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Worth the drive: The Freight House

The dining room has an inset fireplace and glass French doors where guests may watch CSX trains pass by.

Homemade foods fill historic train depot

By Jennifer Crossley Howard

The walls of The Freight House in Hartselle are thick — 13 inches — creating an oven of sorts in July and August. But customers would rather fan themselves than alter their beloved historic restaurant, says owner Sandra Sowder.

The 101-year-old former L & N loading depot once held cotton, a staple of Southern livelihood, and these days it produces another hallmark of southern culture: hearty food. The steel, brick and wood building downtown thrives as a meeting place for soon-to-be brides, Rotarians, families and reunions. Chicken poulet, steaks, seafood, four-layered nine-inch Italian cream cakes and house croutons lure a devoted clientele, as does lighter fare. Chicken salad of the walnut, grape and Granny apple variety is on the menu along with plenty of panini.

“We have a large panini following,” Sowder says. “Everything’s homemade. I can’t think of very many things that aren’t made with our hands.”

A baked, savory smell, usually reserved in most kitchens for the holidays, greets customers. It’s enough to make mouths water that just ate.

Besides a holding depot, the building has been a gift emporium and another restaurant. Sowder bought it seven years ago, undoing much of the changes from previous owners to allow the structure’s rugged origins to shine. Trains once pulled into arched, brick loading stations, now filled in with wood, and original floor scales sit in the dining room. Inset fireplaces burned on a cool, spring afternoon, and CSX trains passed by glass French doors in the dining room to the delight of a toddler.

“It’s a great place for train buffs, especially kids,” says Marcia Sutton, an elementary school principal in Huntsville who helps at the restaurant.

The Freight House honors free-spirited train passengers with its hobo plate. It includes pinto beans, sliced tomato and onion, turnip greens and cornbread. There’s no meat in the dish, and that’s the point, as Sowder sometimes must explain to diners. Hobos ate what they could find, usually simple vegetables and legumes.

Because Hartselle is a dry city, The Freight House has thrived without serving alcohol.

“That’s an advantage in a lot of ways,” Sowder says.

Freight House owner Sandra Sowder sells homemade, 4-layered cakes.
Freight House owner Sandra Sowder sells homemade, 4-layered cakes.

Still, she added, running a restaurant — she also owns The Shak in Somerville — requires long hours.

“It’s a tough business,” Sowder says. “It’s a lot of time dealing with the public and their appetite.”

The tradeoff is being part of many customers’ milestones.

“You make memories,” Sutton says. “We’re part of their lives.”

Newly engaged women typically eat lunch on weekends with their mothers while shopping at the nearby bridal boutique Something Blue. Proposals in the dining room are common, which often lead to rehearsal dinners or receptions in a private event room. The Freight House tends to attract college kids who worked there in high school back to work during college breaks. Sowder’s own children earned money there.

“Your children working is not a bad thing,” she adds. “It’s built a lot of character, and it wont hurt them.”

Hartselle’s former passenger depot, built in 1914, sits perhaps 100 feet away from the restaurant, and it houses the chamber of commerce. Both buildings are included on the Hartselle Downtown Commercial Historic District on the National Register of Historic Places.

With history came uninvited guests.

“Supposedly we have ghosts,” Sowder says.

Employees have witnessed blue lights, and there’s been talk of a ghost train conductor, but Sowder says she has never seen a haint.

But she welcomes their help.

“They’ve never swept the floor or wiped down anything,” she says, laughing.

The Freight House Restaurant and Catering

200 Railroad St.
Hartselle, AL 35640
Hours: 11 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday-Wednesday and 11 a.m.-8 p.m. Thursday, Friday and Saturday.