By Kathy L. Collins
Railroad enthusiasts can now see authentic railroad memorabilia at the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum housed at Union Station Depot in historic downtown Plant City. The museum, which was founded in late 2013, is the perfect venue for a school or day care field trip. Students from the First Baptist Church of Plant City found this to be true when they were the first school to take a field trip there.
Robert and Felice Willaford donated a portion of their personal collection valued at $250,000. The Willafords had been collecting railroad memorabilia since the mid 1960’s. The items donated included a caboose and an engine. All of the items had been lovingly restored and are now on view for the public to see and treasure.
In addition to the memorabilia, a railroad viewing tower platform and tower were built. All of this was accomplished through grants from CSX and private donations.
Willaford is a native of Plant City. For over 40 years, he worked for the railroads until he retired in 1999. He started collecting railroad items in 1964. “I saw history disappearing when railroad items started to go to scrap,” said Willaford. He purchased the caboose in 2005 and the locomotive engine in 2012. For years the railroad memorabilia was kept at his house and he allowed visitors to see it.
Michael Sparkman, a Plant City Commissioner, approached Willaford and eventually persuaded him to donate the items. “Once they built the tower and the platform, I saw a good opportunity to put all this stuff in one place where others could enjoy it,” said Willaford.
Sparkman said, “Railroad enthusiasts have come to the museum and seen items that they have never seen anywhere else.” Willaford added, “This is authentic railroad memorabilia, not replicas. This stuff was used on the rail. It is real living history.”
The Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum is located at 102 N. Palmer St. in historic downtown Plant City. The museum is open Tuesday through Thursday from 12 Noon-4 p.m. and on Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. It is free to the public.
Schools and day cares interested in scheduling a visit and tour with Willaford should contact Sue Gales at firstname.lastname@example.org.
For more information on the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum and Union Station, visit www.plantcitygov.com.