Archive: Nothing like a Cockaboose

bgillespie@thestate.comAugust 26, 2006 

Another USC football season is approaching, and Bill Rentz is torn. The Columbia dentist has retired and will be moving to the Grand Strand. He looks forward to a more relaxed lifestyle, but he has one problem.

Does he give up something that has been a major part of his social life for the past 16 years? Something he regards almost as a family heirloom and as a unique, tangible connection to his alma mater?

Does he sell his Cockaboose?

In fact, the decision has been made. Rentz, president of the Cockaboose Corp., which oversees the 22 former cabooses that have been a part of Gamecocks game days since 1990, says his unit - No. 4, the fourth over from Key Road on a 1,600-foot railroad spur directly behind Williams Brice Stadium - is for sale.

Asking price: $300,000, which includes a parking space at the nearby Touchdown Zone (Cockabooses do not come with a parking space).

It makes sense to sell, given his changing lifestyle. And yet . . .

"There's nothing like a Cockaboose," Rentz, 66, said, smiling. "It always sort of reminds me of the old Cogburn's Grill," a defunct downtown Columbia eatery where generations of USC students, including the 1962 graduate, went for inexpensive meals and socializing.

Now, the gathering place of choice - for Rentz, wife Diane, their four children and 16 grandchildren - is the Cockaboose.

"On football Saturdays, we have 45-50 people coming and going," he said. "We're in and out, people are all around, even from other schools, and we tell 'em, 'C'mon in.' It's like we're ambassadors for Carolina football."

A tough decision, indeed.

When the first Cockabooses came into being in March 1990 (another seven, dubbed the "Steel Spur cabooses" and located within the Touchdown Zone, went on sale in 2002), they immediately became an integral part of USC football, and one of the nation's unique monuments to college tailgating.

Thousands of fans walk by every football weekend, while hundreds mingle inside the units or on their decked roofs. The units have been featured in such magazines as Southern Living and Smithsonian, and they did a turn in the National Examiner tabloid.

Even former USC and current NFL cornerback Sheldon Brown, in a guided video tour of Williams-Brice seen on the Philadelphia Eagles' Web site, talks about the Cockabooses while the camera shows them in the background.

"It was something no one else had done," said Sam Jones, owner of Columbia's Hampton Pontiac auto dealership and an original owner. "I've had ESPN in mine three times over the years."

The Cockabooses were the brainchild of Columbia businessmen Ed R. Robinson and Carl F. "Doc" Howard, who spent two years acquiring the old cabooses and the rail spur. It took them two days in 1990 to sell 20, at $45,000 each; they kept the other two, and one eventually was acquired by USC.

"People would look at you, and they would give you this kind of wild-eyed look like, 'You're nuts,' " Robinson said in 1990. He died of brain cancer in 1998. "Then they'd say, 'Yeah. I want one.' "

Rentz said he read about the Cockabooses and called Robinson and Howard, who had two left. "We closed that day," he said. "A guy from California bought the other."

Today, 12 of the original owners still have their Cockabooses.

Before the project, Robinson and Howard pioneered the high-end tailgating craze at USC when they opened Carolina Park, the first "condo parking" facility near Williams-Brice. Since, other gated facilities and condominium projects have sprouted near Bluff and Key roads, with prices ranging from $20,000, for parking spots and amenities, on up (USC coach Steve Spurrier owns a condo in Carolina Walk, for which he has done endorsements).

But the Cockabooses remain a one-of-a-kind amenity. Each is 45 feet long and 10 feet wide (interior space is 30-by-9) and as originial as its owner wants - or can afford.

For their $45,000, buyers in 1990 got central heat and air, water and sewage, electrical wiring, telephones and access to a satellite dish for TV.

"In other words, you got the shell," Jones said. "We had to take it to the metal and start over. Everyone's got in excess of $100,000 in them, and that was 16 years ago. I've got more than that in mine."

Indeed, Jones' No. 17 includes a bedroom, kitchen and bathroom with a glass-walled shower, and features striped wallpaper and brass trim.

"It's my home when it's game time," he said, though he concedes he has stayed overnight "one time in 16 years."

Rentz built fold-down beds into No. 4's walls. He sometimes lets visitors use his house while he stays in the Cockaboose on Friday nights before games.

His father worked for a railroad, so Rentz wanted an "Orient Express" theme with an open aisle, antiqued wallpaper and a booth. "Some people have (separate) bedrooms, but that cuts down on party space," he said.

Even with his mind made up to move on, Rentz praises the Cockaboose concept. "I compare it to a skybox (in Williams-Brice)," he said. "I can have that, or a caboose that I can have for the rest of my life."

He recalls Saturdays with his four children and 16 grandchildren enjoying the pregame atmosphere, and sighs.

Jones understands Rentz's angst. At 64, he too contemplated putting No. 17 on the market. "I might spend more time at the beach, not fight the (game day) crowd," he said.

Jones paused, then laughed wryly. "I don't think I will, though," he said. It's hard to give up a Cockaboose.

Reach senior writer Bob Gillespie at (803) 771-8304.

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