BELLEVILLE — Grass had sprouted in the gutters, the masonry was in need of repair, and the shingles, joists and other roof components had rotted.
It’s been decades since Limburger cheese was stored in the basement, while bikes instead of locomotives now make up the traffic on the adjacent railroad bed that has been converted to the Badger State Trail.
But the character of the former railroad depot here remains, along with potential. And that’s why the village of Belleville began renovations last week on the historic structure in an effort to bring new life to the building that sits across the street from where ground will be broken next year for a public library.
It’s unclear what type of business will ultimately occupy the depot, constructed in 1888 by the Chicago, Madison & Northern Railroad. But officials here are bullish on the facility and are confident its location and history will be a draw for an entrepreneur looking for a unique location in a community that oozes history, sits along the Sugar River in southern Dane County and has retained its small-town charm.
“It’s just one of the coolest buildings in town,” said Rick Francois, head of the village’s Community Development Authority (CDA), whose family has owned a car dealership in the community since 1939. “Between the history and just the possibilities on that bike corridor, it could be just a huge draw for Belleville.”
The village purchased the depot last month for $250,000 from Landmark Service Corp. and on Tuesday work crews began a $160,000 project to tear off the roof and replace joists and shingles as part of the first phase of restoring the building. The village expects to spend an additional $600,000 to make the depot ready for a possible tenant. Brian Wilson, the village’s administrator, clerk and treasurer, said the goal is to have an operating business in the depot by early 2020 once the full restoration is completed.
“The next step is for the CDA to find someone who would want to come in there and open that as a business opportunity,” Wilson said.
Passenger rail service to the village ended more than 50 years ago, and freight service was halted in the 1980s. The depot and surrounding property was ultimately purchased by Union Cooperative and later was owned by Landmark. The depot had been used by the cooperatives for offices and fertilizer and seed corn storage but the building has been vacant in recent years while other buildings on the property had been removed by Landmark.
Renovation of the depot, which was added in 2016 to the state and national registers of historic places, is far from an anomaly as scores of depots around the state have been converted over the years to other uses. Those now along bike trails — as in Lake Mills, Elroy and Ridgeway — are being used as visitor centers, while the depot building constructed in 1903 on West Washington Avenue in Madison is home to a bike shop and restaurant space. In Watertown, a depot on the city’s west side is an art studio, while a Wausau depot was recently converted to a distillery. One of the most notable depots in the state is in Green Bay, where the former Chicago & Northwestern Railroad depot is home to Titletown Brewing Co.
Ideas for the Belleville depot include a coffee roasting company and coffee shop or a brewpub, both of which would be regional draws and cater to those who use the bike trail, according to a group of UW-Madison doctoral students who studied the property and came up with potential viable uses.
“These young wizards looked at Belleville and it was really neat to see. They came down here and looked at this town to try and decipher out what’s the best thing,” said Francois. “They understood that a restaurant just supported by Belleville residents might not be viable so they looked at businesses that would have a more regional approach. It was really good information for us.”
The 40-mile Badger State Trail was created in 2009 and runs from Madison to the Illinois border, where it connects to the Jane Addams Trail in Illinois. One of the highlights of the trail is located 2.7 miles south of Belleville. The 1,260-foot-long Stewart Tunnel was completed in 1887 after a year of digging and is now a prime destination for bikers, many of whom depart from Belleville.
Roger Hillebrand, Belleville’s village president and a member of the Dane County Railroad Commission, said the state Department of Natural Resources is studying ways to prevent further erosion inside the tunnel and is considering adding 16-foot-tall wooden doors to each entrance to reduce the amount of freezing and thawing inside the tunnel during the winter. The doors, which would be similar to those on the Elroy-Sparta State Trail, would also make the tunnel more picturesque.
Across the street from the depot is where the historic village hall building, which also contained a library, is now the centerpiece of the historic Library Park and is used by the Belleville Historical Society. A glance to the north from the depot provides views of the River Street Bridge that is now part of the bike trail as it crosses the Sugar River.
But Hillebrand, the retired police chief for the village, said the depot, with its history and architecture, could be one of the trail’s gems.
Decades ago, Limburger cheese would be stored in the basement of the depot until there was enough to fill a refrigerated rail car. Today, Chalet Cheese Cooperative in Monroe is the only company in the U.S. that makes the pungent cheese, but back in the day, there were several Limburger factories in the Belleville area that brought their products to the depot to be shipped around the country.
“I went down there and it’s pretty neat,” Hillebrand said of the depot’s basement. “It’s all stone with heavy supports and I guess a great place to store cheese until it’s ready to go.”
On the main floor of the depot, a large section of the south wall has newer brick work and is a reminder of the damage caused by a tornado in 1955. Older bricks on the building’s exterior still hold names and dates from decades ago. Some are etched into the brick, while others are written in pencil.
“Some of the names you recognize,” said Hillebrand, who has lived in the village since 1974. “It’s part of the history of this community.”