What does a man do after buying a 50-ton red caboose on a whim?
Well, the first thing a smart man does is tell his wife.
Three-and-a-half years ago, Thurman Mullins decided to check out some farm equipment at an auction in Rutherford County. Upon arrival, an old railroad caboose caught his fancy.
"The folks who owned it had just let it sit. The day of the auction it was full of wasps and dirt daubers," recalled Mullins, 68, a Murfreesboro native, who has hung his hat in Wilson County for the past 40 years.
"Out of curiosity, I Googled 'caboose' and saw prices from $8,500 for a wooden one as a fixer-upper up to $18,000 on."
That set Mullins to mulling just as the auction began.
"The auctioneer started out, 'Do we have $30,000? $25,000? Then he got down to $10,000, and at $10,000, I said, 'I'd give $1,000 for it.'
"Then another man bid $1,100. I said, '$1,500.' I'd been wanting a place to put my cowboy stuff and old junk. The other man bid $1,600. We kept going up.
"Finally, I said, 'I'd give $5,101 for it.' The other man walked away, and I'd bought a freaking caboose," said Mullins.
Breaking the news to his wife
"I called up my wife, and she said, 'I think it would look good behind the creek.' In other words, on the back of the property where no one could see it. I said, 'That'd be fine.'"
Mullins' wife, Ann, remembers the call and noted, "I had to ask him twice what he said. He told me, 'I made a big purchase today.' I thought maybe it was another hay baler. Then he said, 'I bought a caboose.'
"I said, 'What?' He said, 'A train caboose.' It was kind of a shock," Ann admitted.
Mullins then drove his wife over to see his purchase. "It was nothing that would impress you, but I'd bitten the bullet," he said.
What he had on his hands was a 50-ton L&N (Louisville & Nashville) caboose. It was 36 feet and 10 inches long, 9 feet and 3 inches wide and stood 14 feet high.
As a bonus, one side of the caboose featured a faded painting of Noah's Ark.
Did he have second thoughts?
Oh, boy, yeah.
"The day I bought the caboose, if you'd walked up to me and offered me $3,000, I'd have said, 'Yeah.' I would have eaten $2,000," Mullins confessed.
"Later, a man asked me if I would sell it. I told him, 'Right now I don't want to. I've got me a game plan.'
"Then a local doctor called me. 'You want to sell it?' 'No, sir.' He went up to $10,000. A week later his wife called me and offered me $12,000 and then asked if $15,000 would do it? I said, 'No.'"
How to get it home?
At this point, determined to stick by his decision, he realized it was going to be a whopper of a chore to move the caboose.
"I ran into every flim-flam man artist there was," he said about getting estimates for the job.
Fortunately, he discovered Clark Crane out of Nashville.
"It took three semis and a 180-ton crane to move it all," he said. "They put the wheels on one of the semis, the caboose on one semi and the track and ties on a third semi. It cleared the interstate overpass by inches. I had to widen my driveway so they could get in."
Once the caboose was set on rails in his backyard, Mullins went with a first-class restoration and topped it off with the Marine Corps emblem with the eagle, globe and anchor plastered on the side. (The logo was crafted by Wright's Printing in Lebanon).
A Navy corpsman, he served in Vietnam from 1969-1979 with the 1st Recon Battalion as he was attached to the U.S. Marines.
"By the time I had it moved, painted, upholstered and electricity put in it, I wound up with about $22,500 in it. It's created a whole new avenue for us," Mullins said.
Spurred interest in trains
Over the past few years, he and Ann have traveled to vacation destinations where they can ride historic steam locomotives, places like Durango, Colorado; Alamosa, Colorado; Williams, Arizona; and Heber, Utah.
In the process of restoring this cupola or standard caboose, which features a windowed projection on the roof where crew members could sit in elevated seats to inspect the train, Mullins has gleaned a bit of its history.
"The L&N retired this caboose in '82. It worked primarily on the Family Lines in the Carolinas and North Georgia. Then they brought it back to Radnor Yards in Nashville. Later, they gave it or sold it to a museum that sold it to raise money for the museum."
He uncovered one incredibly coincidental fact. He and the caboose share the same birthdate.
"I was born in July 1948, and this caboose came off the line in July '48. I didn't know that when I bought it," he said of the structure which was built by the International Car Company in Kenton, Ohio.
Mullins has named his caboose, Herschel, after his father, the late Herschel Mullins, who operated Mullins Jewelry on the Murfreesboro square for 62 years.
Thurman, after being discharged from the Navy, earned an animal sciences degree at MTSU in 1972 while rodeo cowboying at the same time. He retired in 2014 after a 30-year career with Tennessee State Parks which saw him serve as park manager of the Bicentennial Mall State Park for six years and park manager of Long Hunter State Park for 15 years. He continues his role as ranch foreman over Charlie Daniel's Twin Pines, a position he has held for 37 years.
About his getaway on rails, which features a wood-burning stove where he brews a mean cup of coffee, he says, "It's a place I do a lot of reading and listening to my old records. I like that old stuff and like to hear the needle scratching. I like the smell of wood burning. I work on little stuff. It's a den that's not connected to the house."
Ann described her husband's hideout saying, "It turned into a really neat project, and he's done wonders with it. I guess you could say he's turned it into his man cave. With Thurman nothing really surprises me too much. He kind of marches to a different drummer at times."
One section of the caboose serves as his den/library and overflows with photo and record albums, old toys and military gear like his vintage combat boots. Another section holds railroad memorabilia, such as lanterns, caps and spittoons, and autographed pictures of singers, actors and other celebrities with whom he has crossed paths.
"Most of the stuff I have in there is memories," said Mullins. "It's my library, my hangout. I go out there some mornings and make myself some coffee and sit up on top and watch the sun and look at my miniature donkey and deer will come up [from the woods].
"I've had more people tell me they always wanted a caboose, but I wasn't one of them. But now that I've got it, I like it fine. So maybe I do need a caboose," said the old horseman who created just the right spot to warm his bones and rekindle thoughts of good times long ago.
Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at email@example.com.