A bubbly little 6-year-old blonde girl stretched her neck from the backseat of her great-grandparents' car to get her first look at "Old Cabbage Head" as they pulled into the parking lot of the Manatee Village Historical Park.
The 1913 Baldwin locomotive is a storied landmark in Manatee County,
although the wood-burning engine only operated locally for four years from 1948-52. But what a four years it was, according to Ramona Self, visiting the park at 1404 Manatee Ave. E. with her husband, Wade, and great-granddaughter, Kayla Ingram.
Old Cabbage Head is the reason a lot of people stop into the historical village, and the attraction to trains isn't lost on the Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court office, which has operational control over many of the county's historical sites.
The clerk's office recently announced receiving funds to move forward with a proposal to install a train-themed playground set at the park.
That was good news to the Selfs, who have a special bond with Old Cabbage Head and a fondness for Florida railroad history.
Self is a fifth-generation Floridian who was born and raised in Manatee County and remembers the days when Old Cabbage Head would steam along the local tracks to and from the Manatee Nocatee Crate Mill.
"I used to drive down to the old post office and would always get stopped at the tracks and watch this train just chug, chug, chug along," said Self. "Life was a lot simpler back then. Life was good."
There is something about trains that grab the attention of people of all ages. Whether it's the knowledge of how the railroad played a key role in America's Manifest Destiny expansion from coast to coast or memories of toy trains circling the Christmas tree, many have a long-standing love affair with trains.
"Old Cabbage Head has been the reason why so many people have stopped here, who didn't know we were here until they saw it as they were driving by," said education and volunteer coordinator of the historical village Melissa Porter. "That's one of the primary reasons why it was decided we would do a train-themed playground."
Playground equipment costs can run up to tens of thousands of dollars, but thanks to the Kiwanis Club of Bradenton, the City of Bradenton and Mosaic, throngs of children who visit the park every year will soon be playing on a double-decker train playground set large enough to accommodate up to 50 kids.
The cost of the equipment isn't being discussed until a yet-to-be determined ground breaking ceremony takes place, but the Kiwanis initiated the funding with a grant in December 2013 with one condition: the historical park find a way to match the grant.
The city and Mosaic recently stepped forward to help the historical village reach its financial goals, matching the Kiwanis grant. Now it's just a matter of waiting for the playground train to pull into the station.
"It will be done in stages," said Chris Brown, the park's special events coordinator.
Porter said once the playground opens, Old Cabbage Head will no longer be accessible for people to climb "all aboard" the old steel ladder and into the engineer's station.
"It's an important historical piece," said Porter. "We want to make sure it's protected well into the future, and it's going through some wear and tear. It's part of the reason we wanted the train-theme for the playground because we know people love the train. Now the kids can have an area to run off their energy, and we hope to do things in the future that will make the playground an enjoyable and educational experience."
Old Cabbage Head isn't going anywhere, but the eventual accessibility restrictions were the reason for Self's Friday visit with her great-granddaughter, Kayla.
"I wanted her to experience it while she still can," said Self.
Kayla said it was her first time seeing a train. She couldn't put into words what it was about Old Cabbage Head that was making her smile, but when asked what she thought of the old locomotive, she summed it up well.
"Cool," she said.
Mark Young, Herald urban affairs reporter can be reached at 941-745-7041 or contact him via Twitter @urbanmark2014