Clyde Beal: A toy for all ages — the model train

December 2, 2018

The era has long passed when Lionel Trains once occupied a large part of the heart of practically every kid in America from 7 to 70.

For over 70 years, Lionel toy trains had the distinction of being called the standard of the world in miniature train excellence.

For a company that had such a humble beginning in 1900, the Lionel Train Corp. quickly rose to dominate the toy train market, outselling both Marx and American Flyer trains.

Lionel Trains were the brainchild of Joshua Lionel Cowen, who started his train empire in a small second-story attic in New York City. By 1917, the company had grown to hundreds of employees assembling trains in a newly refurbished factory complex located in Irvington, New Jersey.

In 1950, Lionel Trains celebrated its 50th anniversary with net sales of more than $21 million. Thirteen years later, cutbacks, mergers and top-heavy management slowly brought about the demise of a company once known as the standard of the world.

The golden age of Lionel Trains will never resemble what they used to be. They may still be produced, but the excellence in material, quality and craftsmanship is a far cry from the days when those trains were at the top of every boy’s Christmas list.

Today there are groups of all ages who refuse to let the sights and sounds of miniature railroads become a thing of the past. One such group is the Huntington Appalachian Model Railroad Society, whose members built and maintain a pair of elaborate, detailed, operating train layouts at the Heritage Farm Museum.

It was Michael Perry’s idea to have a miniature railroad depicting life in Appalachia in the early 20th century. The layout includes a coal mine community, trestles, a round house and lots of forest. According to Zach Offenberger, visitor center coordinator at Heritage Farm, these train layouts can be visited Monday through Saturday.

“We have two operating train layouts here at the museum,” said Offenberger. “They are open to the general public from 10 a.m. until 3 in the afternoon. We offer both guided and self-guided tours of the complete farm, but the train layouts are in the Progress and the Transportation Building.”

For more information, call the museum at 304-522-1244. If you attended this year’s train show at the Big Sandy Civic Center you were part of the best one yet. There were over 15 train layouts with all the popular gauges pulling long lines of coal cars. There were more vendors than ever this year selling everything from vintage train sets of the 1930s to present day toy trains, track, transformers and boxes of fix me up accessories. Nearly 1,400 kids of all ages came to this year’s event. Even Santa took time from his busy schedule to return this year.

Carl Miller, vice president of the American Model Railroad Society, said this year’s train show brought out a packed house of kids of all ages.

“I kept hearing how real the train layouts were,” said Miller. “Visitors this year were asking more questions about the techniques and materials used to build a train layout. They especially enjoyed the animated scenes of crews repairing roads, workers cutting up engines, the digital billboards and workers that actually moved about.”

If you think you may be interested in learning more about model trains, how to construct and wire a model train layout or just hang out with individuals who love playing with model trains, you can join this group for less than $3 a month. If you’d like to join this group, you should contact Ernie Clay, current president, at 304-417- 2292 or Carl Miller, vice president, at 304-350-9857.

Meetings are in the KYOVA Mall. Monday morning meetings are mostly for retired members, while Thursday evenings are scheduled for those who work. The meetings consist of planning future events, working on club layouts and assisting each other in constructing their own layouts. They exchange design ideas and assist with repairing equipment. The main goals of the club are to advance the model train hobby and to educate the public on the impact railroads had on the Tri-State area.

If you’re still suffering model train withdrawal after the Big Sandy Civic Center train show, there’s still hope for you. There is a well-detailed, permanent train layout operating right in the heart of town located at 2628 5th Ave. across from the Kroger grocery.

American Country Treasures Antique Mall has a unique train layout that contains three of the more popular gauges on one operating layout. In addition to the well-known three-rail 027 gauge track that Lionel and Marx trains operate on, there is also a sampling of S gauge track used by American Flyer trains. Finally, there are the smaller HO trains made popular because they operate with less room. As an additional bonus, if you come on a Friday or Saturday and bring your own train engine, you can operate it on their track. The large layout measures 10 by 8 feet and is located right up front in the center of the building where both admission and parking are free. Putting the project together was a joint venture of the shop owner, Ron Hunt and fellow train enthusiast Jim Herber.

“We encourage visitors of all ages who love model trains to stop by, said Herber. “If you’d like to bring a few engines to run on our layout, then bring them. Even if you would like to sell your trains, we can arrange consignments or rent you a shelf to display them for sale.”

The layout was assembled in Hunt’s basement with the help of Herber. The final assembly was completed once moved to the antique mall. In addition to the trains, there is a large display of more than 500 vintage Christmas items worth looking at.

“This year’s train layout is much bigger than last year’s,” said Hunt. “I enjoy seeing them in operation so much I’m thinking about keeping the layout up and running it year-round. Besides, people often come in throughout the year just to revisit the train layout after we have disassembled it.”

After Thanksgiving, Santa Claus will visit each Friday and Saturday during December until Christmas. During your visit, kids can register for a Lionel train set to be given away, there will also be a special mailbox to drop off letters to Santa.

Clyde Beal seeks out interesting stories from folks around the Tri-State. Email archie350@frontier.com.

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