By BECKY KISER
The historic Kansas Merci Boxcar, which sat in front of the former Hays American Legion building, 1305 Canterbury, was moved late Tuesday morning to its new home in the adjacent Veterans Memorial Park, owned by the city of Hays.
The new owner of the building is working on the exterior and the attached railroad car and awning had to be moved.
A two-man crew from Hess Services, Hays, utilized a tall, yellow hydraulic crane with special lift ropes and chains to hoist the 21,000 pound railroad car up into the air and slowly swing it a few hundred yards west, then gently lower it onto a short railroad track in the northeast side of the park.
The process, watched by Hays city officials and interested onlookers, took about two and a half hours, after some pre-planning.
“We figure the load, the radius, the rigging first,” explained Larry Brin, crane supervisor. He and crane operator Jeremy Farber attached the ropes and chains around and under the railroad car. Farber then climbed up into the crane cab to carefully watch hand signals from Brin on the ground to start moving the one-ton load. The crane is capable of moving 275 tons.
“Makes things like this pretty easy,” Brin said with a smile. “This was good.”
One of the interested bystanders was 87-year-old Ed Holzmeister, grand director of the Kansas Merci Boxcar, former commander of the Hays American Legion Post 173, former district commander, and a Navy veteran of the Korean War.
“We’re glad we’re finally getting it moved over to the Veterans Park, which I think will be an asset to Kansas and Hays,” Holzmeister said while taking numerous photos of the process. “We waited quite a while to do this, but it’s finally coming to a close today.”
The Hays boxcar is one of 49 that toured each state, the District of Columbia and Hawaii in 1949.
They were all filled with gifts of cultural significance from the people of France in thanks to Americans who sent needed supplies to France after World War II. The boxcars were able to hold 40 men or 8 horses which is the origin of the name Society of 40 Men and 8 Horses.
According to information provided by Vance Chartier, 40 and 8 Chef de Train, the Kansas boxcar toured 120 cities, ending in Hays on Nov. 11, 1949. After it was paraded through town during the Armistice Day parade, it was placed at Fort Hays Kansas State College (now Fort Hays State University) for display and awarded to the local 40 and 8 chapter to maintain and preserve for the state. In 1975, it was moved to the American Legion where it was rebuilt and turned into a museum.
Now literally welded onto the tracks in its new home by Michael Windholz, Hays park technician, a canopy will be built over the boxcar museum to protect it from the weather. The railroad tracks, ties, rocks and other material for the site were donated by Union Pacific railroad, according to Hays Parks Superintendent Chris Smith.
Fencing will be placed around the area with a locked gate which will be opened for tour groups.
People on those tours often donate items for display inside the boxcar.
“We get a lot of things from tourists who have stuff at home they didn’t know what to do with,” Holzmeister said. “You can donate to us. We’d like to have old World War I and World War II equipment, helmets, canteens, anything from a 20th century war that we can display inside the boxcar,” said Chartier. The two men and other volunteers regularly update the exhibit with different items and maintain the boxcar. “I’m proud to be associated with this,” Chartier added as Holzmeister quickly agreed.
Total cost of the relocation project is estimated at $35,000. So far, $14,000 has been raised by the non-profit local chapter of “40 and 8,” according to Chartier, who was also on hand to watch today’s move.
Donation boxes are located at The Press restaurant in the Hadley Center, Vanderbilt’s, Heartland Lumber, JD’s Chicken and Dairy Queen. Big Creek Crossing is hosting a special storefront display about the boxcar’s history, and donations can also be made there.
The city of Hays has offered to match a portion of donations made to the project. A new roof structure and permanent fence will be installed at a later date when additional funding is available.
“This belongs to our veterans,” Holzmeister said. “It’s so easy to forget this history. We just need to remember it and keep it alive for another generation.”