A piece of local history was recently transformed, again.
A train car that once served as Owl Car café has been repurposed into an exhibit dubbed, The Legend, now on display at the National Orphan Train Complex in Concordia.
Its story of transformation began more than 100 years ago, on the shortline that ran north out of Marion to the once celebrated spa, resort, and campground of Chingawasa Springs in the late 1880s. (The spa spelled its name differently than the current Chingawassa Days festival.)
The Legend was one of two cars on a one-engine train that curried passengers to and from the springs on Marion Belt and Chingawasa Railroad.
After the mystique of the springs waned, the resort was abandoned during an economic panic in 1893. The once overcrowded train stopped, but it did not cease to be useful.
“The coaches were repurposed and repurposed and repurposed again,” Cynthia Blount of Marion Historical Museum, said. “People were very thrifty back then. They didn’t waste things. They used what they had.”
The train coach was one of several around town, Blount said. The car might have served as an eye doctor’s office. It was a dentist’s office at one time, and there are rumors of its use to raise lab rats, mice, guinea pigs, and other small animals for medicinal research.
“I wish we had more information about it, but there just isn’t,” Blount said. “I don’t think anybody thought the car would be historically relevant at the time.”
Overtime, the car became derelict, was given to the City of Marion, and eventually faded out of the public’s awareness.
About 10 years ago, the National Orphan Train Complex acquired the car after board president Susan Sutton read an article of its pending demolition in a newspaper from her area.
“The Owl Car Café was like a food truck in its day,” Sutton said. “It sounded like a diamond in the rough.”
Sutton traveled to Marion to inspect the bedraggled train car. At the time, she learned its most recent incarnation had been as a chicken coop.
“It was all covered with roll-roofing, and there was really no way for light to get in,” she said. “It was difficult to see inside, but we had a flashlight.
“The coops were still there along with feathers, manure, the smell, and everything. But we saw some veneer work in the curved roof line that looked promising for our purposes.”
There was nothing left of the undercarriage, no wheels or axles. Much of its wooden structure was rotted and there was a substantial amount of termite damage. However, the floor was in good shape.
Sutton said Marion officials gave her the train car. Afterward, construction crews braced it with plywood on the outside, and put beams underneath so it could be transported to Concordia where it was restored and repurposed into an orphan train dubbed “The Legend.”
Shaley George, museum curator in Concordia, said orphan trains like the one The Legend is now modeled after, transported more than 250,000 orphans from cities to rural areas.
“You could tell it was beautiful at one time,” George said. “We changed it into the type of train car orphans typically rode into the Midwest after the Civil War between 1854 and 1929.”
“The Legend was kind of an orphan itself,” Sutton said. “It’s been snatched back from the jaws of time.”
Sutton said The Legend will be used as a teaching tool at the museum.
“People will be able to walk inside it to try to imagine what it was like to spend three days on a wooden bench traveling from skyscrapers to a rural area,” she said.
George said information related to the train car’s history in Marion also will be exhibited.
Teressa Huffman, Marion County’s economic development director, recently attended a ribbon cutting for completion of the restoration project this month.
“It was so kind of the museum to share that piece of history with us,” Huffman said. “It was a special piece of Marion’s history.”
C.C. Jones, a dentist who once owned the Owl Car, was reportedly very instrumental in bringing children on the Orphan Train to Kansas from New York.
Jones adopted a daughter, Mabel, who reportedly arrived in Marion on one of those trains.
Sutton said orphans who rode trains like The Legend were given a second chance at life.
Now, it seems, the former Owl Car Café has a new life too.