PLANT CITY - Children from the First Baptist Learning Center and Preschool were the first school group to take the city up on its offer to tour the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum.
The children were treated to a tour of a vintage caboose and displays of railroad memorabilia at the old depot at 102 N. Palmer St.
“The museum was dedicated in February of this year so we hope to have lots of field trips in the future,” city Special Events Manager Deanna Hurley said.
About 50 children ages 4 and 5 toured the caboose and three rooms in the museum called “stations.” Each group was also given a brief lesson in railroad history from Robert Willaford, a Plant City native and retired train engineer who donated the artifacts in the museum.
“This is really what we put the program in here for,” the 76-year-old said of the youngsters.
The depot closed in the 1970s and was donated to the city.
Students were guided through their tour by volunteer mother-son duo Susan and Evan Gales, who provided students with educational information of the 28 items donated to the museum by Willaford and valued at more than $230,000.
City Commissioner Mike Sparkman said the museum and a nearby train viewing platform are expected to boost tourism and will help educate children about the city’s railroad heritage. The city was named in honor of railroad magnate Henry B. Plant, who brought tracks to the city in the 1880s.
Sparkman said that so far the museum has attracted a steady stream of visitors.
“Even now we have an average of 25 a day,” he said.
“As it continues to grow we think it’s going to be good,” he said, adding that new additions are planned for the growing museum.
Willaford said they wanted to make the museum accessible to visitors of all ages while retaining the items’ authenticity.
“I’m the kind of person I want everything original,” he said. “There’s a lot of history here.”
Items donated by Willaford and his wife Felice include two motor cars from the 1950s, a locomotive and a 1963 caboose.
Willaford formerly stored the memorabilia at his Plant City home.
“I’m very, very well pleased with what I see out here because I feel like people can see it; it’s not sitting in a barn collecting dust.”
The museum is open noon to 4 p.m. Monday through Wednesday and 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. The museum stays open until 8 p.m. during the monthly Bike Fest and Strawberry Classic Car Show.
For more information or to schedule tours call (813) 719-6989.