CALDWELL — In 1917, C.M. Van Slyke moved to the Treasure Valley and opened a row crop and fruit farm in Caldwell. He couldn’t have known that years later, the community would build an agricultural museum in his name.
Caldwell officials are hoping to revitalize the Van Slyke Agricultural Museum to keep it open for the general public on a regular basis. A construction crew is working to restore an 1882 caboose in the museum, which city historian Chuck Randolph expects to be complete by the end of the year.
The museum first started in 1934 as a display of Civil War-era cabins that the Native Daughters of Idaho placed at Memorial Park, at 621 Harrison St., where the museum now stands, Randolph said. Over the years, more agricultural equipment was donated to the museum, much of it by Van Slyke.
Van Slyke’s granddaughter, Eloise Van Slyke, said her grandfather was invested in preserving pieces of the Treasure Valley’s agricultural history. Among the equipment he donated to the museum was a steam engine that’s still on display. Mayor’s assistant Susan Miller said the city hopes to get the engine running again, as well as several other historical locomotives.
Overall, the museum features 53 pieces of antique farm equipment, Miller said. It has typically been open to the public only about once a year — on the Fourth of July — and on request. The first year Randolph opened the museum on the Fourth, more than 200 people showed up — proving there’s interest in having it open more often, he said.
“Almost everyone of them, the adults, said, ‘I’ve lived here all my life, and I’ve never found this open,’” Randolph said.
The museum is still visible to the public year-round in Memorial Park. A wrought-iron fence was recently built around the museum, funded by the Caldwell Historical Society, Randolph said. Before that, a chain-link fence blocked access to the artifacts.
“It looked like a prison yard,” he said.
Some of the displays, and the museum itself, have fallen into disrepair over the years. Miller said the Civil War-era cabins were recently refurbished, and during the harsh winter of 2017, snow and ice collapsed a canopy that had been providing cover for some of the artifacts. The city opted not to replace the canopy, which Randolph said improved the museum’s appearance.
“It looked awful anyway,” Miller said.
One of the biggest draws of the museum are the two railroad cars that Randolph said were donated by Crookham Company in the 1960s. These also have deteriorated over time. Randolph said the larger refrigerator car, which was once used to ship poultry, has rot building up in its doors, making it difficult to open and close.
But the city is focusing its current efforts on restoring the caboose, built in 1882. Mike Pannell, project manager for Wasatch Railroad Contractors, specializes in restoring these types of cabooses. He said his company has been working with Caldwell officials on organizing this project for about a year, and he hopes to complete the restoration by the end of 2019. He and his team plan to fix the leaks in the roof, strip away old plywood to expose the original wood, replace the windows and repaint the now-yellow caboose with a more classic red color.
Once the project is complete, Miller said they plan to allow visitors to explore inside the car. She said the city will hold a ribbon cutting for the caboose once it’s finished, which will be another occasion when the public can go inside the museum.
After the caboose restoration, Randolph said the city plans to move the artifacts into different displays around the museum, instead of piled together in one area like they are now. The city will also add a hard-surface floor, replacing the gravel base, which Randolph said made it difficult for visitors with disabilities to make their way around the artifacts.
One of the final phases of the project will be adding a stone wall near the front entrance of the museum, where panels will show images and information about some of the displays inside, Randolph said. The wall will likely not be built for another several years, he said.
Randolph said he hopes the city is able to open the museum to the public on a regular basis before the wall is constructed. Miller proposed opening the museum once a week or twice a month, but Randolph said that will depend on when the museum secures a volunteer staff who can operate it.
Right now, the museum has no dedicated staff and does not charge admission fees when it is open, Randolph said. He was not sure if the fees would change when the city opens the area more regularly. He mentioned they may seek volunteers from some of the other historical exhibits in Caldwell, like the Our Memories Museum.
Miller and Randolph said they were not sure how much the restoration project would cost overall, but they have secured several funding sources and are looking for more. Miller said Idaho Heritage Trust, the Union Pacific Railroad, Canyon County’s historic preservation levy and the city of Caldwell have all committed funding for the project.
Pannell said the caboose restoration will likely cost Caldwell somewhere between $40,000 and $50,000. He said this is an extremely low price, as full restoration projects typically cost between $200,000 and $250,000.
“Restoration costs are high if you want it done right,” Randolph said.