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The Journal Gazette

  • Photos by Pennsy Train Depot The Pennsy Girls, who got their name because of their renovation work of the train depot in Decatur, include, from left, Sue Robinson, Karen Baker, Suzy Fuelling, Cheri Sherry and Sandy Collier.

  • Many donations and fundraisers were conducted to help volunteers pay for the renovations to the Pennsy Depot.

  • Photo by Pennsy Train Depot The Pennsy Train Depot in Decatur was originally built in 1902. A group of five retired women raised $120,000 to renovate the depot that had fallen in disrepair.  

Thursday, June 15, 2017 1:00 am

Volunteers bring train depot back to life

Pennsy Girls donate time to preserve history

Cody Thompson | The Journal Gazette

They walked into city hall in Decatur two years ago wearing their red railroad scarves, hoping they would convey their passion and sincerity to the council.

The small group of retirees asked for the city council's permission to raise money on their own for their new project – restoring the old Pennsylvania Train Station, a train station originally built in 1902 that had fallen into disrepair and was only barely maintained by the city at the time.

“Their reaction was one of disbelief,” said Suzy Fuelling, the group's spokesperson at the time. “They looked at each other as though we were not speaking English. After a brief moment, one of the councilmen spoke up and said, 'Tell them yes before they leave and change their minds.' ”

That's how the renovations began and how a group of five retired women was able to raise $120,000 through fundraising, grants and letter requests for donations for the old train depot.

They call themselves the “Pennsy Girls.” Individually they are Fuelling, Sue Robinson, Karen Baker, Cheri Sherry and Sandy Collier.

The Pennsy Girls, after receiving permission from the city, got to work immediately. One week after the council meeting, the group was at work in the depot, stripping away five layers of paint and varnish from the walls and removing the mold from the basement.

“As we worked into the later hours of the night, we often said 'If only these walls could talk to us,' ” Fuelling said.

When they ripped up the floor to get down to the original material, they found newspapers wedged in as insulation. The papers were dated 1935, so the wood had apparently been redone in that year.

There are only a few patches where the wood floor, which looks its age but holds up well, is not native to the depot. However, to maintain the look, Collier said they found a barn with the same type of wood from the same year for the replacements.

The women had individual reasons to take on the two-year process of renovating the depot, but a love of history was the common denominator.

“I didn't want it to be lost,” Collier said. “I wanted to keep the history alive.”

Now when entering the old brick building, the year 1902 becomes indistinguishable from 2017. Everything looks as it would have during that time, from the women and children's waiting room to the lavish safe in the wall. The Pennsy Girls sought to preserve this style during their renovations. They even found a small paint sample from the wall and had the color matched.

The building was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places.

They originally intended to raise $80,000 for the project, but because of some unforeseen challenges, they raised, and used, a full $120,000 from a variety of sources. They received grants from Adams County Community Foundation ($11,000); Porter Foundation ($5,000); Indiana Office of Community and Rural Affairs ($40,000); and, as part of the OCRA grant, the required city grant ($20,000).

In addition to the money they received from grants, the Pennsy Girls also organized auctions, farmers markets and other events where they sold T-shirts and lemon shake-ups to raise more. They also received money from Thrivent Financial, a Christian, member-owned fraternal benefit society to which Bakers' children and Robinson are members.

The train first came to Adams County in 1871 on Christmas Eve. At the time, it was a marvel of modern technology, so farmers from all over the county saddled their horses and prepared their carriages as they brought their children to watch it pull into the precursor to the Pennsy station.

“That's a fact we don't want to be lost to the younger generation,” Collier said.

The station continued as a freight depot until about 1982. However, it's still by the end of the tracks, so trains occasionally pass by when they turn around.

The renovations concluded at the end of summer 2016. The depot is now available for rent for any type of gathering, though it must be small because the capacity is 49 people.

The Pennsy Girls said a variety of events have taken place there from birthday parties to memorial services.

“One reason we were successful is the community saw us five girls out there, putting in 100 percent of our effort,” Baker said.

She also said that because of their work, they made other people their age aware of volunteerism and what it can do.

When the work was finished, the women said it was hard for them to give up their keys. They had become attached to the building after their two years of labor.

Fuelling decided she was incapable of giving hers up and volunteered to clean after renters use the space in order to keep her key. The women said the renovations on the building basically gave them all full-time jobs in retirement.

“We just had our heart and soul in all of it,” Baker said.

cthompson@jg.net