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Model railroaders add Rock Island Railroad baggage cart to display

Visitors to the Osceola County Fair next week in Sibley will be able to see the cart and learn more about the Rock Island Railroad inside the open class building on the fairgrounds.

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SIBLEY, Iowa — A steel-wheeled baggage cart believed to have been used by the Rock Island Railroad from the 1880s until the 1950s will be a special feature at the Osceola County Fair next week in Sibley.

The cart, purchased from the estate of Sibley resident Harry Blau, had been stored in the Rock Island Depot for years until Blau, a collector of things, acquired it and several other pieces. Members of the Northwest Iowa Model Railroad Club purchased the piece — still in its original condition — during an online auction conducted by Kevin Klaassen in early 2020, and are thrilled to have saved a piece of Osceola County history.

While the club’s members had hoped to display the cart alongside their Otter Valley Model Railroad in the lower level of the open class building on the Osceola County Fairgrounds, the piece was too big for the space they have. As a result, it will be on the building’s main level, surrounded by historic railroad items such as newspaper clippings, timetables and coach fare information from 1949.

The display includes a story about Henry Fonda being stranded in Sibley in 1951 after a blizzard piled several feet of snow on the train tracks. Visitors can also look up the cost for a first class train ticket in 1949 and note that it cost 58 cents to travel from Sibley, Iowa, to Ellsworth, Minnesota.

The Rock Island Rail traversed northwest Iowa and southwest Minnesota, stopping at every little town along the way to make deliveries of goods and passengers.

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“Rock Island is dear in the hearts of many of the club members,” said John Galstad of Worthington, one of five active members of the model railroad club. “We’ve been acquiring limited things because we have limited space.”

Club member Dennis Jurgens did the bidding on behalf of the club.

“There were two baggage carts and other railroad items,” Jurgens shared. He told club members about the items and they decided on a limit for what they would spend for the cart.

“I proceeded to bid on it, and bid again … and bid again,” he said with an eye roll. “Then I got frustrated and bid some more.”

When he’d finally won the auction — spending more than three times what the group had initially set as their limit — Jurgens went to pick up the baggage cart and was told by the auctioneer that at least this one piece was staying in Osceola County and not going to Texas.

“That made me feel better,” Jurgens said.

It wasn’t until they delivered the cart to the fairgrounds that a club member noticed it was stamped as property of the Rock Island Railroad. Another club member, Denny Davids, knew that the railroad pieces came from the Sibley depot.

“I think the club has unanimously felt good about (the purchase),” Galstad said, adding that it was important to the club to share the piece of history with the public — hence the display they will have at the fair.

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Jurgens said it’s important northwest Iowa history, adding that without the railroads, land west of the Mississippi River wouldn’t have been settled.

“How much product was brought into the communities and how many people came here by train — that’s what we’re trying to express with the display,” he said.

Jurgens has papers in his own family of windows, doors and trim that were shipped in by railroad in the 1950s.

Sibley was once home to two depots, with eight depots in all of Osceola County at one time. May City is the only community in the county not built along a rail line.

Sibley was home to a turntable and an engine house, which was more than the whistle-stop and water tower of other communities along the route.

Images of each of the eight depots, as well as other railroad-related items, are displayed in the lower level of the open class building, where the Northwest Iowa Model Railroad Club has operated its Otter Valley Rail exhibit for 35 years. Since 1987, the exhibit has been open to the public during the Osceola County Fair and other times by appointment.

Otter Valley Railroad display The Otter Valley model railroad will be open to the public during the Osceola County Fair next week in Sibley. The exhibit is located in the basement of the open class building.

In 2019, the exhibit was closed due to flooding, and in 2020, the fair was cancelled due to the global pandemic. So, for the first time in three years, the club gets to welcome people back to watch the model trains traverse the tracks.

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“Every year we have people come down here and say, ‘We didn’t know this was here.’” Jurgens said, adding that a new, large sign is in place this year to welcome visitors to the model railroad. A new sidewalk was also poured, leading directly to the open class building from the street.

The building — and the model railroad — will be open from 4 to 8 p.m. Tuesday and Wednesday, from 1 to 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday, and from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturday during the Osceola County Fair.

The club is always looking for train enthusiasts interested in becoming members. They meet for work nights on the model railroad exhibit every Wednesday evening, year round.

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