Model trains aren’t just for kids. Fascination that begins in youth can become a fascinating hobby for an adult.
Sam Miller is decked out in a denim shirt with the logo of CSX Railroad embroidered on it – and he’s been collecting trains for 30 years. There are three areas of Lionel train collecting: Pre-war which means before WWII in the 20s and 30s, Post-war which is right after WWII in the 40s and 50s, and Modern which goes right up to today. Sam collects both H.O.- and O-gauge trains, but he prefers the Lionel O-Gauge type that so many people remember from their youth. He’s got a huge set up in his garage.
“Most people view my layout from the garage door, so I want to have as much detail up front as I can and the light’s really good here, and so… there’s a zoo of animated animals, polar bears, giraffes and other things. One of the features I’m proudest of is my carnival scene, says Sam. “It’s like the North Florida Fair and I’m not aware of any other modeler in town that has a carnival scene like that.”
Sam does what he does because he enjoys it and he doesn’t worry over-much about scale for the items that surround his trains. “I like loud noise. I like lots of lights. And I don’t care if my scale is not consistent. I may have a truck full of pumpkins that’s bigger than the truck full of wood (in fact, I do), but that’s alright. It’s my railroad and my friends will let me basically do what I want to do and my wife lets me do it… it’s all good.”
Jim Blue is another local model train collector. His specialty is H.O. trains reminiscent of the 50s and 60s. “When I was a kid, we used to go to Davidson, North Carolina and my aunt lived on the railroad track. Every time a train would come by, and of course it came by on a regular schedule, I would go out and sit on the bank and wave to the engineer like any little kid would do and somehow that fascination with trains just stuck with me.”
“We’re probably the only people ever to buy a different house just because of the husband’s hobby of model railroading,” Jim says. He’s been working on his train layout for about a year and it’s still a work in progress. His primary interest is in the landscaping and buildings, which are built from kits that can have hundreds of small pieces. He points to a rather barren spot in his set up. “This is sort of a light industrial area. There’s a train station here. There’s a lumber company… things like that. Truth be told, I enjoy the building and the landscaping far more than I enjoy putting down a railroad track, but it would look kind of silly to have all those buildings out there with no railroad track,” he admits. “Unlike most collectors, to me it’s secondary although I love trains… but it is secondary to the landscaping and the buildings that are in the layout.”
Gesturing at a more finished-looking place, Jim says “This is basically a finished area. She put orange groves on the wall, so I put orange groves down here so that it would transition into the wall. And then of course, there’s some dirt roads going through so you could get to it.”
Sam Miller likens his hobby to painting, saying that he takes as much time and pays as much attention to the details of his landscaping as he would if he were doing a painting.
“I like whimsy. I like lights. I like noise… and I like kids being fascinated by it. The first reaction is WOW! Because there’s just so much on this layout and thanks to a lot of support from my friends.” One friend compares it to a candy store where you keep finding neat things. Keep looking at it and you find another piece of candy.
Of the two collectors, Sam is more whimsical while Jim is really into the functionality of it all. Jim likes to have a diagram or an idea of what it’s going to be like and tries to make it more like a real town. He’s been over to Sam’s and concedes that they have different ideas about how to layout a train track and scene. Sam refers to his hobby as “play”. He says “the motto of our train club is: You’re never too old to have a happy childhood.”
Mike Plummer is a content producer and editor for television at WFSU Public Media. He spent 25 years in commercial television as an art director, commercial director, promotion manager, station manager and creative services director before coming to WFSU in 2008. Mike likes to find the “unusual” or “out of the ordinary” stories in our Local Routes. He says the best part of his job is getting to know people he would otherwise probably not get a chance to meet. Mike is widowed, has two terriers named Truman and Dexter, and is constantly at war with the vines growing in his backyard.