A dad and daughter turned a 1973 train carriage into an Airbnb – take a look inside
Jim Dotzenrod and his daughter Danielle have transformed a 1973 train car into an Airbnb.
It has the original conductor’s chairs and railing, and new features like a handcrafted outdoor deck.
The caboose, in Decorah, Iowa, is available for reservations.
Jim Dotzenrod bought this tail gear from a junkyard in 2016.
Jim Dotzenrod had driven past a row of train vans in Decorah, Iowa several times before deciding to take a closer look in 2016.
“Near a town 30 miles north of us there’s a line of caboose cars along the road that some guy bought as part of an investment,” said Jim, 65, to Insider. “And I thought, ‘Well, I wonder what you could use one for? Then I thought of an Airbnb.”
But the owner was unwilling to sell any of the 10 caboose, forcing Jim to seek one himself.
“My daughter’s partner at the time told me there was one 30 miles away in a recycling yard,” Jim said.
The caboose was going to be cut out of iron, but Jim managed to strike a deal and buy a caboose, car no. SW 124, for $8,000. It was built in 1973 and weighed 52,000 pounds.
The property is listed as the CR Caboose Train Station on Airbnb.
This wasn’t Jim’s first time jumping into the world of home improvement and Airbnbs. Jim, a retired carpenter, had turned a silo attached to his farm into a popular Airbnb listing.
Jim hauled the caboose home, but it was no picnic.
Finding a caboose to buy was a challenge. Moving it from the junkyard to Jim’s property was another. The process involved a semi-trailer, a crane and a lift.
“They had two big diggers at the salvage yard,” Jim said. “They put straps on the caboose, and they lifted it onto the tractor-trailer that I had rented.”
Jim’s daughter, Danielle, 42, told Insider that her father also acquired some real train tracks to use as a base for the caboose once it arrived in his yard. The tractor-trailer drove the caboose under a large crane and lifted it onto the set of isolated railway tracks nearby.
“It only took an hour to get it out of the trailer and put it on the trail,” added Jim. It cost about $2,000 to transport the caboose, which measures about 8.6 feet by 30 feet.
Jim’s first step was to gut the decades-old caboose so it could be refurbished.
The $4,000 renovation started by stripping the caboose down to its bones.
“I had to get the iron out of there, and after I emptied it, I had to power wash it to get that diesel fuel smell out,” Jim said. “It was strong – it was just that lingering smell of diesel fuel.”
Jim returned with an air freshener to complete the job.
The Dotzenrods caboose has two sleeping places: a queen bed and a set of bunk beds that can sleep up to four people.
The caboose also has a bathroom, a kitchen with microwave and refrigerator, a double burner hot plate and bar supplies for cocktails.
The property includes air conditioning, WiFi and a TV.
Jim built a wooden staircase and replaced the caboose’s original ironwork with wood trim.
Danielle told Insider that her father used his carpentry skills to replace the caboose’s ironwork with woodwork.
“My dad can do whatever he wants, like absolutely anything, but my dad is so low maintenance himself,” Danielle said. “So when we built that together, it was a good combo, because he could build anything and I was pushing him like, ‘Hey, let’s make this as cool as we can.'”
Although Jim got help cutting new windows into the sides of the caboose, he handcrafted a staircase after putting the cabinets in place and making room for the queen bed. He also used his carpentry expertise to create an outdoor deck visible from the windows of the caboose.
Jim had to do renovations at night or on weekends because of his regular job.
Jim was still working his day job and had to find time at night or on weekends to tackle the passion project.
“I thought it would work as far as generating income,” Jim said. “After my regular work, I would just stay at night and on weekends to do it.”
The renovation project took about six months and was completed in November 2016. Jim told Insider he spent about 300 hours working on the caboose.
Danielle stepped in to add personal and warm touches and to help tile parts of the caboose.
While Jim tackled many structural changes, Danielle chose decorative charms and much of the overall design, he said.
Jim said Danielle designed the floor – black tiles surrounded by oak wood – and many small details that tie the interior together. Danielle also helped decide on the caboose’s color pattern.
Jim added that the wine glass holders hanging on the wall were actually rake heads that Danielle repurposed.
Visitors can lounge on the couch and warm up by the electric fireplace.
Speaking to Insider, Jim praised his daughter, saying she drove her van around nearby towns to find different pieces and furniture options.
“There’s a little electric fireplace in there that Danielle went to Madison, Wisconsin and bought for me,” Jim said. “There’s a sofa, then a large mirror that she picked up in Minneapolis.”
Jim and Danielle said they felt it was important to preserve parts of the original caboose.
Jim and Danielle wanted to preserve the charm of the caboose, so they kept the original conductor’s chairs and railing.
“We wanted it to be enjoyable but still feel like you’re in a caboose,” Danielle said. “I think it’s something we’re proud of. There are a few other cabos, but sometimes when you’re in it you don’t even really realize it’s a caboose.”
Jim agreed, adding, “The outside, of course, looks like a caboose, but you just gotta keep just a little bit of novelty in there, so visitors know what it looked like back then.”
The conductor’s chairs, which can swivel, are near the windows that overlook the property. The original railing is in the middle of the roof of the caboose.
The caboose has a bathroom with shower.
Even in a confined space like a caboose, the Dotzenrods didn’t skimp on amenities. The caboose has a bathroom with shower and toilet.
Danielle told Insider that Jim cut the tiling but she was responsible for tiling the shower walls.
The house has a queen bed and bunk beds.
The queen bed is on the top floor of the caboose, while the bunk beds are on the first floor near the back.
Jim mentioned that two women with young children occupied the space.
He said a good portion of their customers come from surrounding cities like Des Moines. Danielle added that the Airbnb is almost always booked up during the summer by families hoping to escape city life.
Outside you can enjoy a handmade wooden deck near the pasture.
The Jim-built bridge overlooks the Dotzenrods Pasture, where visitors can feed and pet the horses. Danielle said the pasture has become an unexpected draw for visitors.
“I’d say 90% of reviews say hello to the horses,” Danielle said, adding that there’s plenty to do for guests who want to get into town or spend some time on activities.
Visitors can kayak the Upper Iowa River, see the sights on an 11-mile trail, take lessons at a local shooting range, or visit Decorah’s Overthrow the Goliath Brewerywhich has won many awards, about 15 minutes from the caboose.
Jim also offers to take the guests in a horse-drawn carriage.
Danielle said her favorite moments occur when people are relaxing and enjoying the serene nature. “When we see guests sitting on the terrace having a cocktail at sunset or watching the horses in the pasture, it’s nice to offer that chance to the townspeople,” Danielle said. “It’s something we country people probably take for granted, but it’s something they really appreciate.”
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