Something different—Stay in a caboose by the dunes!


Photo courtesy of Leelanau Vacation Rentals

By Linda Alice Dewey

Sun contributor

Wondering what to get Dad or Grandpa for Father’s Day? If he’s a railroad buff, why not give him a few nights in a real caboose?

Back in the woodsy shadow of the Sleeping Bear Dunes sits a large, newly painted and refurbished caboose replete with bed, TV and Wi-Fi, a microwave and small fridge, even heat and air conditioning. Outside awaits a gas grill, picnic table and firepit. [The caboose is rented for minimum two-night stays through Leelanau Vacation Rentals.]

How did a caboose wind up in the woods across the road from Little Glen Lake? It all began when owner Bill Stege finished building his house on the property—a project that took him six years.

“I wanted another project for my grandchildren,” he explained, so he looked around for ideas. “I found an ambulance that was shot, so I thought, ‘I’ll put that out in the woods so they can climb around on it. The kids can run the siren, it has two cots, and they can sleep there.’”

That didn’t go over well with his wife, Cherrie. “People died on those cots,” she pointed out. “You’re not going to have our grandchildren sleep on them.”

“A couple years later,” Stege continued, “I found a boat with a motor that was ruined. I thought I could just dig a hole and put the boat in it. It had bunks and a kitchen.” She didn’t like that idea, either.

Stege kept thinking. “Somewhere, I got the idea about a caboose. I think I saw it on the internet or something. I said, ‘What about a caboose?’ And she said, ‘Oh, that would be okay.”’

The caboose Stege saw was DT&I #107. Research turned up a few interesting facts. “This was built in ’48 and decommissioned in ’84,” he explained. “DT&I is Detroit, Toledo and Ironton. It was a railroad that went just from Detroit down to Ironton—which is a little town on the Ohio River in Ohio—and back and forth.” Henry Ford used the DT&I to transport supplies and Ford products, Stege tells us, but over time, “he didn’t like the way they operated [the railroad], so he just bought it.”

More investigating revealed that #106 was currently located near Manistee. Since #106 was made just before #107, it ought to be just like it, he figured, so he dragged Cherrie down to see it.

“We went down there and parked and got out of the car, and she said, ‘Oh, my God! It’s so big! It’s huge! I hate it.’” But, he sagely pointed out, she had promised.

Soon, three flatbed trucks from Muskegon arrived at their property loaded with #107. On one sat the body of the caboose. The second carried a section of track for it to sit on and four sets of railroad trucks (each consisting of four wheels attached to an axle bed). On the third rested a crane. The lifting began. Once everything was in place, Stege welded the train to the tracks, and #107 had a new home.

Railroad aficionados, Stege noted, often become highly specialized. As he browsed books about the DT&I, Stege found gold. “This guy writes a book about DT&I railroad cabooses—a whole book just on cabooses! I sent away for it, hoping to find information about my caboose,” he said. “I got lucky.” Lo and behold, he found nine pictures along with the story of DT&I #107.

Turns out, this was a special caboose. Several photos show #107 in its original paint. Then, it was repainted and all dolled up in 1961; for what, few knew. Even the workmen and crew “didn’t know why it was fixed up,” Stege says. A few pages later, there is #107 topped with a Christmas tree and Merry Christmas messages all around. “This one was the first Santa caboose,” Stege proudly declared. “This one.”

And so, Henry Ford’s first ever Santa caboose, dressed in its original colors, sits in the woods by the Sleeping Bear Dunes. But fair warning: because it’s not open to the public, the only way to see it is to book it for a special stay.

We thought you might like to know what it’s like inside, so we toured it earlier this month.

As you walk in, the original hardwood floors and stainless steel kitchenette shine. A small round stainless table and two chairs greet you opposite the kitchen. There is no dishwasher; dishes must be hand washed. Remember—this is rustic living!

Further back is the observation area, where you climb vertical metal rungs to sit in four facing black vinyl upholstered seats—two on each side—surrounded by windows. The seats flank the passageway, which runs between. Up here, the conductor watched the rest of the train to watch for wheel fires, caused by friction sparking the oil pooled in the bushings. When he saw one, he pulled the nearby handle on the wall, which would exhaust the air from all the brakes and stop the train.

Near the observation area is a very small bathroom, about the size you’d find in a sailboat cabin. Across from that stands a newly installed shower. At the rear of the caboose is a pull-down dropleaf table and a full-sized Murphy bed. Everywhere are metal handles to hold onto, as the train would have bumped its way through Ohio and Michigan.

Refurbishing #107 has been a labor of love for Stege. Bought around 2010, he painted it in 2012 but first took pictures of all the old stencil-lettered signs and symbols so he could recreate them. An experienced blacksmith, he was well-equipped to repair the broken conduits and handles.

Did the grandkids like it? Sure, they came out, clambered around on it and climbed up on the roof; but they never slept in it. Originally, there was no bed, Stege explained. The conductor, he said, “never slept overnight in here.” He would have gotten off in Ironton. “Someone else got on and came back. I never figured out the sleeping arrangement until recently,” he admitted. Stege put the final touches on it just this past fall. By then, his grandkids were too old to use it as a plaything.

So now, it’s ready to rent.

“For a railroad person,” Stege said, “it’s ideal.” And the location! There’s the Sleeping Bear Heritage Trail and public access to Glen Lake nearby; the dune is right behind; and don’t forget the wineries!

The property can be rented through Leelanau Vacation Rentals (LVR) by calling 231-334-6100 or visiting this site. Please don’t visit on your own without a reservation. The minimum stay is two nights.

Neither Dad, nor Grandpa, nor anyone else will forget time spent here.