Whistle Stop offers trip back in time
NEW YORK MILLS -- Jann Lee had always wanted to run a bed and breakfast in a big, old Victorian house when she found the perfect place here in town.
But when they heard the bellowing whistle of trains on a nearby track, they knew they had to incorporate it into their business.
"We thought, 'We've got to have a train theme,' " Lee said. "We decided we wanted to have cabooses and we were going to have five cabooses."
In June 1992, she and her husband, Roger, moved from their California home into the grand Victorian house built here in 1903 with its acre of land and towering 150-year-old trees.
They are the third owners in the home's 106-year history. To turn it into a bed and breakfast, they had to add some bathrooms, update the wiring and plumbing, and fix the front porch, which was sagging.
They opened the Whistle Stop Bed and Breakfast in January 1993, starting with three bedrooms in the house.
It took three years to find a caboose they could renovate into a guest room. The "Cozy Caboose," built in 1893, now has a whirlpool tub and private bath, queen-size Murphy bed, refrigerator, air conditioner and TV/VCR. It rents for $105 a night.
After they started renting it, "it was busy all the time," Lee said.
The Lees looked for more cabooses to transform into guest rooms, but they couldn't find any others that fit their needs. Instead, they found two turn-of-the-century Pullman cars.
The "Imperial Car" was built in 1903 and was once a day coach on the Yellowstone Park Line. The "Palace Car" used to be a dining car, built in 1909.
"We had to do everything. They were absolutely a complete disaster," Lee said. "They took a year to complete."
Both cars now boast a double whirlpool and private bath, air conditioner, queen-size bed, fireplace, refrigerator, microwave and TV/VCR. They rent for $125 a night Sunday through Thursday and $165 a night Friday and Saturday.
"Even if you're not a train buff, they're just so romantic," said Wendy Williams, Whistle Stop manager the Lees' daughter.
The train cars and house are adorned with intricate details such as model trains, old suitcases used as end tables, and coasters that look like Monopoly train cards. Pictures of trains, wanted posters and old-fashioned portraits decorate the walls.
The dining table in the Imperial Car is made up of a table between two train benches.
"This time of year when the grass is all green, it looks like storybook land," Williams said.
Five years ago, the Lees added a Victorian Tearoom in the house for tea parties. Dessert buffets are available for special occasions.
The Lees also bought the home next door and turned it into the Santa Fe Cottage. It has a handicapped- accessible entry ramp, shower and tub and runs $125 to $150.
They recently had the opportunity to buy another train car.
"We said absolutely not. Roger's retired, and I'm just tired," Jann Lee said.
But they did it anyway.
The "Viking Car" will probably be a two-year project, Lee said. It will be similar to the other cars, but it will be handicapped-accessible.
Whistle Stop guests are treated to an elaborate breakfast that they can either walk to the house to eat or have delivered.
Before the recession, the Whistle Stop was full all the time and was booking three to four months in advance, Lee said.
"Last year was the slowest year. It was scary," she said. "This year is up."
The weekends still fill up quickly, booking a couple of months in advance. They have a lot of repeat customers who have become friends. They also get quite a few train fans, affectionately dubbed "trainiacs."
Ed and Kathy Schmuch of Bemidji are not quite "trainiacs," but they have become regulars.
"Life slows down when we get there, and I absolutely love the trains going by," Kathy Schmuch said. "It's become such a part of our lives."
"The food is worth the price of the whole thing," Ed Schmuch said of the breakfasts.
They have been staying at the Whistle Stop twice a year since they first stayed there for their 40th wedding anniversary in 2002.
"We just sit there and have our blinds open and look out and watch the world," Kathy Schmuch said.
"And listen to the trains," Ed Schmuch added.