The Ottumwa Courier

August 19, 2013

A cup of Eldon history

Courier corespondent

---- — ELDON — The first thing you notice about the Eldon Depot Museum are the bright colors. The front of the depot has a fresh coat of red paint, and the side of the building has a mural of a majestic black steam engine. If you walk right to left and back again, the train seems to run in either direction, and it's an interesting optical illusion.

Jim Bedford, 85, is president of the museum. He was born and raised in Eldon and started work for the railroad in 1959, retiring in 1990. He worked as a conductor here and ran the lines from Silvas, Ill., and back.

Bedford volunteers with other community projects, but his joy is evident in the depot he worked in for so many years.

On Saturdays, the door is open for visitors. As we walk in, Bedford points to the top of the door. There is a small plastic bag tacked to the top of the frame with a few coins in water. The homemade device is meant to ward off flies.

"That thing really works," he said. "We don't have fly problems."

There is a conference table in the museum where folks have coffee weekday mornings, and it's open to the public. Looking around at the hundreds of donated items, you can't help but notice the care taken for each — the antiques and artifacts of the Rock Island Railroad reflect a nostalgic mystery in time.

Bedford points out a large mauve purse in a glass case. In the late 1800s, women carried it on the passenger trains because the seats were hard wood. The ornate bag opened, and they could sit on the folded-out cushion and ride in comfort. A man from Ottumwa donated it and told Bedford it had been in his family for 100 years.

The Depot first began services in 1870 and was the crossroads for several lines, both freight and passenger trains. It was in 1980 that the line was shut down, and with it the main hub of Eldon, until spring 2001, when the Depot Committee was formed. The community gathered together and volunteered countless hours to resurrect the historical heart of Eldon.

Bedford shows a shelf of silver lanterns and recalls a joke about a potential catastrophe. Properly working equipment was crucial at the depot, considering the Des Moines River was just a few hundred yards away.

"A common joke among us back then was about these lanterns," Bedford explained. "The joke was if you buy a cheap $3 lantern, you'll run the train off into the river at night."

The restored crossing lights still flash at night with their red, green and yellow signals. There is a caboose outside to explore, and another volunteer built child-sized trains for the kids. There is a place for birthday parties in the train's waiting room, complete with toy trains that run a track around the room.

There is much to discover and enjoy at the Eldon Depot Museum. The simple act of caring and putting it into action is transforming the community for residents and visitors alike. Besides, where else can you drink a cup of coffee in a museum, leave the door open and not worry about flies?

The writer did not observe any flies inside the Depot during her one-hour tour, despite careful attention.