Lambersons honored for Wheaton museum efforts

Wednesday, February 19, 2014
Ralph Lamberson

Couple to have benches in their honor placed by depot

The granddaughter of the last stationmaster at the Wheaton train depot referred to the building's restoration as "a dream come true."

Betty Lamberson -- who along with husband, Ralph, were honored at the Wheaton Historical Society's Valentine's Day dinner -- said she was proud to see the building changed to a town museum.

Betty Lamberson

Wheaton Historical Society member Becky Roskob announced that through donations, the society had acquired four benches, like those that historically sat outside area train stations. The benches would be anchored by concrete in the brick-covered courtyard beside the depot, with plaques recognizing the Lambersons placed on each one.

"Ralph and Betty started the depot," said David Shockley, president of the Wheaton Historical Society and mayor pro tempore. "They've been there each and every minute. What they contributed is beyond imagination."

Betty said her mother, the daughter of stationmaster Walter William Hoyt, would often comment during visits back to Wheaton," I wish something could be done about that depot."

By the 1990s, the paintless gray wood building had become bowed with age and neglect. It was owned by the Wheaton Lumber Yard and used for storage.

There wasn't much interest at the time in Wheaton's heritage. At about 1999, Betty learned the Burlington Northern was getting rid of all the Frisco cabooses and learned where Wheaton could secure one, like other Barry County towns, as a symbol of the community's railroad heritage.

"We couldn't get the city fathers to take it," she said.

Determined to do what she could to save the depot, Betty decided to pursue getting the structure on the National Historical Register list to keep it from being torn down. Pam Lauderdale, the daughter-in-law of the lumber yard owners who managed the business with her husband, liked the idea and prepared the legal papers while Betty drafted the historical papers. Then-state Rep. Sam Gaskill shepherded the application through state approval.

The late David Harris, then serving as mayor, became excited about the possibilities. After convincing officials to take the depot off the lumber yard's mortgage, the city purchased the building for $10,000 in 2004.

The following year, with Wheaton's centennial around the corner in 2007, Ralph and Betty and Betty's brother, Joe Higgs, formed a committee to create a centennial book as a fundraiser. Their creation, the 538-page "Wheaton Echoes," became a major success and stoked significant interest in the town's history. During the centennial celebration, Betty put out a "Save the Depot" jar for donations.

At a meeting of the centennial committee the Sunday after the celebration, one of the members still wanted to tear the depot down.

"Ralph had a problem with that," Betty said. "To keep that from happening, we'd have to form a historical society right away. I was told I could never get it done. The next day, I called [Cassville attorney] Emory Melton. We went to his office, signed the paperwork and got one formed."

The first hurdle involved buying back the depot from the city, which wanted $10,644, its price and two closing costs. Money from a raffle run by the Centennial Committee covered the cost. Book sales and a small loan from the bank provided the resources to start.

Building plans for the depot surfaced in the hands of Frisco Railroad enthusiasts. It was a standard design, built in Arkansas and delivered like a kit to assemble on site. The Missouri North Arkansas Railroad bought the kit for Wheaton and an identical depot for Fairview.

"We took the seed money and hired a full-time carpenter," Ralph said. "I was the project manager. J.P. Hickman volunteered as a second carpenter and was with me every day. The contractor put up the outside and the sheetrock. We finished the inside and Betty painted."

Several breaks proved strategic to the project. The kind of lumber used in the original plans was also used to build forms for the new grain elevator at George's Inc. in nearby Butterfield. Ralph secured what he needed from the leftover supply for around a 10th of the price of buying it new.

The family that bought the depot in Fairview, the Hounschells, had moved it to their farm and attached it to another building for storage. The family allowed the Wheaton restorers to take whatever they needed to finish their project.

"The inside woodwork and ticket window were still intact and preserved," Ralph said. "We had everything we needed."

The old building came down piece by piece and started going back up with new lumber. Even then, Ralph recalled, people didn't believe it could be done. But the volunteers started coming, including an abundance of help from Dale McCracken, president of the organization. Ralph finished the paperwork to secure 501(c)3 status to accept tax deductible donations.

"They didn't think we would do it until we'd done it," Ralph said. "Some still questioned if we had done it. For the 2009 Christmas parade, Betty and I purchased a two-foot wide ribbon, ran it around the building, put a bow on the south side and attached a giant Christmas card that said 'Merry Christmas to the Wheaton community.'"

Work at the museum continues. Ralph has his eye set on building a handicapped ramp. Betty oversees the inventory and donations, and organizes volunteers to staff the facility. A new plaque, announced at the dinner, will be placed inside the depot with the names of all the donors who helped over the years.

"Today, most people say, 'Maybe it's going to work,'" Ralph said.

Located next to the city park, the museum is open 1 to 4 p.m. Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Sunday. It is also open by appointment by calling 417-652-7488.

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