By LeAnn R. Ralph
COLFAX — It is — as they say — “a done deal.”
Herb Sakalaucks Jr., the owner and curator of the Colfax Railroad Museum, has purchased the two-story former Wisconsin Central Depot at 416 Main Street directly south of the railroad tracks.
The June 27 tornado in Colfax that damaged the roof of the depot made it possible for Sakalaucks to purchase the building.
At the time of the tornado, the depot was the home of 92-year-old Ed Eggen, who had lived there for more than 50 years.
“This has been our goal all along. We’ve looked at this building. We knew it was here. Ed Eggen was living here. We respected that. It was his home. But we stood ready, and when there was the problem with the tornado, we stood ready to work with him,” Sakalaucks said.
“I cannot say enough nice things about the whole family. Everybody looked ahead to see what would be best for the village and for the next generation,” he said.
Mr. Eggen moved out of the depot shortly after the tornado.
Sakalaucks plans to fix the roof of the two-story depot, rewire the building, install heating and cooling units, and restore the interior to the original wainscoting.
Over the past year, the Colfax Railroad Museum has received significant donations of materials and now has over one thousand books, 500 videos, 600mm movies shot in the 1950s and 1960s, 4,000 slides and 4,000 magazines.
Part of the two-story depot will become the Colfax Railroad Museum’s library.
Sakalaucks also plans to use the west side of the building for special events, such as children’s birthday parties or as a gallery if artists want to display their work for a month or two.
Power of 10
Including the two-story depot as part of the Colfax Railroad Museum was one of the recommendations that came out of the Power of 10 Placemaking Report for Colfax completed through a grant received by the West Central Wisconsin Regional Planning Commission.
“We want to keep it so it could go on the National Register (of Historic Places). Normally they do not register buildings that have been moved. But it has been 100 years since this building was moved, and it had a purpose after (being moved) that was unusual as a railroad boarding house,” Sakalaucks said.
The two-story depot was built in the fall of 1898 and was moved to its existing location in 1913 after the stone depot had been built.
“Structurally, the building is in excellent condition. It really surprised me. It looks (bad) right now with the wallpaper peeling, but I have worked on worse projects,” Sakalaucks said.
The wallpaper is peeling upstairs in the depot because of the infiltration of rainwater after the tornado damaged the roof.
The peeling wallpaper is not a bad thing, Sakalaucks says, because it has to be torn off, anyway, to restore the wainscoting.
In most areas of the upstairs, it appears that there are between four and six layers of differently patterned wallpaper.
After the 1898 depot was moved to its existing location, it was still used by the railroad.
“The track crews used this as a boarding house and stayed here. The number of people on the track crew (decreased). The track section supervisor was living here. But then they rented half the house out to families in the area,” Sakalaucks said.
“Each section, with main depots, would have a section crew that took care of about 25 or 30 miles of track. What a crew could manage in a day,” he said.
The center part of the building was the ticket area.
“There is nothing left in here of the railroad usage as a depot. The bump-out (indicates) the ticket agent’s office and the windows, where the ticket agent would sit at his desk and would take the orders. But this is actually a smaller ticket area than (at the stone depot),” Sakalaucks noted.
“It was a huge operation coming out of here in the 1890s. In a six-month period, they were shipping 700 freight cars out. Potatoes. Rutabagas. Corn. Livestock. Lumber,” he said.
“Originally, this building sat where the stone depot is now. It was built in 1898 and moved in 1913. They jacked this one up and set it aside and built a temporary platform while they built the new building. Once they were done, they brought it across the tracks and set it up here. There is no basement,” Sakalaucks explained.
Rihn Construction out of Colfax will be doing the work on the building.
“It is probably one of the older depots left in Wisconsin. Mineral Point has the oldest depot. This is getting up there and is probably in the top ten,” Sakalaucks said.
“Colfax probably has the highest per capita of railroad stations in the state. One for every 500 people,” he said.
Colfax is unique in that the village still has two of the three train depots that were built during its history.
The reason that there are only two out of three is that first depot burned down in August of 1898.
“The depot agent came out after the passenger train left and found the platform on fire,” Sakalaucks said.
The fire destroyed the Wisconsin Central Depot, the ticket agent’s house, and started several other buildings on fire.
The quick reaction of village residents saved the other buildings but could not save the depot and the ticket agent’s house.
The fire provided the catalyst for village residents to dig in a water line on Main Street to use for fighting fires in the fall of 1898 and to form the village’s first fire department.
“I’m looking at doing something for the village (with the railroad museum) that will bring people here. That’s been our goal all along. I know we’ve had people complain about stuff looking crappy. And I can’t disagree with them because you are bringing old stuff in, and you’ve got to take the time to find the parts and to find the bodies that are willing to do the work. And that’s the biggest thing is to find the bodies to do the work,” Sakalaucks said.
“We look at this as a trust for the museum. The biggest thing right now is we’ve got to raise the funds to be able to do this. The purchase price (was reasonable). We can bring in sweat equity to keep the costs down as much as we can. But there are going to be costs involved. And we need help,” he said.
Work to be done
Sakalaucks estimates that it will cost about $25,000 to complete the major work necessary on the two-story depot.
“There will be a lot of painting and sanding and scraping,” he said, noting that he would be happy to have any and all volunteers who would want to help with the building.
The Colfax Railroad Museum is set up as a 501.C3 nonprofit organization.
“We had someone locally question it at one point and we showed him the IRS papers and everything. We went through that whole big, long process to become a 501.C3,” Sakalaucks said.
The Colfax Railroad Museum is similar to the Wilson Place Museum in Menomonie in that it is privately owned but it is open to the public.
“We will be working over the winter to get it cleaned up. Our first push will be getting the archive room set up so we can get materials out from where they are at and get them into a better storage area. It will free up some of the clutter in our display space in the museum,” Sakalaucks said.
The two-story depot has actually survived two tornados.
“This one survived in the 1958 tornado without damage, but it lost the garage. Which may have been how the (stone) depot lost the freight house because something hit it,” Sakalaucks said.
Standing outside the depot building on Main Street, it is readily apparent that trucks going over the railroad tracks make a great deal of racket. And yet, inside the depot building, the sound of traffic is not at all noticeable.
“They built this building to stand next to railroad tracks. It had to be solid and soundproofed with all of the trains going by,” Sakalaucks said.
In the future, Sakalaucks said he hopes to be able to hold events at the depot — perhaps something like “Christmas at the Depot.”
“You can always get to this building, even in the winter,” he said.
The area in front of the Colfax Railroad Museum becomes a snow storage site during the winter.
The two-story building was turned 180 degrees from the way it faces now, with the bump-out/ticket agent’s office facing the railroad tracks in its original location where the stone depot is now situated.
Sakalaucks said the entryway was most likely added in 1913 when the building was moved to Main Street.
The garage will most likely be used as a shop or storage area.
Museums are always working together to exchange parts. What one cannot use, another museum can use, Sakalaucks said.
“That’s why we hold parts here,” he said.
“After having been gone for ten years, we are trying to catch up (on maintenance and improvements) to the museum,” Sakalaucks said, noting that he is hoping to get some painting done on the railroad cars this fall, including work on the mail car.
“Little by little, we will get there,” Sakalaucks said.
The Colfax Railroad Museum is open Wednesday through Sunday, from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. through October 31.
Tours can be arranged at other times to accommodate a family schedule or visitors from out of town.
Tours for larger groups can be arranged throughout the year.
To schedule a special tour of the Colfax Railroad Museum or to find out more information, call (715) 225-0688, or visit www.colfaxrrmuseum.org.