Bob Irwin's replica of his family's potato shed that sat along the railroad tracks in Foley, Alabama.

By John Mullen

May 29, 2019 – Orange Beach, AL (OBA®) – When Bob Irwin was a kid his family had a farming business near Foley in Baldwin County. A vital part of that business was a potato shed alongside the railroad tracks in Foley.

“There were many along the railroad from here up to Loxley, Alabama,” Irwin, a member of the train volunteer group the Caboose Club, said.

Like the railroads – service to Foley stopped in the 1970's – the potato sheds are but a distant memory. But Irwin resurrected one alongside the tracks in the city’s Model Train Exhibit in the Foley Railroad Museum.

Foley model train museum in Foley, Alabama“I did build that from my memory of the building,” Irwin recalled on a recent Tuesday in the model train room. “There were three potato sheds if you go way back. But in the '60s and '70s, there were potato sheds basically right here where we are. I couldn’t build it to scale of my dad’s and granddad’s potato shed because we didn’t have enough room for it. But it’s typical of a potato shed here in Baldwin County.”

Irwin and other members of the Caboose Club lovingly care for not only the 35 locomotives and countless cars but the scenery, buildings and other nuances as well.

“Once or twice a year we may add something new,” Irwin said. “For instance, in the last couple of years, the junkyard in the back is new. There’s a mini train station in front of the big train station that is the newest building.

“Some of the things were scratch-built by our volunteers - most of our drive-in movie theater, except the cars and the Ferris wheel. Going on down you can see the basketball court. The tennis court. In the city, there are the mailboxes, the signs, the garbage cans. Further on down is the line shaft machine shop. The fountain and the big train shed.”

There’s also a retro drive-in diner, circus, schoolhouse, a building on fire being worked by the fire department, a park based on Bienville Square in Mobile, and even a streetcar that announces and makes stops along the model city’s three streets. As far as the trains go, there are several tunnels and trestles with as many as seven trains operating at once on the quarter mile of track.

Foley model train museum in Foley, Alabama. Underneath it is miles of cords lighting up the welder’s torch, the fire scene, operating street lights and those operating alongside the tracks. It also has emanating sounds of train whistles, bells and other sounds typical of an American small town in the 1950s.

It’s a fascinating display that 27,000 people visited in 2018 alone. And it all started in the early 2000s when a man from Montgomery called looking for someone to take a model train he had set up in his garage.

“He wanted more people to enjoy it,” Foley Marketing Director LaDonna Hinesley said. “He contacted the City of Foley with the offer that he would give his train set to someone who would house it and keep it open to the public.”

Members of the Caboose Club, which had been meeting once a week in the depot since 1999, got involved and went to see the train and make plans to get it back to Foley.

“They thought they had a number of weeks to get it, but when they got there, he had sold his house and they literally had about a week to get this huge train set out of the garage,” Hinesley said. “Everything was stored while the city built a building to house it. It took a lot of organizing, a lot of labor from both volunteers and city workers, to build this layout and put it together.”

Foley model train museum Foley, Alabama. It took 14 months to get the display ready and lots of teamwork by the Caboose Club, which still does all the work on the trains and displays.

“Every one of us has a niche of some kind,” Caboose Club member Robert “Doc” Holiday said. “Some of the guys really enjoy talking to the kids and the people. Some of them really enjoy maintenance and repair work, track cleaning. There are a couple of guys who are really good with the electronics. We have digital controls on all of our trains. So, we have computer guys, we have mechanics, and nice guys to like to talk with kids and people and play with toy trains.”

They also run a train ride for kids on the three days a week the museum is open, Tuesday’s, Thursdays and Saturdays in the summer and only on Saturdays during the winter.

“There are little children in Foley who ride the train every Saturday,” Hinesley said. “These guys have a fan club. There are people with small children come in once a week for their children to see it.”

The display is perhaps the jewel of the museum, but Hinesley says work is being done to get more exhibits into the 1909 depot building, which has a rich history of its own. And has been on the site where it now stands twice.

“In the 1970s, the L&N decided to discontinue service to Foley, Alabama. The depots up and down the line were old buildings. They didn’t want them,” Hinesley said. “The L&N was going to demolish them. John Snook, who owned the Gulf Telephone Company, had the foresight to save the building. He bought this depot for $1.”

Snook had the building cut in half, moved it to Magnolia Springs and used it as a warehouse. It stayed in Magnolia Springs for a number of years until the early '90s, when it was moved back to Foley.

“Supposedly, he told people all along ‘Foley’s going to want this building, they just don’t know it yet,’” Hinesley said. “He deeded it back to the city and the city was able to get a grant. It cost hundreds of thousands of dollars but that depot was moved back to the very site where it had been all those years. So, we have a 110-year-old building that has traveled.”

Founding father John Foley played a big role in getting rail service to Foley. In the early 1900's he bought 40,000 acres but road connections were a bit sketchy in those days.

“He knew that for the area to really grow and prosper, it needed a railroad,” Hinesley said. “At that time the nearest railroad was in Bay Minette, 37 miles away. To make sure it was built, he helped pay to get a railroad to Foley.”

Originally it was called the Bay Minette to Fort Morgan Railroad, with dreams to extend it all the way to Fort Morgan.

“In 1906, there was a huge hurricane and it was decided not to push on to Fort Morgan, so Foley was the end of the line,” Hinesley said. “There was a turnaround about a half-mile south of here. The first depot was built here in 1905. It burned several years later and Foley's current one was built and opened in 1909.”

RAILS TO TRAILS

Much of the spine of the old L&N spur from Bay Minette remains in place today and the right of way is owned mostly by Riviera Utilities. Recently city of Foley officials met with the Baldwin County Commission seeking to turn the old railroad bed into a trail with help from a National Park Service grant.

The grant would pay for planning the route. The 60-mile easement could possibly go from Bay Minette all the way to the beach towns of Orange Beach and Gulf Shores.

Rails to Trails is a national program and in Alabama there are converted trails in Madison and Limestone and counties. According to the Rails to Trails website the national organization “is a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a nationwide network of trails from former rail lines and connecting corridors to build healthier places for healthier people.”