Connie and Jim Lennert repurposed a century-old caboose they purchased from the depot in Sturgeon Bay. To see a photo gallery of the caboose, go to: www.doorcountyadvocate.com. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
HGTV cable network crew of production assistant Courtney Hayes of Green Bay, from left, field producer Sean Whitley of Dallas, camera operator Chad Windhan of Dallas and sound engineer Bill Richards of Appleton film a segment of 'You Live In What?' on Thursday. To see a photo gallery, go to: www.doorcountyadvocate.com. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
Camera operator Chad Windhan of Dallas films the back end of the caboose. / Tina M. Gohr/Door County Advocate
This spread in the winter issue of last year's Door County Magazine led to the filming of Jim and Connie Lennert of living in a caboose.
A national television show came to Door County last week to find out more about a little red caboose tucked into the woods between Sturgeon Bay and Egg Harbor.
The century-year-old train car, converted into a summer home by Jim and Connie Linnert of Naperville, Ill., will be featured in an upcoming segment of “You Live in What?” airing on HGTV, Home and Garden Television.
Last winter the story about Lennert’s little red caboose was published in the the Door County Magazine, and recently HGTV show researchers spotted the story while combing the Internet for unusual places that have been converted into homes. The show contacted the magazine’s former editor, Jon Gast, who put them in touch with the Lennerts.
On Thursday a crew of four freelancers spent the day recording video in Door County and interviewing the Lennerts for a segment to air either later this year or early next year — the exact date is not certain.
“We were shocked,” Jim Lennert said when they first received the call from the network. “It was all because of the Door County Magazine. We were not looking for publicity, but of course we said yes — we wanted it to happen. Someday when we get to a point of selling, we want to sell to someone into railroading and into preservation. It literally can go on another 100 years.”
The Lennerts’ love affair with the little red caboose began in the summer of 1997. They had finished breakfast at the White Lace Inn in Sturgeon Bay and planned to drive north on Bay Shore Drive and eventually Gills Rock.
They stopped in the their tracks when they saw Tom Alberts, the owner of the old train depot on Third Street, painting the front of the railroad station that was then Del Santo’s Restaurant and Cherryland Brewery, and noticed a for-sale sign. Alberts gave them a quick tour of the depot and the adjoining caboose.
“We knew the caboose had been at the Sturgeon Bay railroad station for many years as a small shop and Santa’s workshop during the Christmas holidays,” Jim said. “After a 15-minute discussion, we said we would buy the caboose if we could arrange a move to wooded property.”
Finding a caboose and using it as a summer home was always in their plans, he said. Jim’s father was a brakeman on the Elgin, Joliet & Eastern Railway. The EJ&E logo is now on the caboose along with the number 213 after 213 Henderson Ave. where Jim grew up, a short distance from the east Joliet train yard.
Originally the caboose was number 22 and painted yellow for the Lake Superior & Ishpeming railroad. It then went to work in central Wisconsin until Alberts and his business partner, Mark Feld, bought it to go with the depot and brought it to Sturgeon Bay. They painted it red to match the historic local Ahnapee & Western Railroad.
Connie, a former elementary school teacher, said it had to be red from the 1950s children’s book, “The Little Red Caboose” by Marian Potter. In the story, the red caboose laments it is never noticed because it always comes last. When the big engine begins to slip pulling the train up a mountain, the red caboose puts on his brake and saves the day.
The lesson not to underestimate the importance of a small caboose seems true for the Lennerts, who want to share their story, but also like the woods and their privacy. Their home is not open to the public, and it is not visible from the road.
They also are proud to share details of the history of the caboose and encourage others to repurpose old or odd structures as summer homes. The caboose was in pretty good shape when they got it, Jim said, but it needed a new roof.
Two-thirds of the caboose was redesigned to include a kitchen, eating area, bunk beds and bathroom. The original bathroom is now a closeted area that holds the water pump, water heater and water softener. The rest of the caboose, including the second story, was kept as it was.
The bunk beds are used by their two daughters and their families — including four grandchildren —when they visit.
The caboose is 8 feet wide by 24 feet long but does have plumbing and electricity.
“Mentally you need to get ready to live a small area,” Connie said.
To supplement the space, they built an 8- by 16-foot, two-story cottage with a screened porch and sun deck behind the caboose that holds much of the other railroad memorabilia collected over the years.
Jim taught geography for 39 years to students in elementary schools through college in surrounding Chicago suburbs. But he never forgot the rumbling and shaking of his first caboose ride with his dad when he was 6 years old. From that point on, he was hooked on railroading.
Connie also enjoys collecting antiques, and she began to like train travel soon after they were married and toured Europe on a Eurail pass. They are also looking forward to an Amtrak ride from Chicago to L.A.
Jim said he likes anything about trains but favors freight trains, especially cabooses.
“The best thing about having a caboose is it’s fulfilling a dream I’ve had my whole life,” Jim said. “And to have it happen in beautiful Door County, it’s a dream come true.”
Are there any more train cars in their future?
“No,” said Connie.
“I have enough intelligence not to ask her,” Jim smiled.
Contact Ramelle Bintz at email@example.com.