For Ted Hughes, restoration ensures history isn’t lost.
Hughes, 86, born and raised in Nelson County, walked through a red caboose in Piney River earlier this month, pointing out all the period features — including an iron potbelly stove tucked in a corner of the end car.
The caboose is about 100 years old, but the wood inside smells fresh and is newly stained. The red paint on the outside is bright and has yet to peel. It’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, the old rail car was essentially consumed by Mother Nature, having sat sedentary outside for more than 45 years.
That’s Hughes’ magic touch. After retiring from the Virginia Department of Transportation in 1994, he began to restore old items brought to him in a shop on his property.
“I already had a shop here. I wanted something I could do without leaving the shop,” said Hughes, who began his hobby 25 years ago by restoring some old carriages that were brought to him.
“It just went from there; from one thing to the other and kept going,” Hughes said.
Hughes said over the years he has had the pleasure of restoring a number of historic artifacts including, but not limited to, sleighs, carriages and buggies. Many of his completed works can be found in museums in Blackstone, Lynchburg and Amherst.
“All around and everywhere,” Hughes said about his projects.
Hearses, carriages and wagons seem to be Hughes’ specialty. In the last five or six years, Hughes said, he’s also been restoring old farm pieces Saunders Brothers Farm Market in Piney River has been collecting.
“I have always been interested in history and I hate to see old stuff carried to a junkyard,” Hughes said.
Hughes said the most memorable project he worked on was in 2010. He built a Civil War-era Rucker Ambulance, the most popular ambulance used by the Union Army according to a News & Advance article. Hughes said he went to Fort Lee in Petersburg, Virginia, to get the plans and built it from scratch, other than the wheels and axles.
“From the ground up,” Hughes said.
The project took one year and 500 hours before its completion, according to a 2010 News & Advance story, and Hughes sold it to a private collector in Appomattox.
The red caboose — once part of the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway — is Hughes’ most recent accomplishment. The caboose was the very one that had once traveled the railway through Nelson and Amherst counties, over the Piney River.
“When I was growing up, the train came through twice a day,” Hughes said.
The caboose took years to restore because of its condition, but also the unforeseen amount of money it would take to bring it back to life. That didn’t stop Hughes who, with the help of volunteers, completed the caboose and used a lot of his own money to do so. Hughes estimated it cost about $50,000 total to restore the old railroad car and said that was pretty good considering its condition when moved from Rapidan.
“I thought that came in pretty good considering what we had to do to it,” Hughes said.
Five years later, everything was completed. The caboose now sits at the Piney River Trailhead and Claire Richardson, Nelson County Parks and Recreation director, hopes to have a grand opening for the public in the spring.
“We are thankful for Ted’s attention to detail and for his commitment to this project. The caboose, especially the interior, is truly a work of art,” Richardson said in an email on Dec. 16.
Janet Hunter, president of the Virginia Blue Ridge Railway Trail, said although she didn’t directly work with Hughes, the end result of the years-long caboose restoration project impressed her.
“He volunteered to do this, oversaw the whole project, and it looks gorgeous,” Hunter said.
For Hughes, his fun isn’t over yet.
“I have a shop full of stuff still. We’re restoring a 1948 Chevy truck. I just finished another tractor. I got quite a bit of work,” Hughes laughed. “More than I am able to do.”