Foley Caboose Club members bring a little Foley history to train display

Lifestyle Editor
Posted 5/17/23

Trains no longer transport Baldwin County's produce and passengers, but history lives through the Foley Railroad Museum and Model Train Exhibit. Members of the Caboose Club recently completed work on …

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Foley Caboose Club members bring a little Foley history to train display


Trains no longer transport Baldwin County's produce and passengers, but history lives through the Foley Railroad Museum and Model Train Exhibit.

Members of the Caboose Club recently completed work on a historical building to add to the train exhibit.

The Model Train Exhibit is an impressive sight. The O scale model train display covers 1,2000 square feet; the size of some homes. The scene that the Caboose Club has set is reminiscent of the 1950s with period cars and people.

It is a neat sight, but history buffs of Baldwin County may notice the display is not a replica of Foley.

In 2005, former city councilperson Charlie Ebert Jr. received a call from an attorney for Alan Goldman, who wished to find a home for a large O-gauge train layout. Goldman wished to donate it to a city that would display it for the public. Ebert went to see the train and then approached Foley City Council to accept the donation as a foundation for a large exhibit adjacent to Foley's historic train depot.

Council voted in favor of the proposal, and a 3,200-square-foot building was completed to house the train display for $332,000. Members of the Caboose Club estimated it took over 6,000 labor hours to create the exhibit. It opened to the public in February 2007.

The Caboose Club started informally with a group of retirees who enjoyed trains and met regularly. Once the train display was acquired, the group of volunteers set to work and built the train display. The club operates and maintains the display and is happy to answer questions from visitors young and old. While the club has over 20 members, only about eight are active, so the club is always looking for new members.

Over the years, the club has added little touches of Foley with a replica of the train depot, a working machine shop and a replica of the L. Irwin & Sons Southland Potatoes' rail side potato shed. Caboose Club member Bob Irwin helped create the model of his father and grandfather's business. He is also one of the members that built the newest addition to the display, a scale model of the Foley Hotel building.

The Foley Hotel building, now referred to as the Stacey Drugstore building was built in the 1920s and opened in 1927. On the top floor, the hotel had over 40 rooms (historical information on the number of rooms varies from 50 to 40) and the first floor was home to several businesses including May's grocery store, the Palm Theater and a Western Union.

The inspiration to build the Foley Hotel came from a 1940s postcard.

"It all started with this postcard that I bought on eBay," Irwin said. "I've lived here all my life, and we just decided we ought to have a few buildings that represent some of the buildings in Foley. So, we went to work. It looks pretty much today like it did then except for a few signs."

Club members wanted the building to be as accurate as possible. They measured the hotel building and set it to the 1:48 scale of the O-gauge train. They also studied historic photos of the building through the years to get all the details, from screen doors to the filigree on the signs. Club member Robert "Doc" Holiday said they had to decrease the size of the building so it would fit into the display.

While the Foley Hotel sits in the farthest reaches of the train display, one can see the great time and detail that went into the build. Two club members who are hobby 3D printers used their equipment to create the windows (there are over 100), signs, doors, columns and other details. Irwin used lightweight foam core to construct the building and the team added lighting.

Caboose Club member Alton McCullough's grandmother owned a sewing shop in the Foley Hotel building. Irwin said they found out her name and have plans to make a sign to add as a surprise to McCullough. The sign will be one of many details most people will not notice, but the club likes to attend to every detail seen or unseen.

Holiday is still trying to determine the reasoning behind building such a detailed and beautiful building in such a small and rural town.

"The thing that fascinates me is why they built such a gorgeous building. Why didn't they build a warehouse that had rooms in it?" Holiday said. "You wonder how in 1926 a bunch of immigrants from the North came down here and had the strength and sensitivity to put up a building like that that's still gorgeous today."

According to the club's research, the building was financed by seven or eight investors who spent $200,000. estimated that much in 1926 would equate to over $3.3 million today.

Irwin, who is a seventh- or eighth-generation Foley farmer, said he wished he would not have waited so long to add more history to the display. He and Holiday both said they are hoping to add more historic elements, but they need more active club members.

"We are debating and trying to decide if we are going to build a model of the Holmes Hospital Museum and, as I called it, Crosby Drug. It was Crosby Drug when I was a kid, and for many years it was Wright Drug," Irwin said. "We are probably going to go with the Holmes Hospital building, and it will go to the right of this building."

Irwin said they also plan to add the old Foley Bakery and Foley Hardware, store which was across the street from the Foley Hotel.

"One of the really fun things about doing all of this is when we want to research or ask questions, we can probably stop somebody on the street," Holiday said about the number of lifelong residents Foley has to this day.

While Holiday and Irwin spoke of the future additions they have planned, they also emphasized the need for more Caboose Club members for the plans to come to fruition. Holiday said the work put into building new buildings requires several members' attention and focus, but they also need to have enough volunteers to run the trains and answer questions. So, if you have a love of trains, talking with 30,000 visitors a year or your spouse wants you out of the house three days a week, this club is for you.

The Foley Railroad Museum is open Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The Model Train Exhibit is open Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The museum is at 125 E. Laurel Ave., Foley. Both the museum and model train exhibit are free to enjoy, but donations are happily excepted.