PLANT CITY – If R.W. “Bob” Willaford had any second thoughts about his decision to donate his extensive railroad collection to the city, they disappeared recently.
Willaford and his wife Felice were passing by the old depot now named in his honor when he saw a mother taking a photo of her young son in front of the caboose he gave to the city.
“I told my wife, ‘that’s what it’s all about,’’’ he said. “Other people need to enjoy this, it shouldn’t be locked up in some barn.”
Willaford’s donation of a caboose, engine and railroad memorabilia is playing a key role in efforts to turn downtown into a destination for rail buffs from around the country and beyond. The other centerpiece of the tourism push is construction of a two-story train viewing platform on the other side of tracks from the depot.
The city and business leaders are inviting the community to come out and celebrate the projects’ completion in a big way. Railfest, Feb. 7-8, will include a dedication ceremony, entertainment and children’s activities.
City Commissioner Mike Sparkman, who helped spearhead the improvements, including fundraising, hopes the festival becomes an annual event.
“We have a lot to show off. It’s turned out even better than I envisioned,” Sparkman said.
Railroads have always been an important part of Plant City, which was named in honor of Henry B. Plant, who brought rail lines through in the 1880s. The depot, Union Station, was a stop for passenger trains from 1909 until it closed about 44 years ago. The building was donated to the city in the 1970s.
It was natural that the city try to take a page out of its own history as it tries to boost tourism, Sparkman said.
The construction of a train viewing platform was first proposed in 2008 by business leaders including Benito “Benny” Labrano Jr. of Labrano Designs. But the project languished until CSX donated $25,000 to jumpstart fundraising in December 2012.
The platform, completed in November, was paid for with $220,000 in donations.
Sparkman convinced Willaford to donate a railroad collection valued at more than $200,000 that the retired enginer had accumulated over a half century. The smaller pieces in his collection, such as a handcar and crossing signals, are on display inside the depot building.
Grocer Lee Williams, who has loved trains since childhood, said Plant City is a favorite of rail viewing buffs because rail lines crisscross at the depot.
“It’s a very busy place for trains. You don’t find that in a lot of places,” said Williams, a former chamber of commerce chairman.
Railfest festivities start 6:30 p.m. Feb. 7 with the screening of movies at the parking lot next to the depot. “Thomas & Friends: King of the Railway,” will be shown from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m., and “The Great Locomotive Chase,” from 8 to 10 p.m. Free popcorn and ice cream will be served while supplies last, city Special Events Manager Deanna Hurley said.
The Feb. 8 festivities run from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. including a dedication ceremony at 11 a.m. and lunch available for purchase from 11:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Activities during the day include museum tours, children’s games such as bounce houses and face painting and more. Free strawberries from Parkesdale will be handed out from 9 a.m. until the supply of 25 flats runs out, Hurley said.
Roads around the depot will be closed during Railfest, including Palmer Street from Reynolds Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard; and J. Arden Mays Boulevard and Drane Street from Palmer to Collins Street. Motorists heading to Railfest will be able to reach the viewing platform parking lot via Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Palmer.
For information, go to live. www.plantcityrailfest.com.