Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum Celebrates Annual Railfest
by James Coulter
Robert Willaford has been working on the railroad all the live-long day. For more than 40 years, he has worked for CSA Transportation as a locomotive engineer.
Willaford loves trains. He even married his wife on a train. He and Felice tied the knot on an Amtrak Silver Star. Their guests boarded in Winter Haven, left in Orlando, and he and his newlywed wife traveled to St. Petersburg, VA for their honeymoon.
During his many-decades-long career, Willaford accumulated many train parts and memorabilia from the scrapyard, including a 7,000-pound red caboose, several rail carts, and even a small green locomotive.
He often showcased his collection for guests at his home, even hosting Easter and Christmas events for children. The last event he hosted drew in 352 kids—not even counting the adults!
“I said that was enough,” he said. “We couldn’t handle it. So the city wanted to make a museum. So, we donated everything to them.”
The City of Plant City used the donated items to open the Robert W. Willaford Railroad Museum. Located at the former Plant City Union Depot, originally constructed in 1909, the museum showcases the collection outside, along with a model train and other exhibits inside.
Willaford loves the museum. He loves being able to see many children view the items he collected over the years and learn about trains, especially in a time when very few people ride them.
“I enjoy coming out here and seeing all these kids,” he said. “This history doesn’t exist anymore, and kids can come up and see what it is like.”
The museum showcased its collection during its annual Railfestlast Saturday. Aside from its facilities, the museum also offered food, live music, photo-ops, a ride along train, and several children’s activities and games. Also attending were several local church and civic groups, including the boys and girls scouts and a local karate dojo.
While there were some concerns for the weather, the event experienced clear sunny skies that drew in hundreds of attendees that afternoon, explained T. Eric Barber, President of the Museum Society.
“It is our annual event for the museum, [to] let the community know we are here, provide for different community organizations to come out and meet with people,” he said. “It is also a great way for people to learn the history of Hillsborough County…It is a great opportunity to reach out to the community, say hello, remind them that they are here, and get some money to pay for what we do every day.”
Even better than seeing people come to the museum, Barber appreciates it when Willaford drops by, especially during events like this, and allows others to be able to meet with him and learn from his experience.
“It is the people, meeting with the people, getting to know more of the community, it is always the best part,” Barber said. “Every year, we try to grow this to make it bigger and better. It is always nice to see him [Willaford] and have people come out and thank him for his donated items.”
This was the first year Tami Simpkins attended the event with her group at City Pointe Church. They were one of the many local organizations who set up a booth, where they allowed visitors the opportunity to spin a prize wheel for many small trinkets. Of course, being able to spread the “good word” is also a plus.
“We are here to spread the word and give some fun to the children who stop by,” she said. “I had a lot of fun today. [I liked] just the people coming in and experiencing everything.”