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Depot film packs the Gerold

The premier of “Back on Track: Rebuilding the Waupaca Train Depot” was shown at the packed Gerold Opera House in Weyauwega. It was the story of Mike Kirk who restored the depot after decades of work. James Card Photo

Documentary focuses on Mike Kirk’s efforts

By James Card

The Gerold Opera House was packed on Saturday, May 18, for the premier of “Back on Track: Rebuilding the Waupaca Train Depot.” The story follows Mike Kirk and his years-long journey in restoring the train depot back to its former glory.

Before the film started on the big screen, director Max Hauser pointed out that the film was about Kirk and it would not have been possible without his help and cooperation. This led to everyone in the opera house standing up and giving him a lengthy applause. At the end of the film, he got another standing ovation.

“I had no idea it would be as big and as moving of an evening as it was. The standing ovation for Kirk before the movie even started was unbelievable. Mike has said multiple times it was one of the best days of his life, up there with his wedding day,” said Hauser in an email after the event.

The applause is well deserved as many people present were familiar with his life’s work. The film starts out with Kirk on his hands and knees putting in wood flooring in the basement of the train depot. He’s using wood from the gymnasium floor of the Waupaca Armory and that alludes to the rest of the film: that he is preserving a bit of history in whatever way he can with whatever resources he had.

As a boy, Kirk kept a scrapbook of train pictures and it included a news clipping of when the Waupaca depot closed in 1965. He received an electric train set with for his birthday and that kicked off a life-long hobby in model railroading.

Throughout the film, Hauser includes close-up shots of miniature model trains that roll though intricately designed dioramas of a past American era.

“Some people like cars, some people like ships, some people like airplanes and there are people that like trains. Some people like trains,” said a locomotive historian that appeared in the film. “There is motion, color, lore, science, math, art, music, history, whatever, embodied in this particular means of transportation.”

He later pointed out that less than 1% of all travel in America is done by trains and that 90% of those born after 1960 have never ridden in a passenger train.

The train depot in all towns was a person’s first impression of a community when they disembarked. For those departing, it was the starting point that could put them on an epic cross-country journey anywhere on the continent. People’s lives revolved around the coming and going of the trains.

End of an era

As rail travel was taken over by automobiles, lines closed down, along with the depots. At one point there were over 140,000 depots across America. Now there are an estimated 20,000 in existence.

However, the film does not say what kind of condition that those depots are in. Through Kirk’s dedication, the Waupaca Depot is in immaculate condition which makes it a historical rarity and a community landmark.

Of the other 20,000 depots still standing across the country, many are in poor condition. A cursory online search of train depots in America reveals that many of those left are in neglected, decrepit or creepy condition.

The Waupaca Train Depot was in worse condition than that when Kirk first started the project in 2000. Hauser weaved home video footage into his documentary of Kirk and friends filming themselves as they opened the depot after it had been boarded up for decades. The outside was covered with spray-painted graffiti—not the creative and artistic kind sometimes seen on box cars, but rather the idiotic gibberish of local delinquents.

Ripping off a wood panel to get in, they found SATAN and 666 spray painted upon the stone fireplace. More graffiti covered the inside walls. There were leaks in the roof and holes in the floor. At one time a vagrant was holed up inside with some candles and almost burned the place down. The fire department arrived just in time to put out the fire with only some minor damage.

But there was hope. Over the years, Kirk got the depot back into good condition but he decided to heap on another project: excavate the basement. In this passage of the film, Kirk and other volunteers haul out buckets of dirt and a grotto-like cave emerges. Eventually, they get an escalator mounted through an opening that would transfer earth up to the surface. His troglodyte ambitions paid off and now the basement is a cozy space that holds a massive model railroad display.

At the end of the film there was a question and answer session.

“The subject matter and the simplicity were made into genius shots. Max is very close to me now as his family. And I have never met a more humble and more giving person that Mike,” said Ron Scott, the producer.

He recounted that he learned about the depot by accident while attending a baby shower. When he got a tour of the place and learned of its history, he knew a film must be made about it.

“This is a story that has to be told. The public needs to know what it means to have loyalty and love of community and such as wondrous thing as the railroad,” Scott said.

Hauser’s debut film is a treasure for the Waupaca community and will be a launch pad for his film career. He said in a previous interview that he’s trying to get the film on DVD.

Visit his production website www.liminalvisionfilms.com for updates new releases or showings. The film might also be included in the Weyauwega International Film Festival in November.

During the film there was a brief interlude where Kirk pointed out that he has a couple cameras set up that film the trains as they pass through Waupaca. This is uploaded to a website and people can watch the live train action from the historic depot. Visit Virtual Railfan and search for Waupaca to watch the trains roll into town.

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