Speeding freight cars on the Louisville & Indiana Railroad Co. click and clack past the small yellow building in downtown Franklin more than a dozen times each day.
Stranding inside the Franklin railroad depot and hearing the prolonged toot of the horn, it’s easy to imagine the glory days when trains were the fastest way to get around.
The depot is no longer a stop on any railway; its current location is not even in the place where it originally served one of the largest rail lines in the Midwest. But it has remained a cultural artifact.
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“There are less than 150 historic depots left in Indiana. When you think about it, that’s about 1½ depots per county, and you’re very lucky to have one in pristine condition like you have here,” said Craig Smith, who now owns the depot building. “I would have hated to see this move out of Franklin.”
This relic of the city’s railroad history is back up and running, as Craig and Kim Smith have renovated and reopened the famed railroad depot downtown. Since buying the vacant building in 2015, the Smiths have painstakingly restored it to match its 1900s glory.
Soon, a museum dedicated to the city’s role on the rails will be open to the public and again.
Now housing their old-fashioned snack shop, Hoosier Cupboard Candy, Snacks & Ice Cream, the family hopes that their work will preserve an important part of local and national history.
“I’ve loved railroads my entire life. My grandfather worked on the Monon Railroad. My uncle owned a beer distributorship, and the Rensselaer Monon depot sat right behind it,” Craig Smith said. “My dad would let me go over and sit with the station manager, listen to the radio and listen to the trains.”
Hoosier Cupboard specializes in fine chocolates, nostalgic candies, old-fashioned soda pops and hand-dipped ice cream. The family business — operated by Craig Smith and his wife, Kim, as well their children Linden and Cameron — had been located just a few blocks west, near the courthouse square in Franklin.
Glass display cases showcase truffles, peanut butter cups, nut clusters and other decedent treats. In warmer weather, families can sit out in the grassy area to eat their ice cream.
With its location on the main thoroughfare through downtown Franklin, the shop is in a prime location to attract new customers and visitors to town. But many people who stop in aren’t even aware of the depot’s long history.
“People will come in and say, ‘This is a really neat house,’” Kim Smith said.
The depot building was constructed in 1909, and was originally located north of town on Cincinnati Street. The station was a stop on the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway, known as the “Big Four Railroad” for the four major cities it served.
Trains running from Fairland stopped in Franklin at the station, letting off fuel, lumber and other goods before continuing to Martinsville. The railroad was the city’s lifeline, bringing grain, coal and other vital goods to help supply the town.
For more than 50 years, the depot was a regular stop on the line. But when the New York Central Line closed the station in the 1960s, local preservationists debated how to use what had been an important facet of the community.
The Franklin Education Foundation ended up buying the abandoned building for $1 from the railroad, and set to work moving it to its current location in downtown Franklin, near the railroad tracks, in 1979.
Education foundation volunteers fixed up the building and looked for tenants to rent the space. Over the decades, it housed the United Way, Johnson County Red Cross and, until 2013, the Franklin Chamber of Commerce.
When the Chamber of Commerce moved into its new location in downtown Franklin, the fate of the old depot was in doubt, said Max Fitzgerald, a historian and member of the education foundation, in 2013. The education foundation worked to find a tenant, offering it to nonprofit groups and other businesses to allow the building to remain viable.
Discussions were had with other railroad clubs about preserving it, and talks were in place to possibly move the structure to the Indiana State Fairgrounds at the time, Fitzgerald said.
The thought of the depot leaving irked Craig Smith.
“I personally thought that would be a travesty to move it out of Franklin,” he said.
When the education foundation transferred control of the depot to the Johnson County Community Foundation, a blind bid auction was held for the space. The Smiths put in an offer, and as part of the bid, they promised to properly renovate the building and keep it in Franklin.
Restoration work lasted for nine months, from August 2015 until the shop opened in early last year.
This wasn’t the Smiths’ first restoration project. In 2004, they opened up the Ashley-Drake Inn, a fixed-up 1897 Queen Anne Victorian home just down Jefferson Street in Franklin. They also own two other Victorian homes that they’ve refurbished in town.
With that experience in mind, they set to work refurbishing the depot piece by piece. The trim and wainscoting had to be restored to how they would have looked in 1909. Doorways were opened back up. The floors, which had been covered with chipboard and carpeting, were stripped back to the original wood.
Hanging lanterns and overhead lighting gave the space a more industrial look, more appropriate for an early 20th century railway station. Historic photos of Franklin, with a focus on the railway, were blown up and arranged on the wall.
On April 8, 2016, the depot opened to the public.
“It’s been hard work, but we love it when people come in and go, ‘Wow,’ “ Kim Smith said.
Besides just a distinctive and unique architectural structure in Franklin, the depot also housed a museum of local railway history in the freight section of the station. Many items came from residents who worked in the railroad shops in Beech Grove, a major hub for Indiana railroads.
Signs from old railway stations, coal shovels that were used to fuel the engines and signal lanterns are just a small portion of the items included in the space.
Now that the depot building itself has been restored, the Smiths have plans to focus on it. Though there is no solid timeline for it, the museum will hopefully be done soon, Craig Smith said.
“Once we get started on it, it’ll go quick, because there’s not that much to do in there,” he said.
While a working business, the Smiths also treat the space like a community asset. They’ve opened it up to school field trips and often host classes of children who want to learn more about the city’s history.
The Smiths also are working to have it listed on the National Historic Registry, even though it has been moved from the original location.
“This has such cultural significance, I think it’s a no-brainer,” Craig Smith said.
Franklin Railroad Depot
Where: 370 E. Jefferson St.
What: A restored depot from Franklin’s railroad past
Current owners: Craig and Kim Smith
When was it built: Around 1910
Original location: Water and Cincinnati streets
What was it used for: Service station for freight and passengers on the the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago and St. Louis Railway line between Fairland to Martinsville. The railway was eventually absorbed into other companies, including the New York Central Line.
When was it retired: The railroad discontinued the Franklin stop in the 1960s, and ceased use of the depot.
What did it become: The station was purchased by the Franklin Education Foundation, and used as a headquarters from groups such as the United Way, Red Cross of Johnson County and the Franklin Chamber of Commerce.
Current use: Houses Hoosier Cupboard Candy, Snacks & Ice Cream, a traditional candy and ice cream shop
Hours: Open 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, noon to 5 p.m. Sunday