After going through several owners and closings, the old railroad car along Route 34 in Sandwich has finally been restored to its original grandeur. It was built in 1893 and acquired to be used on the campaign train for Teddy Roosevelt’s presidential runs.
A little history: The Pullman Palace Car was built for $25,000 and debuted at the 1894 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. After that it became part of the crack flyer train on the Burlington Railroad known as the “Pride of Burlington.” The car was turned over to President Roosevelt to use as part of his campaign train that crisscrossed America in the 1904 and 1908 presidential campaigns, as well as his failed Bull Moose Party run for president in 1912. It found its way to Sandwich in the early 1930s, where several restaurateurs have occupied it since.
The new owners, Ronald and Susan Saballus, spent hundreds of thousands of dollars renovating and restoring the famous dining car over nine months and opened it this past spring. Sabullus has years of experience in the real estate and construction business, and utilized his workers to make sure every detail was finished to his specifications. Susan has been in the antique business for more than 20 years in DeKalb, Naperville, Sandwich and Villa Park, so she has an appreciation for history and the possibilities of transforming a rotting wooden structure into a fine restaurant and event center.
The first thing you will notice when driving up to it is that they stripped the aluminum siding off, which made it look like a Zephyr but was not the original exterior.
Even though they had no experience in the food business, they learned a lot from a nephew who has a restaurant in Cicero and a stepdaughter who operates a restaurant in Plano. “We had become empty-nesters and wanted to try something entirely new in our lives. This opportunity presented itself, so we bought it from the bank,” Susan explained. They then involved their son in the business, who now serves as bar manager. They also provide employment to 20 area people, some part time and some full time.
They said the choice of a new name – Bull Moose Bar & Grill – was a natural because Roosevelt last rode the train car in his Bull Moose campaign. “I think of this as a Cheers-type bar where we know every regular’s name and spend time mixing with our customers,” Ronald said.
They have started a new tradition in the business by holding pool tournaments and even a triathlon, which includes pool, the tabletop soccer game of foosball and bags, where you toss bean bags into holes cut into a raised board. They now hold charity events in the expanded facility, which includes the attached house converted into a dining area. Wedding rehearsal dinners, as well as birthday and anniversary parties, can also be held in either section by closing off the railroad car for the special events.
Susan added that the Midwest chapter of the Bull Moose Club has visited the establishment and is assisting them in further research on the history of the 118-year-old Pullman dining car.
I can’t end without sharing my dining experience there: The prime rib sandwich, for only $10, was cooked by Chef Bruce just to my liking. Now I must take my whole family to Sandwich for lunch because they may read this column.
• Barry Schrader was editor of the Daily Chronicle from 1969-1972. He and his wife Kay are retired and live in DeKalb. He can be reached at email@example.com or by mail at P.O. Box 851, DeKalb, IL 60115.