The Times photo by Betsy Reason
Noblesville’s Bob Arbuckle served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and still wears his uniform whenever he has the opportunity. Here, he poses for a photo at the Hamilton County War Memorial on the Courthouse Square.
The Times photo by Betsy Reason Noblesville’s Bob Arbuckle served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and still wears his uniform whenever he has the opportunity. Here, he poses for a photo at the Hamilton County War Memorial on the Courthouse Square.

Bob Arbuckle dances to Justin Timberlake’s “Can’t Stop this Feeling” from the top of a train caboose.

He pedals a female passenger on his single-bench surrey cycle in Noblesville holiday parades.

He pleases cheering crowds with his ballroom steps at the Noblesville Street Dance on the Courthouse Square.

Arbuckle, who turned 96 years old in October, is still amazing folks as he seems to keep going strong while loving the attention.

Earlier this month, he played host to a “shindig” at Arbuckle’s Railroad Place on Vine Street in Noblesville. The small, private party was in “The Railroad Place” caboose, which he and daughter Sara Carter, a 1974 Noblesville High School grad, and school teacher/carpenter Jim Kinsey have been restoring over the past two years. The caboose has new siding, paint and restored roof. “He wants to show it off while he still can,” his daughter said. 

Arbuckle’s party celebrated and shared progress, including a video, on the caboose project, which is 80 percent complete. 

“Now is the time,” Arbuckle printed on his invitation, after sharing that he is in “declining health.” 

Arbuckle said he may have to stop dancing, a pastime he loves. But he danced at his caboose party.

“The party was wonderful,” his daughter said. It was catered by Heavenly Sweets and a harp player added a special touch. “He danced with some of the ladies, and fun was had by all,” she said. 

Arbuckle has been ballroom dancing for 40 years, taking up the hobby after visiting Vienna, Austria, “the dancing capital of the world,” he has said. “Dancing is the only exercise where you dress up to exercise….It fits my life,” he said. 

Arbuckle and his daughter, Sara, own and operate Arbuckle’s Railroad Place. Arbuckle’s has been in business for 70 years, since 1948, repairing and selling sewing machines. They work on most any machine: Sears, Roebuck and Co., Singer, Viking and a German brand called Pfaff that's close to their hearts. When Arbuckle came back from World War II, he married Beverly Pfaff (who died in 2002), so his daughter “has that sewing machine blood in her. She's a Pfaff," he has said. Sara also has a younger sister, Linda, who lives out of state.

The Railroad Place property occupies nearly a city block in Old Town Noblesville. Built in about 1970, his 15,000-square-foot main building is designed to resemble a circa-1900 train station, and is a tribute to the glory days of the railroad. 

Arbuckle has stories about hiring Railroad Girls to promote the location, hosting sewing seminars and dances, and sponsoring an ill-fated steam train ride for kids to Indianapolis that was described in The Noblesville Ledger as “bordering on mass hysteria.”

The building is full of not only fabrics and sewing supplies, but vacuums, appliance parts, and rows of treadle sewing machines, plus a bike shop with collectible bicycles and two retired train cars. Arbuckle has lots of authentic railroad memorabilia and local whimsy, collections of ties and hats and whatever else he has decided to collect.

Arbuckle has a passion for the arts. As a young man, he studied photography and owned a short-lived commercial and portrait photography studio in Warsaw, before deciding in 1948 that sewing machine repair made more financial sense. He has collected and commissioned works from local artists. He even has large barrels painted by the late Noblesville artist Floyd Hopper still displayed in his store.

Since I met Arbuckle 30 years ago, he is always up to something. I remember, one year, he trailered a small mobile stage to the Noblesville Farmers Market, where he and a female partner would dance to music for market-goers.

He’s also played host to a lot of little events, that include music and dancing. 

One Arbuckle’s event that I recall attending was a lively Cinco de Mayo party with live music, dancing and food. His daughter said Arbuckle’s has played host to a lot of different events through the years. She thumbed through old black-and-white photos of when Arbuckle’s Railroad Place was the setting for Choo-Choo A Go-Go on Oct. 26, 1965, and “the whole town came,” she said. Arbuckle’s also had a sesquicentennial party, Hobo Days and a wool festival. “Three schools walked here for the wool festival, North Elementary, Stony Creek and Conner School,” she said, as her cell phone message alert briefly interrupted, fittingly, with a choo-choo train sound. 

Her dad would have parties on the Courthouse Square, too, when his sewing-machine business was at 876 Logan St. (1948-1964). 

But it’s his dancing that most people today notice. I remember in the late ‘90s, he arrived by himself to his first Noblesville Parks ballroom dance class at Forest Park Inn and returned the following week with a female dance partner. 

Every time I’ve seen him out and about, he’s always dressed to the nines, reminiscent of days gone by, whether it be his summer white dress clothes and straw hat at the Street Dance and Fourth of July Parade or his military uniform on Memorial Day or his top hat and overcoat at a local community theater.

 “That’s my opera hat,” Arbuckle said when I saw him earlier this year on opening night of Carmel Community Players’ “Ragtime” musical at the Ivy Tech auditorium in Noblesville. He was wearing a gray top hat with his overcoat. “That’s from the time that I had horses and carriages and ran the streets of Noblesville.”

He then told stories of when he had “a livery department” at Arbuckle’s Railroad Place and had a number of carriages. “I worked for people like Mel Simon, when he had Hollywood people come to visit him, especially for the 500 Race, and he hired me and my livery people to ‘put on a dog’ (put on a flashy display) for him and his wife,” Arbuckle said. “The gray top hat indicates the owner of the vehicle.”

Arbuckle smiled and pulled from inside his jacket pocket an iPhone 7, which he uses to keep in touch with his Facebook friends. On Facebook, he’s pictured on Oct. 19, his most recent birthday, turning 96, donning a sombrero.

Arbuckle, who received a pacemaker in March, and whose 2018 plans included constructing a fiberglass airplane, a pusher, that will make 160 knots, and dabbling with solar panels, had originally planned to be a presenter on Oct. 28 for Noblesville Preservation Alliance Noblestories series. However, he canceled because he didn’t feel up to it. 

But apparently he has felt more energetic more recently, because you might have heard, that he “broke his arm riding his new, fast (battery-powered 18-mph) 23-inch bicycle off the (loading) dock,” his daughter said.

Still, she said, he’s slowing down a little and is not working as much doing sewing-machine repair. 

Does he ever share his key to longevity? “Absolutely,” Carter said. “No TV and no lounge chair.” He doesn’t own a TV or a soft chair. “He goes until he goes to bed.”

She said her dad never surprises her. “His mind is sharp…. He’s lived well. He has fun, and he’s enjoyed everything he’s done,” Carter said.

When I visited Arbuckle earlier this month, he had a sewing machine taken apart, and was in the middle of a repair.

Donning his dress shirt, bow tie and spiffy bowling-style shoes, he welcomed me and was eager to talk. 

Arbuckle was born and raised in Lebanon, though his parents for a time lived in Brownsburg. He graduated from Fairmount High School in 1941. “(American actor and Marion, Ind.-born) James Dean came shortly after that. He was younger than I was. I knew the family where he stayed. His father sent him to be raised (with his aunt and uncle), so that’s how he happened to be sent here.” Arbuckle said he attends the James Dean Festival about every year in Fairmount. 

Arbuckle also talked about his dedication to serve. He served in the military during World War II, enlisting in the U.S. Navy in Chicago in 1942, serving in Cuba, operating against the submarines, in the submarine detection corps.

“The Germans were coming over from the Atlantic (Ocean) into the Gulf of Mexico, and they were down around where the Mississippi River comes into the Gulf of Mexico. They were sitting there underwater, trying to sink our ships, when they came down the Mississippi. I was operating against them, trying to catch ‘em…..I was on the base, stationed in tents, we lived like Army people in thatched huts in Cuba. ….In airplanes, we tried to catch the Germans on the surface in the early morning when they were up charging their batteries in their submarines.”

The Navy then sent him to officer training school, and he rose to lieutenant. He served on the U.S.S. South Dakota “a big battleship with 2,000 men on board.”

He said, “I’ve been in the Navy, active and reserve, ever since then,” he said. He still wears his Navy uniform and shows off his Navy sword; he sported the uniform at this year’s Memorial Day ceremony at the Hamilton County War Memorial on the Courthouse Square.

“I’ve had a varied life,” Arbuckle said.

“I’ve been a Hoosier that was fortunate to be a sailor and ...The Navy trained me so I was a skilled engineer, so I could take care of sewing machines in Noblesville,” he said.

“That’s been my main life. I’ve been able to take care of sewing machines for a living in Hamilton County. I just love my work. I don’t want to stop.”
But he said, “My heart is failing. It’s not pumping as well as it used to. I’m weaker. I have to use my energy in the best ways. So my feet don’t work well, so I’ve had to give up dancing. They may improve. The doctor said, ‘Your body is old, you’re about worn out,’” Arbuckle said, laughing aloud.
“I’ve danced, I’ve swam and I’ve worked and I’ve worn out,” he said.

But he’s still determined, even to get back on his bicycle. “That’s the one I broke my arm on.”

Arbuckle said, “The key to living a long life, my gosh, I think it’s exercise and good genes.” Up until recently, he swam at Riverview Health and danced up to five nights a week, and worked everyday. I think that’s another important thing, to keep working. Find something you like to do and do it every day.”

Arbuckle said he’s had a wonderful life. “That’s a wonderful life when you can have that long a life and be so enthusiastic about it.”

His health has been improving majorly since he’s not working as hard everyday.

“I don’t know whether I’ll die in two weeks, or whether I’ll die in two months or two years or four years.”

He said, “I’d love to make it to 100. But I don’t think that’s going to happen.”

-Contact Betsy Reason at betsy@thetimes24-7.com.