UF students help get caboose in gear

Published: Tuesday, November 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, October 31, 2005 at 10:45 p.m.
ARCHER - Head west on Archer Road for about 11 miles, past the fresh produce stand, the animal hospital and the city welcome sign.
Hang a left at the town's only traffic light and then a right after the Dollar General and the abandoned fork lift store.
It sticks out like a sore thumb; a beat-up, partially red, rotting old caboose sitting on a piece of track in the middle of City Recreational Park.
But don't see it for what it is; see it for what it could be.
With the help of eight students from UF's School of Building Construction, the antique caboose might not ever function again to round up the rear of a long train, but it will head up a community effort to engage their children in sports.
Being such a small town, Archer officials focus on engaging their youth in constructive activities, such as organized sports. But with no facilities to accommodate visitors, they have been unable to attract teams to play at their home fields, said Roberta Lopez, vice mayor and city commissioner.
"We need a place for them to eat and drink, so we decided to turn the caboose into a concession stand," Lopez said. "When it is finished, it will have a deck around it that is even handicap accessible."
The caboose will also function to preserve the tradition and characteristics of the community.
"They are doing everything they can to keep their identity and community pride," said Gene Boles, director of the UF Community Outreach Program in the Department of Urban and Regional Planning. "The caboose is unique to the city. These symbols are extremely important to small towns."
The caboose's long journey to the 1,300-person, 2.5-square mile town, where the mayor works at the corner drug store, began as a part of the Chuck Wagon, a restaurant in Gainesville on Williston Road at Interstate 75.
When the restaurant closed down a couple of years ago, the owner donated the caboose to Archer, a city with a rich tradition in rail roads, said Josie Garcia, the public works supervisor. After being transported to Archer, the caboose fell into complete disrepair.
"It had been badly vandalized, fires had been set off inside and rocks had been thrown through the windows," said James Marini, project manager and building construction graduate student. "There was extensive termite damage, and the sides were so rotten that you could put your fingers through it."
With no room in the Archer budget to restore the deteriorating caboose, building construction professor Leon Wetherington was called up to bat. Wetherington not only found interested students to volunteer but has also directly funded the $1,100 needed for the project out of his own pocket.
"Graduates of this college can go out and make a lot of money," Wetherington said. "They need to learn to give back."
Wetherington motivates his students to do community service and even requires eight hours of volunteer service for his construction techniques-superstructures course, Marini said.
"The only reason this is getting done is because of Dr. Wetherington," Marini said. "It is very difficult to get donated materials through places like Home Depot or Lowe's. If he hadn't opened up his bank account, we wouldn't be where we are."
Marini and his crew of student volunteers give up their Saturdays to makeover the tired caboose, which is about 40 percent finished, Marini said. Once finished, the caboose will have new sheathing on the sides, a new roof to prevent further leaking and a bright new red paint job.
"It's a huge job because we first had to tear down all of the bad, rotted siding," he said.
"But it has become so important to us because everyone is so appreciative. They are more than happy with the progress that is going on. Everyone in the town that sees the construction always stops and talks to us. They think it's something that really needed to be done."
In about a month's time, the volunteers have ripped off all old sheathing and repaired and painted the worst side of the caboose.
The caboose is tentatively scheduled to be finished by the end of the semester.
"This restoration is something tangible that the residents can see getting done," Marini said. "It will be a landmark of Archer and something that was done with hard work, a common interest and everyone joining together."
If you are interested in donating time or materials, visit www.jamesmarini.com/caboose.

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