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How a WWI-era boxcar — a gift from France — is moving from Columbia to Bishopville

This World War I-era boxcar will be moved Saturday from an American Legion post near the University of South Carolina to the S.C. Cotton Museum and Lee County Veterans Museum.
This World War I-era boxcar will be moved Saturday from an American Legion post near the University of South Carolina to the S.C. Cotton Museum and Lee County Veterans Museum. tglantz@thestate.com

The historic and ornate World War I-era boxcar donated full of gifts to the state of South Carolina after World War II will be moved Saturday from Columbia to Bishopville’s South Carolina Cotton Museum and Lee County Veterans Museum.

During both World Wars I and II, the narrow gauge boxcars were a main mode of transportation in France and much of the rest of Europe. They were called Forty and Eights because they were big enough to carry 40 men or eight horses. The boxcars moved troops, hauled supplies, evacuated wounded and, in their darkest use, transported Jews and other victims of the Holocaust in World War II to concentration camps.

The boxcar was part of a 49-car “gratitude train” from France that sent one boxcar to each of the 48 states and the District of Columbia as thanks for the United States’ participation in World War II and America’s aid afterward. The boxcar has been displayed in a parking lot behind Columbia’s American Legion Post 6 at Pickens and Whaley streets for decades, largely unseen by the public.

“This was a piece of history sitting in the middle of South Carolina and no one had ever seen it or heard of it,” said Ronnie Williams, commander of VFW Post 3096 of Bishopville and a director of the Lee County Veterans Museum. “By putting this on Main Street in Bishopville, especially with next year being the 100th anniversary of the armistice of World War I, this gives us a great opportunity to show the history of the boxcar and the history of the wars.”

On Saturday, the boxcar will be placed on a “lowboy” trailer most often used to transport heavy equipment by a crane leased for a discount price from White’s Crane Service of West Columbia. It will then be transported free of charge on the lowboy from Columbia to Bishopville by a crew from Diamond W. Trucking of Heath Springs.

The work will begin at 8:30 a.m. Saturday, and the movers hope to clear University of South Carolina football game day traffic by 10 a.m., organizers said. USC’s game against Arkansas is scheduled to kick off at 4 p.m.

The roof has already been removed from the boxcar so it will fit under interstate bridges, said Eddie Grant, executive director of the S.C. Cotton Museum.

The trailer, boxcar and crane will be escorted by a group of American Legion motorcycle riders, as well as a police escort from Richland, Kershaw and Lee counties.

The Lee County Veterans Museum has applied for a $35,000 grant from Trains Magazine to mount the boxcar on railroad tracks adjacent to the museum and build a depot-like structure around it, Grant said.

An announcement about the grant is supposed to be made on Saturday, he said.

France was leveled during World War II. So in 1947, a group in Los Angeles filled up eight boxcars with donated food, clothing and other supplies to be shipped to France. Word got out, and by the time the “freedom train” reached New York, there were 700 boxcars filled with $40 million in donations.

The gratitude train from France was a reciprocal gesture of thanks for that private aid drive. Each boxcar was filled with 52,000 gifts, from food to artwork to toys.

Today, many of those boxcars are on display in memorial parks, state museums and other public places in each state.

The American Legion was formed in 1919, after World War I. A “Forty and Eight” subset of the legion was made up of Legion officers who served in France. The Forty and Eight group, which still exists today, was appointed caretakers of the “gratitude train” boxcars in 1949.

In May, The State reported on the Columbia American Legion post’s effort to find a more suitable home for the boxcar, prompting the Lee County museums to contact the Forty and Eights.

Jerry Anderson of Goose Creek, the former chief of the Forty and Eight organization in South Carolina, said that the first choice for display would have been the S.C. State Museum in Columbia, but that didn’t materialize.

“Other people would like to have it, but they don’t have the space for it,” Anderson said. “But I do think it’s going to be very well received in Bishopville.”

Museum officials are seeking information about what happened to all the gifts.

The American Legion Post 3 in Greenville was the original caretaker of the boxcar before it was transferred to Columbia in the 1980s. Peter Butchart, a former member of the post, told The State in June the gifts were distributed to dignitaries and organizations all across the state.

But where those gifts are today is unknown. Grant asks that anyone with information about a gift or gifts contract him at (803) 484-4497.

“That would be a great addition to the display,” Grant said.

SOUTH CAROLINA COTTON MUSEUM AND LEE COUNTY VETERANS MUSEUM

Address: 121 West Cedar Lane, Bishopville

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday

Phone: (803) 484-4497

Website: www.sccotton.org

Admission: Adults, $6; senior citizens, $4; students, $3; kids 6-18, $3; kids 5 and under, free; active duty military, free; anyone with a valid military ID, free from Memorial Day to Labor Day

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