lewman was among about 20 people who gathered on Railroad Street on Tuesday as the caboose rode into town on the back of a semitrailer and found a spot on a stretch of tracks adjacent to the depot museum.
The last of its kind from the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, the wooden caboose was bought with funds the Shirley Historical Society has been raising for more than a year. The society hopes to restore the caboose to its original glory and make it part of the display next to the depot museum, country doctor’s office and Octagon House.
“We call this ‘Historical Square,’” said Joan Cupp, a member of the historical society. “So many people have no idea of the history here.”
It’s a history rooted in the discovery of natural gas in the late 1870s at Trenton Field, 40 miles to the north. Cheap fuel spawned factories, foundries, railroads and jobs. By 1903, Shirley’s population had boomed to about 1,700, according to “History of Hancock County, Indiana: Its People, Industries and Institutions.”
When the Trenton gas field stopped producing in 1910, industrialists turned to coal, and Shirley residents commuted to automotive factories in Anderson and New Castle.
But the rich rail history continued for decades. Shirley was one of the few communities in Indiana to have what was called a diamond crossover, where a train heading east-west could switch and go north-south, said Jerry Duke, president of the Shirley Historical Society.
That meant plenty of rail traffic to ogle — enough to keep the community’s children occupied in the days before television.
‘So many wonderful memories’
Cupp grew up in Shirley, and her father, Herbert “Peggy” Collier, was foreman of the rail line known as the Big 4. That meant occasional special privileges back in the 1940s. Cupp said she recalls the train’s conductor allowing her to ride on the back of the caboose and watching the tracks whiz by beneath her on one of her many trips to Ohio with her dad.
“It was thrilling then, at 11 years old,” Cupp said.
Now at 83, watching the caboose come into town was just as thrilling.
“When I saw it, I just started crying because it brings back so many wonderful memories,” she said.
The caboose, built between 1910 and 1920, has been in Carthage resident Tom Allison’s collection for years. Allison ran a vintage railroad between Knightstown and Carthage, but declining ridership and increasing expenses forced the railroad to shut down in 2013.
The Shirley Historical Society bought the caboose for $5,000 and spent $10,000 for new tracks and to transport the car to the community.
It all came through grants and donations, Duke said, and the society is going to need even more help in the near future to remodel the caboose.
But he has high hopes.
“We’ll probably end up making it just like it was originally,” he said.
The caboose project is part of a revitalization of sorts for the community, which now has a population of less than 900.
Shirley residents have been making strides to improve the look and feel of the town by adding banners, park benches, community festivals and more. Through outreach through social media, the Shirley Visionary Group has been working to maintain the small-town feel while keeping the community thriving.
‘A piece of history’
A crew of 15 or so history buffs are helping out, too. On top of the caboose project, the Shirley Historical Society recently replaced the sagging floor of the 1893 depot museum, and its doors are about to reopen this month for the first time since 2011.
And it was the depot Tuesday that got Lewman and Cupp lost in a flood of memories. Stepping away from the show of the caboose for a few minutes, the pair dug through boxes of old photographs, many of which have to be sorted before the museum reopens May 16.
“Oh, I knew this stuff was somewhere if you could just find it,” Lewman said, beaming at a 1904 photograph of the depot and reading off a few names he recognized.
“You’re not gonna let loose of that, but I want to put it in the display case,” Cupp teased.
From curious onlookers to those who played a vital role in the project, people who gathered to watch the caboose coming into town were excited.
“It brings back a piece of history,” Theresa Ebbert said.
Nikki Ray, 65, said she remembers her brother hopping onto moving trains as they rolled through the community decades ago. Today, she loves the idea of historic pieces gracing the center of Shirley.
“It’s a small town; … anything you can do to entice people to come here is great,” she said.
Lewman, who vividly recalls the bitterly cold winters aboard the trains, said watching the caboose arrive was more than special.
“It’s what made this town,” Lewman said. “This was quite a railroad.”
Shirley residents have been trying to revitalize the community with festivities and community projects, including bringing the historic caboose to town. Here’s a look at other upcoming events:
Saturday: Tea party at the Octagon House, 3-5 p.m.
May 16: Strawberry Festival and reopening of the depot museum
Aug. 15: Shirley Founders Day, celebrating the 125th anniversary of the community
To help restore the town’s historic caboose, send checks to the Shirley Historical Society at P.O. Box 93, Shirley, or call president Jerry Duke at 317-294-5582.
“When I saw it, I just started crying because it brings back so many wonderful memories.”
Joan Cupp, a member of the Shirley Historical Society, on putting a classic caboose on display