Mt Pleasant News

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Neighbors Growing Together | Sep 25, 2018

Saving Car 381

Midwest Electric Railway volunteers take initiative to raise funds for antique streetcars
Aug 20, 2018
Photo by: Grace King Midwest Electric Railway’s Car 381 is in desperate need of repairs. The trolley, which was the last to run in Iowa for revenue, needs two of its motors rebuilt, new wiring and more to get it up and running again. The trolleys are a means of transporting visitors at the Old Threshers Reunion to and from Log Village.

By Grace King, Mt. Pleasant News


It was 60 years ago that trolley Car 381 made its last commercial trip in Iowa.

Now, the car sits empty in Midwest Electric Railway’s trolley barn. Stripped of its motors, seats and floorboards, the car is in desperate need of repairs before it can join the other trolleys again in transporting Old Threshers Reunion guests to and from Log Village each year.

While Car 381 is just one of several historical streetcars hailing from Iowa; Milan, Italy; and Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, it holds a special place in the heart of Midwest Electric Railway’s volunteers, who are tasked with upkeep on the trolleys, operating them during Old Threshers, and overseeing other events the cars are dusted off for.

“The trolleys broke,” Midwest Electric Railway volunteer Wes Bender said. “That’s definitely an important streetcar for our collection. We got volunteers who are passionate, but we can’t do nothing because we don’t have any money.”

The passion Bender speaks of came to life when Tim Hill, owner of Central Park Coffee Company, announced that $500 of proceeds on Aug. 1 would go to refurbish Car 381. Additionally, Hill asked for nine people to pledge $60 toward the car to mark the 60th anniversary of the last time it ran and the last time any passenger streetcar ran in Iowa.

The fundraiser was a success, with Hill surpassing his goal to go on to donate a total of $1,072, which he hopes will pay for the repairs on the car’s motors.

As a new business owner, the fundraiser was a risk for Hill, but he wanted to establish right away that they are involved in the community.

“We’re expecting them to come in and support us,” Hill said. “We want to show we’re interested in supporting the community from the start.”

Hill’s donation isn’t the only financial support Midwest Electric Railway has received lately. Phil McMeins, who sits on the Midwest Old Threshers board of directors, is collaborating with trolley volunteers to complete grant applications. Already, they have received a community betterment grant of $5,000 from Prairie Meadows in Altoona and a grant from the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs from the Historical Resource Development Program for $20,952.

Even as volunteers work to restore Car 381, they are preparing the other cars for visitors during Midwest Old Threshers from Aug. 30 to Sept. 3. During what Maddy Hobbs, Midwest Electric Railway area coordinator, calls “pre-reunion,” trolley volunteers arrive enthusiastically from all parts of Iowa and the Midwest to step into the shoes of trolley conductor for a few days.

It’s the history behind each car that instills passion in Hobbs. To think about who rode the trolleys each day to work and then home to their families gives them more significance. As visitors stomp onto the trolleys during Old Threshers, eager to reach Log Village, Hobbs asks them to stop and look at what they are getting on to instead of just seeing it as a mode of transportation.

“Ask questions of our volunteers, don’t put your feet on the seat, try not to eat or drink (on the trolleys). It’s hard for us to scrub soda or candy off the floor,” Hobbs said. “Be aware and gentle with them even though they are used for transportation. We want you to be careful getting on and off and respect any vehicle.”

Bender echoes Hobbs sentiment. As a volunteer who remembers riding the trolleys for transportation with his mother when he was a child living in St. Louis, Bender does not want to see the streetcars fail.

“We feel a lot of people treat the thing as an amusement-park ride,” Bender said. “I’ve found turkey legs that have been left in there … it’s all valuable and when people come, please respect our stuff.”

Hill, who is a fairly new trolley operator, said he was taught to remember the trolleys are 100-years-old. He has to be careful, listen and let someone know if he hears something strange. That respect and care is something that has to be instilled in people, he said. While he wants them to “absolutely enjoy it,” the trolleys are a treasure to be respected.

Before each reunion, Chuck Dewey goes through his safety checklist to ensure the trolleys are ready for passengers. The mechanic from Iowa City has been working with Midwest Electric Railway since 2010. Dewey is self-taught. The people who knew the most about trolleys are gone, he said.

“We basically have to relearn some of these things over again,” Dewey said.

Midwest Electric Railway volunteers are a new generation of operators, hellbent on preserving the history of the trolleys like Car 381. While some volunteers like Bender can recall being passengers themselves, most, like Hill and Dewey, are stepping into it with fresh eyes, inspired by cars that have withstood the test of time.

“When I was on the streetcar (for the first time), and I saw that reflection of me looking out the window to a downtown department store, it locked me in,” Bender said. “A lot of kids that come to Old Threshers might see something in the streetcar that gives them that ‘ah-ah’ moment too.”

Midwest Electric Railway volunteers hope to have Car 381 up and running by Old Threshers 2019. For now, other streetcars will be available for Old Threshers’ guests.

To learn more about the trolleys, Bender will be presenting a history at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Thursday through Sunday during Old Threshers Reunion in the depot.

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