The Red Caboose Motel & Restaurant began on a dare in 1970, with a bid on 19 cabooses at auction, and has evolved into a collection of eclectic motel rooms in the heart of Pennsylvania Dutch country.
It's a railroad car town in Ronks, nestled in the middle of Lancaster County Amish farms, and is within a quarter-mile of the Strasburg Railroad ticket counter.
"Five minutes from Route 30, but a million miles from the rest of the world," Tyler Prickett, who bought the complex with his father, Todd, in 2016, described the location recently.
In 2018, the brightly colored cabooses were listed by bobvila.com as "15 Classic Roadside Motels You Can Visit Along America's Highways" and by booking.com in its Ultimate "Book the U.S.'" List, which also features an overnight stay in the Empire State Building and The Ultimate Nick Jonas Tour Bus.
The story of the caboose motel began with the challenge by an old school chum. According to the historical booklet, "Red Caboose Lodge," Donald M. Denlinger, founder and president of the Mill-Bridge Craft Village of Soudersburg at the time, never expected to win a bid of $100 under scrap value for 19, 25-ton cabooses at the graveyard auction.
During a blizzard in January 1970, Denlinger received a call that would change his life. He had won the auction and needed to move 950,000 pounds of steel. "When are you going to move your cabooses?" the railroad company asked. He was warned that he would be charged storage for every day they sat, and they wanted them moved by that afternoon, according to the booklet.
Overcoming massive challenges and red tape, Denlinger brought his grimey fleet of rusting cabooses with broken windows and kerosene-soaked floors to a farm in Ronks, transporting them with the help of the Strasburg Railroad.
The track was temporarily bent into the farm, and sidings were built that still hold the cabooses today.
Aside from the cabooses, two Pennsylvania Railroad P-70 coaches from the 1920s serve as the Casey Jones ' Restaurant. They are joined by a boxcar that serves as a kitchen.
Another group of cabooses was brought in for the motel during the 1980s, bringing it to a total of 48 rooms today, including some in the original farmhouse named the Shady Rest Hotel.
Tyler Prickett said that he first experienced the motel when he was "knee high to a grasshopper" during the early 1980s. The Prickett family, originally from Yardley, stayed there nine times as guests over the years.
He approached his father on his birthday in 2015 when the motel complex came up for sale. It was a good fit, as the family had 50 years in the antique business, and Todd Prickett has experience in restoration. So they bought it.
Each caboose has a full bathroom, and each is brightly painted to represent a different railroad company in the United States.
"If you really want to experience the Red Caboose Motel you really have to stay 48 times," Tyler Prickett said, noting that no two caboose rooms are alike.
Some guests come with maps, checking off each caboose so they don't stay in the same one, while others have a favorite caboose. Repeat guests are called, "Very Important Conductors."
Some cabooses are finished in wood, some drywall, and some cupolas are exposed from inside letting in light with their many windows. Sleeping arrangements vary. Some have multiple bunks in one room, and others have a single bed on either side of a full bathroom. The bathrooms are in the center of each caboose.
Aside from the historical and railroad interest, the cabooses are "coming in on the heels of the tiny house craze, these are the original tiny houses," Todd Prickett noted.
The rail cars on the property were made in the early part of the 20th century. There are three wooden cabooses.
Tyler Prickett described the special maintenance challenges that go along with running an aging fleet of cabooses as a motel connected to modern conveniences like running water. Wheels are exposed, and there are no basements to prevent freezing.
"There is no shortage of opportunity for Mother Nature to remind you she is still in charge," he said.
The motel is seasonal. Rooms are available from the first week in March until the end of December. The restaurant is mostly open seven days a week during the season and weekends all year round.
"It's a labor of love, because there really is nothing like this. There is nothing like this in the proximity to other railroad attractions, it's unlike anything in the country," Tyler Prickett said.
Information from: York Daily Record, http://www.ydr.com
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