John Schneider just checked off his bucket list a pretty unusual item — a train caboose.

As of Dec. 17, the Illinois Central 9956 — the historic caboose which has sat next to the Ponchatoula Country Market since 1998 — is the actor/singer/producer's newest toy.

And like a kid with an early Christmas present, Schneider, who now calls Holden home, was on hand early that recent brisk morning to watch and occasionally assist as two moving companies tackled the task of getting the 33,600-pound railroad car relocated. Around 50 spectators looked on throughout the morning.

"Like everything, there's a lot more to it," the 60-year-old former "The Dukes of Hazzard" star said of the 4½-hour process of slipping the caboose from its resting place along Railroad Avenue onto a trailer.  

This childhood dream of Schneider's was renewed during a recent road trip he and his wife, Alicia Allain, took from Louisiana to Los Angeles and back.

"I saw a caboose sitting out in the middle of the prairie and I told her, 'You know I've always wanted …,' and she said, 'I know, yeah, because of "Wild Wild West."' I said, 'Yeah, I've always wanted one of those.'"

That 1960s TV adventure series follows two Secret Service agents who work for the government in the Old West.

"My whole thing about 'The Wild Wild West' was that their office was in a caboose. A show that I grew up watching. James West and Artemis Gordon …  I thought that was the coolest thing in the world."

Serendipitously, the day after returning from their trip out west, Allain heard from a friend that the Country Market was planning to sell its caboose (donated to it by Illinois Central), or cut it apart and scrap it. Asking price? A mere $2,000.

"And she got on the phone and by the end of that day, she had purchased it," Schneider said.

Mardi Massel manages the Country Market, which was established in the city's restored old train depot in 1973 as an outlet for the community's artists and craftsmen to show, demonstrate and sell their work.

"We didn't want to get rid of it, but we're all in our 60s and 70s … so this was just the best thing for the caboose," Massel explained. "We donated the black locomotive (located across the street) earlier this year over to the (Collinswood School) museum, and we're going to do fundraisers and help restore the black locomotive, but if you went inside this (the caboose), you'd understand. It's had two fires inside it." 

The train car is a steel underframe Drovers caboose built between 1897 and 1913, according to the website icrr.net/iccaboose.htm. The site also notes that sometime between 1955 and 1963, the Drovers were reclassified as Banana messengers.  

"It's burned. The floors are OK. It's iron, I guess, or solid steel. I was hoping we would be able to wire brush the char off the walls and refinish it, but I rubbed on it a little bit and it just fell off," Schneider said. "Maybe some along the roof we'll be able to save. I'd like to save some of it so it's the original, but if we can't we'll get in touch with some woodworkers, some cabinet makers and see if we can't get some nice cypress in there."

Now a rusty, peeling orange color, weeds can be seen growing out from under the back door of the caboose. The fires have left small holes in some spots on the exterior, and the windows have long been boarded up. Signs originally affixed to the caboose during its first life on the rails seem even more appropriate now: "Watch Your Step" and "Always Be Careful." 

Enter Davey Shoring and S E T Mobile Home Movers, who teamed up for the unusual project.

"It was tight," Warren Davey said, pausing briefly while keeping his eyes on the crew. "Originally, I thought about getting a crane in, but they looked at the wires and the minimal amount of space and they said, 'No, can't get a crane in here.' So we shifted gears, used these little Translifts (normally used to move mobile homes) and loaded it up.

"My grandfather worked for the Illinois Central Railroad as a conductor, so I'm kind of excited about it."

Having never hauled a train caboose before didn't deter Davey.

"I'm a member of an international association of construction movers and I called a friend of mine in South Carolina (with experience with such a move) and he gave me some particulars," he said. "One was that the wheels are not attached to the caboose or the cars; it's just a big long pin."

And that was a plus, Schneider explained.

"That's good because when they bring the trailer in, it's a very lowboy trailer, they'll be able to put the caboose down and have the steps almost dragging the ground … and then none of this stuff on top (like the lookout tower) will be a problem."

Minutes before the caboose began its 17-mile journey to Holden, Schneider climbed the ladder and stood on the caboose's roof for photos. He also pitched in on the moving team from time to time, and shot video and photos of his own.

But before the train car could be settled into its new spot, there were several hours of what resembled a giant Jenga game in reverse, as crews measured and remeasured, adding a block here and shimmying a wedge there in order to position the caboose securely on the 50-foot trailer. That made loading the wheels seem like a walk in Memorial Park: Forklift drivers picked up the wheels a set at a time, steering the forklift to align with the trailer, then using a temporary ramp to push the wheels up and onto the trailer.

"We made it work," said Davey, smiling near the end of this phase of the project.

The official cost of moving old No. 9956 wasn't disclosed, although it presumably far exceeded the $2,000 caboose price. Schneider said the community did contribute to the moving bill, however.

"It was on sale for about two years. We put it on Facebook and within 24 hours, it was gone," Massel said. "We had offered it to many other people before we put it out to the public. We're just very, very happy that it's going somewhere where he's going to take care of it."

The caboose joins the old Broadmoor Theater sign as another historic backdrop at the sprawling John Schneider Studios property off U.S. 190 in Livingston Parish. Schneider rescued the iconic sign, seats, wall sconces and popcorn machine from Baton Rouge's Broadmoor before it was demolished in 2015.

 "I'm delighted the Ponchatoula caboose has a new home," Schneider said. "Our plans are to line it with beautiful local cypress, shoot movies in it and revitalize it as a place for conversation and fellowship."


Email Judy Bergeron at jbergeron@theadvocate.com.