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Chronicles Of A Quiet Corner: Boxcar Children Museum
A Museum Dedicated to Gertrude Warner's Famous Boxcar Children Book Series
Putnam, Connecticut is a town with a little over 10,000 people… a small town in the “Quiet Corner” of the state. It comes as a shock to many people that Gertrude Chandler Warner (author of the famous Boxcar Children book series) spent her life in the small town, where she grew up across the street from the train tracks. This location inspired and fueled her imagination.
In her memory, Putnam is now home to the Boxcar Children Museum, a boxcar stationed just outside of the very train tracks that Warner saw every day.
In the 1970s, Warner was a very popular author, especially in this area. When she passed away in 1979, members of the town's historical society wanted to create some kind of museum in her memory.
Museum Founder Fred Hedenberg has been part of the Historical Society since 1974. He was also on the Board of Selectmen in town at the time. “I kept after my colleagues that we needed something like this,” he recalled. At first they planned on donating a portion of the Historical Society's building (an old schoolhouse that had since closed) to Warner, but finally came up with the boxcar idea, suggested by one of Warner's former first grade students.
The Historical Society spent two years looking for a boxcar but either couldn't afford one or couldn't afford to move one. Hedenberg finally got in touch with Dave Ward from the Trolley Car Museum in East Windsor with help from a local reporter.
“There were two metal, all-steel boxcars, which were mostly for animals. One was even refrigerated,” said Hedenberg. “I thought, 'What would we do with these two rust buckets...' Then they had this one... A 1929 metal frame boxcar. It was wood with support beams. I felt it was perfect. That was the type of boxcar that would be on this line when Warner was a child.”
Hedenberg and a few other town officials started discussing prices with Ward. When Ward heard what the museum would be all about…plus the fact that his children and his grandchildren had read The Boxcar Children series, he promptly donated the boxcar to the cause.
But how to move it to its new home?
“A gentleman called me… a semi-retired trucker called 'Bob the Mover,'” recalls Hedenberg. “He said he would move it for me free of charge. [As with Ward], his children and grandchildren read the books!”
The popularity of Warner and the universal feel of fondness for her book series brought everyone together to create the Boxcar Children Museum. It's also what got most of the items into the museum. Warner taught first grade in Putnam for 32 years, starting in 1918. She taught generations how to read, write, appreciate nature and music, and how to respect others.
In 2007, students she had taught back in the 1920s heard of the museum and came forward with art projects they'd done while in Warner's classroom. Patricia Hedenberg, Fred’s wife, said that it speaks to Warner's character, her pull, that all of these people kept things from a first grade class they had back in the 1920s. She had shaped part of their lives.
Warner grew up at 42 South Main Street, right across from the once bustling train station in Putnam. She was fascinated by the trains, which many people were at the time. Often, families would make a day of watching the trains pull in and out of the station.
“In the early 1900s there were a lot more train tracks there, maybe four, five or six,” explains Patricia. “There were 30 trains a day going by. They brought mail to Putnam…[plus] passengers and freight. It was the major way of getting around [and connecting] Putnam with the bigger cities.”
As a child, Warner spent hours watching the trains go by. Always creative and from a talented, artistic family, she wrote her first book at nine years old on her father's desk, sitting on pillows. That same desk is now in the Boxcar Children Museum.
As she grew into a young adult, Warner made contact with the trains and the staff when they stopped in Putnam. She drank coffee and tea with the crew on many occasions. In 1942 she wrote the first book in the 19-part Boxcar Children series.
The background of the series (for the non-initiated) follows four
children (two boys and two girls at various ages) and their adventures
in an abandoned boxcar. Her hope was to get children hooked to reading.
For many, the mystery-adventure books did just that.
“No matter what age you were, you could identify with one of those characters,” said Hedenberg. “We sell the first 19 books [she wrote] at the museum [but] there are now other authors continuing the series. Some kids that were six or seven when they first came to the museum [and perhaps not where they wanted to be], they'll come back to the museum a few years later, now on the 80th book in the series.”
A popular quote from Warner to her fans describes why her book series may have been so successful: “Perhaps you know that the original Boxcar Children… raised a storm of protest from librarians who thought the children were having too good a time without any parental control! That is exactly why children like it! Most of my own childhood exploits, such as living in a freight car, received very little cooperation from my parents.”
There are now over 130 books in the Boxcar Children series, published in many countries in many languages. People from all over the world visit the Boxcar Museum, familiar with the books they grew up on. Putnam may be a small, country town with only 10,000 people. But the Boxcar Museum has touched countless children all over the world, many of whom can't stop reading about those four kids in the abandoned boxcar.
A graduate of East Connecticut State University in Journalism, Olivia has written for Stonebridge Press & Antiques Marketplace among others. She enjoys writing, running and video games.