The Real Reason Model Trains Are So Popular

Model Railroading: A Hobby Filled With Fond Memories

Fond memories are why many of us enjoy the hobbies we have. And collecting model trains – perhaps one of the world’s most popular hobbies – has an appeal that has crossed generations.

Call it being sentimental. Or just reminiscing about the good old days.

Oh, I know, there were plenty of things that were not good in the good old days. Columnist Doug Larson summed up that soothing, dreamy feeling that we experience when we look back to the days when we believed things were simpler:

“Nostalgia is a file that removes the rough edges from the good old days.”

Early Model Railroading Memories: Dad in the “Train Room”

I have those fond memories of my dad when he was in his ‘train room,’ as my mother called it. After we all moved out on our room, my parents didn’t experience the empty nest syndrome like most other families.

The house filled up fast, as a result of their devotion to estate and garage sales and country auctions. Always a lover of knick knacks, my mother was free to fill the spaces left by us kids. And fill she did.

But she didn’t act alone.

My father appreciated old things too, and he began to fulfill a desire he had since he was a kid:  collecting model trains.

Memories from the Golden Era of Trains

Born during the throes of the Great Depression, he was a product of a generation that became used to ‘making things do.’

Growing up without many of the basics we’re so accustomed to now, my parents’ generation was forever marked by that desolate time. As kids growing up, we often were denied many extras and lived a life without frills.  We got used to hearing the word ‘no.’

But our house was a home, and mom cultivated the stuff memories are made of every day. Home-baked culinary delights were born in her kitchen each morning. She sewed superbly and always took the time with us.

My parents lived traditional roles. Mom stayed at home while Dad worked at the steel plant. And one thing we could always count on was Dad’s story telling ability. A tall, large-built man over six feet, my mother often called him the ‘bull of the woods,’ since nothing kept him down. And when he laughed, he it was a bellowing laugh that came up from his rather generous belly and filled every room.

I loved listening to his stories of growing up on the farm, going into the city with his farm goods, seeing the trains bustling by. He would often tell us of the Buffalo Central Terminal; its immense size and crowd awed him as he took the train to begin basic training for his service during WWII.

Like many other young men, my Dad was fascinated by trains, and he was blessed to live at a time in the golden era of trains, when they ran regularly out of the historic Buffalo Central Terminal. But with a war on and duty to be fulfilled, his love of trains was pushed back as growing up took over.

After we married and left home, my parents began to come out of their self-imposed shell of denying themselves. And it was wonderful to witness.

A Vintage O-Scale Lionel Train Inspired Dad’s Model Railroad Layout

A future model railroader, inspired by Grandpa…

My brother had a 1950s Sante Fe O-Scale Lionel train that gave birth to my dad’s train collecting.

As avid collectors, they saved most everything from our childhoods. My mother stashed everything in a huge wooden toybox my dad had built, and one evening my father sorted through the box of memories and hauled out my brothers’ 1950s train sets.

The train sets never went back in storage.

My dad began building his train layout, which took up most of the large-sized room. My mom had not only saved the trains- my brother’s big black locomotive and cars and my other brother’s grey Santa Fe model train and its cars- she saved all the railroad tracks, paper mâché houses, train bridges, and a host of other accessories.

My dad wasn’t bringing back memories. His large family was too poor to afford such luxury toys. My dad began having a childhood – a childhood that was robbed by the Depression.

He spent a good deal of time crafting his train layout, hauling up large pieces of plywood to lay on the floor. To be sure, my dad was old school: no waist high layout for ease in enjoying the trains. And he had an old wooden desk he put the transformers on and sat on a hard oak antique banker’s chair to run the layout.

A First Childhood, Thanks to a Growing Model Train Hobby

The layout slowly grew into the room, expanding year by year.

He purchased some antique trains, like a 1930’s Lionel O Gauge passenger train. Along with my brothers’ two trains, it made for a busy train yard.

He took time placing the accessories:  the train tunnel huddled in the back of the layout while he placed his train bridge between two ‘hills.’  He had an old oil tower in the center of the train layout, along with some old commercial style buildings, and then he made a train ‘town.’

There he put a cluster of the 1950s paper macho houses, with toy cars in the driveway, pine trees in the back yards, and he took some of my mother’s small china and porcelain statues – people, dogs, and cats – to populate the train town.

I can’t say that my dad had a second childhood. During the Depression, few kids had a carefree childhood, with many having to give up school to obtain jobs to support the family.

My dad was no different.

It wasn’t his second childhood. It was his first.

In his sixties, he was making his own childhood, making memories for us kids – and his grandchildren.

Where’s Dad? Working on His Model Trains (of course)

When we’d visit through the years, Mom was always in the kitchen and Dad was one of two places: his garden or his train room.

Another little model railroader (in the making) peeks at a layout in progress….

Holiday time was memorable. We’d all traipse up the stairs, with our own kids in tow, to watch my Dad run his trains. He’d bellow out loud “choo-choos” for the grand kids, making sure the locomotives had smoke pouring out. He loved amping up the speed, running two or three train sets at once, and telling stories as he relished in his role of Train Man.

And if he ran the old trains too fast and they rolled over on a curve, not only did it delight the grand kids, but my father bellowed out his rich, deep belly laughs over the train wreck.

It was a sight to behold.

My father transformed when he was in his train room.

Angry moods dissipated. Arguments and disagreements with other family members were forgotten about. It was his place to let go – of all the pains, problems and issues of everyday life and enjoy the old trains.

Model railroading isn’t just any hobby – it is art form – a creative medium. Maybe that’s why it has an appeal that has captivated folks for generations. Silly? No way – even Rod Stewart would agree: “A lot of people laugh at it being a silly hobby, but it’s a wonderful hobby,” said the 70-something rocker (who has a pretty impressive layout of his own).

At the Helm of His O Scale Locomotive

I have such fond memories of my dad in his train room. He truly loved his trains, the layout, collecting and adding more, moving the houses and buildings.

And for those moments when he was conductor, at the helm of the locomotive, my dad forgot all about life’s problems. For a bit of time, the world didn’t exist outside his train room.

He was a kid, untouched by the Depression, the war, life’s problems.

And I know that when I’m in my son-in-law’s train room – when the big old locomotive starts pulling the array of cars behind it, smoke pouring out from the effort of the engine – my Dad is there, too.

I can feel his presence, I can feel his joy. I hear his hearty laugh.

That’s the power of collecting trains. It lays tracks between lifetimes.


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