Think of it as the tiny house that could.
A Fort Kent woman is selling a replica of a Canadian National train engine that has been transformed into roughly 250 square feet of living space.
The narrow space has built-in shelves for everything from books to a DVD player, and hooks are in place for the hammocks to be strung from wall to wall for snoozing. It’s completely wired with electrical hookups and fully insulated with a small electric heater, a tiny refrigerator, fluorescent lights and a microwave.
At one time the replica did have working plumbing and a tiny bathroom, but now a small space has been curtained off in a corner to provide privacy for the primitive, waterless bucket-commode.
“My dad bought this four or five years ago,” Stacey Plourde said as she struggled with a padlock key to unlock the engine’s door. “He always intended to get a piece of land on water and place it there.”
It’s been a somewhat long and strange trip for the caboose, dubbed “Station Number 84” by a former owner.
It was built just over the St. John River from Madawaska in New Brunswick as a playhouse for the daughter of a former Canadian National rail employee back in the 1970s.
In the mid-1990s, it was spotted, with a for sale sign on it, by Jane Carter, the adult daughter of a former Bangor & Aroostook Railroad employee, and her husband Jerry Carter.
“We were going to a bowling tournament in Canada at the time,” Jane Carter said this week. “We happened to see it on the side of the road, and I told Jerry, ‘You know, my dad used to work on the railroad so let’s buy it.’”
She and her husband believed the caboose would be a good fit with their existing business Carters’ Bowling Lanes on Main Street.
They named their caboose “Train Engine 84,” in honor of Jane Carter’s father Donat Carter who was a Bangor & Aroostook Railroad Conductor on the company’s engine 84. He died in a rail yard accident when Jane was 9 years old.
“That caboose really was good for us the years we had it,” she said. “The first thing we did with it was run our photography business ‘Back in a Flash’ in it. After we shut the doors to that, we opened it as a canteen to go with the bowling alley.”
When the Carters operated it in the late 1990s, the canteen-style eatery was take-out only where patrons ordered food through a window and the food was prepared in a small kitchen the Carters built on the back of the caboose.
The first day the canteen was open for business, Carter recalled, Jerry Carter was delivering the first order of take-out lunches to workers at the nearby Fraser Paper Mill, when he noticed a train rumbling through next to the mill and passing by the U.S. Port of Entry there.
Her brother Mike Corbin remembers that day.
“It was No. 84 coming through,” Corbin said. “The guys at the [U.S. Customs and Border Protection] told Jerry train No. 84 hardly ever came up this far north any more. But it was there that day.”
Corbin took the canteen over in 1991, renaming it Cafe de la Place, and added indoor seating. It quickly became a local hotspot, thanks in large part to Corbin’s reputation as a cook.
“I made seating for 13 people,” Corbin said. “It would get so full at lunchtime, we even had to put a table in the kitchen area a couple of times. I remember that table was near the cooler, and [while I was cooking] I had to ask the customer to pass me something from the cooler.”
That was when Corbin knew it was time to expand, which he did to a larger location across the street.
“It was a lot of fun having that caboose,” he recalled.
And a tad disruptive at times too, Corbin said.
“One of my high school classmates … was telling me a while ago how my diner would disrupt her class,” Corbin said with a laugh. “She said whenever I had creamy chicken soup on special, her students would say, ‘Miss, please let us go early because he’s going to run out.’”
Corbin remembers 20 or so Madawaska High School seniors crowding into the cafe, some standing, some sitting and all having a good time.
“It did get a little crowded,” he said. “But it was fun.”
At Christmas he would deck it it out with lights and blast holiday music from outside speakers.
“It really was perfect for what I used it for,” Corbin said.
After Corbin moved his cafe, the caboose remained empty for much of the next several years, though he said a niece did live in it as a temporary apartment for a few months after she transformed it into a small, but comfortable living space with a sleeping area, space to cook and a tiny bathroom.
According to Plourde, her father found the engine where most great treasures are discovered — in the local buy, swap and sell guide.
“He called me and said I had to go check it out,” she said. “I thought he was kidding, he’s not going to get this.”
Turned out, a lifelong lumberjack in the Maine woods, her father Jimmy Pelletier was entirely serious.
“He had such big dreams for it,” Plourde said.
However, Pelletier’s health had suffered a great deal from his life as a lumberjack and an injury sustained on the job.
He purchased the train engine but was unable to make any of the improvements or renovations himself, so he turned to the younger generation in his family after he purchased it and had it moved upriver to its current location parked on Plourde’s yard in Fort Kent.
Passing on his skills
“My dad thought he and my boys could work on it together,” Plourde said. “But his health was just not good enough.”
But that didn’t stop him from being involved, she said.
“He decided he would teach the boys carpentry through his words,” Plourde said. “They were afraid they might make mistakes, but he always says, ‘If you can leave something better than you found it, you know you have knocked something off.’ That was his motto.”
Under Pelletier’s direction, Plourde’s two sons, Andre and D.J., repaired and refinished the shelving inside the structure, installed seating, conducted minor wall repairs and turned the train engine into a family gathering place of sorts.
One large area on a wall was left intentionally free of windows, artwork or shelves so it could be used as the “screen” for family movie nights.
There is no running water or plumbing fixtures, but a camp toilet made from a bucket tucked discreetly behind a curtain in the corner acts as a bathroom.
“Dad really wanted it set up so his grandkids could sleep here,” Plourde said. “He’d come over and hang out with them and really enjoyed it.”
The grandsons — now 20 and 24 — don’t sleep in the engine anymore, and his health now precludes what were regular morning visits by Pelletier.
The time has come to sell, Plourde said, and the family asking $3,000 for it.
A new chapter?
“He had such a vision of what it could be as a waterfront camp,” Plourde said. “But I look at it and see how someone could use it for a camp or [tiny] house.”
Even in the world of tiny houses, the train engine replica would be especially tiny, but it fits the accepted definition of such a structure.
Pelletier’s tiny train building sits on an old school bus frame with the wheels still attached, but Plourde doubts it could be safely towed any great distance.
“It would take someone with a large flatbed truck and plenty of experience to move it,” she predicts. “But people have come to look at it. I believe someone is going to love it as much as dad does.”
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