TEXT BY SARA ANNE DONNELLY
PHOTOGRAPHED BY DAVE DOSTIE
Johanna Fowler discovered her vintage wooden caboose while driving to work one afternoon in the winter of 2001. Tucked into an overgrown plot in Sugarloaf Village I, Sugarloaf Mountain’s oldest development, its rust-colored end and wrought-iron ladder were barely visible through the snow-laden firs. If not for the “For Sale” sign newly posted along Fir Avenue, in Carrabassett Valley, she would have missed it.
Then in her early 30s, Fowler had been a dyed-in-the-wool Sugarloaf ski bum since high school, renting a place on the mountain most winters with money from a waitressing or retail gig and spending the rest traveling the country in the off-season. The commitment required to salvage a run-down caboose wouldn’t usually have appealed to her. But she had just lost her dad. “I was like, well, if I could survive that, I can do anything,” she says. “I’d never bought a place because I was fearful I would fail. But surviving my father’s passing gave me this bravery to try.” Fowler’s $35,000 bid wasn’t the highest, but the owner at the time, a ski patroller, accepted it after hearing that she was a local waitress who planned to renovate the place and live there. This was the first of many “magical” things Fowler says she’s experienced since the caboose came into her life.
ABOVE In the cupola, Fowler juxtaposed lime-green paint with red pleather cushions and an accent wall and pillows in floral fabric.
The 300-square-foot car was part of the former Maine Central Railroad from the 1930s until around 1960, when the company ended its passenger service. It was salvaged from a Waterville junkyard a decade later, moved to Sugarloaf, and used as a cabin by ski racers, who covered the oak floor with orange shag carpet and painted the walls highlighter yellow. Renovating the structure took seven years and involved reroofing, rewiring, installing plumbing, tacking on a deck and an ell to house the primary bedroom, and outfitting the interior with salvaged and thrifted finds. After pulling up the moldy carpet, Fowler wore down 80 sanding pads scraping grime off the hardwood beneath, all the while listening to an Eagles tape she found in an 8-track player in the kitchen.
Along the way, locals caught wind of Fowler’s shoestring adventure and offered to help, like Herbie, an octogenarian retired master carpenter and railfan. He showed up one day and told her, “I can’t do anything high or anything low because of my arthritis — what do you got for me?” She directed him to install the bath’s pocket door and “he did a perfect job.”
ABOVE Downstairs, flaxen walls pick up the golden tones in original oak flooring and a copper bar crafted by a former boyfriend. Most of the lanterns are from the Maine Central Railroad and were given to Fowler by a former employee.
Around the time Fowler was finishing the caboose, which she rents out part of the year, a man walked down the driveway and introduced himself. “I’ve been dying to meet you,” he said. “I worked for Maine Central for 30 years, and my father did for 50.” A few days later, she found a large brass key and a note on the caboose’s copper bar. “I looked through my father’s things,” it read, “and this is the key to your door.” Fowler picked up the key and felt its cool weight in her palm. It was, she says, the caboose’s most magical gift yet.