Many will remember the book “The Little Engine That Could,” the story of a group of toys determined to reach the boys and girls on the other side of the hill. When the engine on the train carrying them breaks down, the toys are relentless in finding an engine that will pull their train over the mountain. They ask the shiny new engine, the passenger engine, andthe freight engine to help. Those engines all decline, but the toys do not give up. When a Little Blue Engine, used only for switching trains in the yard, comes along she is inspired by the toys’ pleas for help, and she agrees to give it a try. Her mantra, “I think I can. I think I can…” carries them to their destination. The Northern Pacific Passenger Depot in Wadena is being restored, and Kay Browne has been the little engine that could. Encouraged by others, Browne worked hard to get the historic building known simply as The Depot, beautifully restored. Hop aboard for a journey down the tracks of memory lane. . . The first stop is The History “Rail service to Wadena was established in 1871,” said Browne. “It was an active line. Wadena is said to have handled more baggage than anywhere between St. Paul and Fargo, ND.” In fact, during the 12 months from 1882 to 1883, Northern Pacific reported 17,337 passengers had arrived or departed from Wadena. Next stop is the year 1915, when the new depot was built in Wadena. “This is one magnificent building,” said a nine year old girl as she watched the bricks being assembled. (That little girl grew up to be my Aunt Marie) The building exuded beauty inside and out. “Its brick structure is a good example of early 20th Century standard design,” said Browne. The deeply-pitched hipped roof and overhanging eaves give the building an unique appearance. Original features such as the double hung windows, station equipment, enameled tile wainscoting and terrazzo floor remain intact. It is the only railroad passenger depot standing in Wadena County and is listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. The depot stands close to an attractive bandstand which, together with its location in a city park, form the focal point in an open area of trees, green space and brick. Chugging along to 1997. Stores on main street Wadena were starting to close. A group of concerned citizens, worried about the future of their town, formed the Wadena Revitalization Committee to see what could be done to stop the downward spiral of their town. Committee after committee emerged, energized by many committed individuals. Kay Browne was among those dedicated people. Kay grew up near the railroad tracks in New York Mills. Trains have always brought familiarity and comfort to her. Her grandma owns the Whistle Stop Inn in New York Mills and Kay’s great-grandfather was an engineer for the Northern Pacific. Stories have it that he engineered the train that carried Franklin D. Roosevelt on his campaign trail. Kay’s dad also owned a downtown store in New York Mills. All of this DNA combined to inspire Kay’s passion to preserve the past. The Depot had stood vacant for over 20 years, having last served as a passenger station in the early 1970’s. Windows had been broken, boarded up; the gradual decay of this historic building made her heartsick. Her cure was to work up to 60 hours a week in grass root committees, campaigns, and councils to assure that the depot would be restored to its original dignity. Kay credits many volunteers and organizations, from single individuals to federal agencies, for the accomplishments of this ongoing restoration process. So, this stop is “Working Together.” Instructors and students from the local college worked with other professionals to provide much of the labor for installing all new heating, electrical, and plumbing in the depot. Volunteer labor included the meticulous work of cleaning the tiles and grout, painting both interior and exterior of the building and repairing the windows. Through all of these projects, money and specialists were found as they were needed. One of the challenges was dealing with asbestos issues. When asked for the high point, Kay said it was when the first grant was awarded because knowing that there was funding, made everything so much easier. Throughout the whole process, Kay wasn’t sure what obstacles lay ahead, but she had faith that together, they would meet them . . . I think I can. I think I can… Chugging along smoothly we reach the Restored Depot. The quality and beauty of the early 1900’s architecture are reflected both inside and outside of the depot. Artifacts of the Railroad Era, including framed menus from NP dining cars, are tastefully displayed. Speaking of dining, a small kitchen shares space with dining tables in what was once the freight room (seats 36). Visitors in the main atrium (seats 92) can watch an audio-slide show of the depot’s history. Have your own memory of train travels to or from this depot? You are invited to submit it for the memory book being compiled. The Depot also serves as a tourist and information center. One addition to the depot, installed in 2008, is a new black iron fence, hand built by Virnala Blacksmith. The fence is located on in the east plaza, where pavers sit. With a donation of $100, people can have their name engraved in one a paver stone. The money from the stones will serve as a fundraiser for the depot and will beautify the east plaza area. Activities Stop: Seasonal activities include: The Wine and Chocolate event held in February. The Depot is open Wednesday, Friday and Saturady from noon to 5 p.m. from Memorial Day weekend through September, Starting the third Thursday in June, a lunch menu of Burlington Brats, New York Style Hot Dogs, and root beer floats will be served in coordination with The Farmer’s Market. Popcorn and ice cream treats are also served during the summer business hours. The Sunday before Thanksgiving is the Nordic Christmas Event and Santa visits the depot a few weeks later. Carriage rides are also given that day. The depot is open for appointment for special tours and event, and is available for rental all year long. The depot has been the location for receptions, showers, parties, business meetings, and group luncheons. A variety of classes have been held at the depot. This spring a wine tasting and Wine 101 classes were held. There have been art and jewelry classes, as well as a get-together to make gingerbread houses. Kay sees more and more tours, gatherings, classes at the depot. The historic bandstand in front of the depot is being restored this summer which means music concerts will return to the park. “…And the Little Blue Engine smiled and seemed to say as she puffed steadily down the mountain… I thought I could. I thought I could. I thought I could.” To learn more about the depot, or opportunities and events available in 2010, contact 218-632-5999 or visited on the web at www.thedepotwadena.org.
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