PLANT CITY – Retired engineer R.W. “Bob” Willaford spent a half-century collecting railroad memorabilia that includes a train engine and caboose.
At age 75, he wants to ensure that his collection can be enjoyed in his hometown by generations to come.
“It’s a part of American history,” he said. “I don’t want to sell it. I want everyone to be able to see it.”
Willaford formally agreed last week to donate nearly 30 items of railroad machinery and equipment to the city to display at the old train station at 102 S. Palmer St. In exchange, the city is renaming the depot the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum.
An appraiser set the collection’s value at more than $200,000, but city officials say it’s priceless to their efforts to establish downtown as a destination for railroad buffs.
“Most people don’t realize our history ties back to the railroad and (train magnate) H.B. Plant,” City Commissioner Rick Lott said.
Willaford said he started his collection in 1964 but the hobby really took off with his 1999 retirement from CSX after a 42-year career. Many of the items were rescued from salvage yards.
The 1963 caboose and 1942 locomotive will be placed on tracks that will be installed in front of the depot. Other parts of the collection, which includes a 1930s railroad freight house scale and a 1915 handcar, will be displayed inside the depot building.
The caboose and engine will be a prominent part of that part of downtown. They will compliment a $200,000 train observation deck under construction just south of the 104-year-old depot.
City officials say they hope the observation platform and railroad display will attract thousands of train buffs each year to Plant City. Other cities, including Folkston, Ga., have become popular destinations by catering to tourists who like to watch trains pass by.
Tracks crisscross downtown and dozens of trains go through each day.
City Commissioner Bill Dodson cast the only vote in dissent in accepting Willaford’s collection – although Dodson said his issue was only with the placement of the caboose and locomotive.
Dodson said the vehicles will block the view of a part of the depot, take up valuable green space and forever change the downtown landscape. He asked for more time to review the plans.
City Manager Greg Horwedel said the best place was in front of the depot, and that the engine and caboose will be located to one side of the property to minimize the visual impact.
It will cost the city about $12,000 to install the tracks and move in the caboose, engine and rest of the collection, Horwedel said. The work should be completed in November, about the same time as the observation platform.
The donation was first announced in June but the agreement with Willaford wasn’t ready for city approval until last week.
Mayor Mary Mathis said she was grateful to Willaford for his generosity.
“There are not many people who would want to give that up,” she said.