Jeff Conner and ‘Show Paints’ complete colorful restoration
IMLAY CITY — It had been 16 years since the old Grand Trunk Western Railroad caboose outside the Imlay City Historical Museum had been painted.
Enter Jeff Conner, owner of Show Paints by Conner of Greenville, Pennsylvania, who along with his associate, Christian, spent four days last week washing, cleaning, sanding, priming and restoring the vintage caboose back to its original orange hue.
Just a week a earlier, Conner and Christian had painted three historic railcars at the Amtrak Depot in Lapeer.
With 30 years of painting railroad cars, carnival rides and military vehicles and equipment under his belt, Conner said he was able to make relatively short work of the caboose project.
“It was actually still in pretty good shape,” Conner opined. “We didn’t have to do any ‘bondo’ work or any time-consuming repairs. And the weather was hot, but it was ideal for painting.”
Conner said the absence of rain provided them a succession of days in which to maximize their progress.
“We made a lot of progress in the first two days,” he said, “so we’re able to move along quickly and we got the job done sooner than we expected.”
Imlay City Historian Marilyn Swihart said she learned of Conner’s project at the Lapeer depot and decided to check on his availability.
“We received a good report about his work and decided to see if he could paint our caboose, which was last painted in 2004,” Swihart said.
As it turned out, the timing of Swihart’s call worked into Conner’s work schedule, which has been less busy than usual due to the impact of the coronavirus.
“We were off to our busiest year ever, then COVID hit,” Conner lamented. “Since then, I’ve had a lot of jobs canceled, even the government jobs.”
He said government and carnival jobs had been his ‘bread and butter’ since he started his painting business more than 30 years ago.
“I started out painting the carnival rides at the fairs,” Conner recalled. “I’ve done a lot of carnival rides over the years, including having painted 592 carousel horses. That’s a lot of carousel horses.”
But even those jobs have dried up this season, he said.
“In the past, I’ve always had an open invitation to do the painting at the carnivals and fairs — but not this year.”
While not at his home in Greenville, PA, Conner travels and usually sleeps in his old, retired ambulance, which is equipped with what he says are “all the comforts of home.”
“I’ve got everything I need in my vehicle and it’s good for traveling,” he said. “I really like coming into these small towns. They’re all different. The people are all different and so is every job I do.”
Swihart said the caboose was built in 1927 by the American Car & Foundry Company and sold to Grand Trunk Western Railroad.
She noted that for decades, cabooses were a familiar fixture at the end of freight trains, performing a critical role in railroad operations. However, the passage of time and technological advances have made them a thing of the past.
Swihart said the Imlay City Historical Commission purchased the vintage caboose and adjacent railcar (formerly a diner car) from GTWR in 1987 for $2,000.
She said the cost included material and placement on tracks at the former depot site, which now serves as Imlay City’s Historical Museum.
Swihart said the caboose was last painted in 2004, by Coulter Painting of Lapeer, who painted the exterior of both the caboose and railcar at a cost of $6,600.
That project was funded through donations from the Imlay City Rotary Club, the Imlay City Downtown Development Authority (DDA) and a community fundraiser that was bolstered by donations from a “penny drive” conducted by Imlay City elementary students.
Swihart noted that in 2019, several of the rotting windows in the cupola of the caboose were replaced by volunteers, with the help of Imlay City businessman Tony Schlaud of Kitchen Designers.
She said the work and painting conducted by Jeff Conner and Show Paints by Conner is being funded in part by memorial monies and funds from the museum’s general operating budget. Grant funds are also being sought.
“A grant request has been submitted to the Tom E. Dailey Foundation of Columbus, Ohio, under their Railroad Heritage Program,” Swihart said. “It will not be known until the second week in August if the grant is approved.”
Meanwhile, Swihart said museum volunteers have begun replacing rotting wood in preparation for painting the interior of the caboose.
The Imlay City Historical Museum is located at 77 N. Main St. at the railroad tracks.
For more information about the Imlay City Historical Commission, the Historical Museum, or to make a donation, call 810-724-1111.
Tom Wearing started at the Tri-City Times in 1989, covering the Village of Capac as a beat reporter. He later served stints as assistant editor and editor. Today, he covers Imlay City and Almont as a staff writer. He enjoys music and plays drums and sings with various musical groups in the Detroit Metropolitan area.