An old toy for a new generation

Future Tense for Dec. 26, 2007

By Steve Welker

My youngest son this year received a 15-year-old Christmas present from his long-dead grandfather.

Even before Michael unwrapped it, the gift gave unexpected pleasure and delight to me and his older brothers and also, I suspect, to some of our old friends and new acquaintances.

Jewell Davis, my late father-in-law, who died in 1994, probably never guessed what a wonderful legacy he gave to the future when he bought a Yugoslavian-made Mehano model train set back around 1990.

The HO-scale kit includes a locomotive, caboose and three cars; enough track for a figure-8 layout that should fit on a 4- by 8-foot sheet of plywood; a power pack and a few accessories — a “starter set” intended to expose a child to model trains without costing too much money (at least, not right away).

"Toy” trains designed for heavy play are not the same as “model” trains with faithfully scaled-down features of real ones. A toy train is the kind pulled by a string or run on batteries — Thomas the Tank Engine, for example, or Brio. The line between toy and model blurs at the “O” scale where some Lionel or American Flyer trains, though running on electrified tracks, are rugged enough for rough handling.

Model trains are, as the name suggests, designed to model the real thing. They have delicate but detailed features, accurate decals and paint and running gear designed with the precision of watchwork. The popular scales for model trains include O, O-27, HO (half-O) and N. An O-scale model may be 1/43rd the size of a full-scale train engine, car or accessory; an HO only 1/87th, which means engines and cars generally are less than 2 inches high.

My oldest son received the Mehano kit when he probably was about 5. I’m sure his grandfather had good intentions, but a child that young really can’t handle an HO model railroad set. We laid it out that Christmas so the boys could see the train run, but then packed up the kit and put it away in a closet.

The kit escaped being sold in the moving sale before we came to Mount Airy, in part because I played with model trains when I was about Michael’s age, probably 45 years ago. My dad started me on O-scale trains (Lionels and American Flyers) and I later moved to Tyco HO-gauge. Dad built a platform in the attic where I could run my trains and create a landscape with roads, rivers and hills; my brother Jim shared it as a playing field for his military models of tanks, trucks, artillery guns and soldiers.

I hadn’t thought about that setup in decades — not even when, a few years ago, Hallmark produced and promoted a large, battery-powered train set and we bought one for Michael. This year, though, when one of his teachers asked her students about the best Christmas or present they remembered, Michael told her (and me) about that train.

So I started thinking about bringing Jewell’s old gift out of storage.

My middle son, Matt, is an expert gift buyer. He comes up with inspired ideas. So I appealed for his help and together we visited Dry Bridge Station on Main Street for the first time. We spent more than an hour talking with owner Mike King (whom I also know as a Mount Airy city commissioner). I’m glad Mike has both enthusiasm for talking about trains and a lot of patience, because memories of my old layout flooded back. As Mike showed off his stock, I kept interrupting with stories that he probably has heard, with slight variations, from countless fathers who also remember their childhood experiences in model railroading.

I returned to Dry Bridge Station with my oldest son on Friday. This time we brought Jewell’s kit to test on Mike’s tracks. We also brought along an old friend. Andy Webb played with trains as a youngster and still has the layout he and his father built. His presence started another two hours or so of talking trains, scales, trackbeds and models, this time with Andy supplying most of the memories as Mike King, again, listened patiently.

Sometime along the way, we determined that Jewell’s set (a) was a collectible, modestly valuable kit made by a well-regarded manufacturer and (b) only lacked a working power supply. Mike King sold me a new power pack and a few other items that I gave my son as a Christmas gift. And my oldest son passed on his grandfather’s present to his younger brother.

To make a short story long, all I need to do is start writing about model railroading. There’s far too much information to put into this space; in fact, you probably could fill several library shelves with the books and magazines devoted to toy and model trains.

What surprised me most is how the hobby has evolved since I last played with trains. Mike King showed us sets that have wireless controls, produce room-filling digital sound and can even operate multiple locomotives on the same track. In the past 15 years, he said, manufacturers such as MTH Electric Trains (“Rail King”) have focused on creating faithfully scaled and beautifully detailed O-gauge trains, buildings, characters and other accessories that compare well with or even exceed the HO-scale models I remember.

If you have a childhood memory of playing with model trains, you owe it to yourself to visit Dry Bridge Station and see what’s new.

As for me, I’ve got to get home and help my son set up his layout before his oldest brothers take over. They clearly enjoyed the visits to Dry Bridge Station and may have caught the model railroading bug, too.

Grandpa Jewell’s long-ago gift of a model train seems destined to carry a new generation ... into the future.

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This article, as well as reader comments can be found at stevewelker.net/article/12. Steve Welker is an editor and columnist living in Mount Airy, North Carolina. More of his writings can be found online at stevewelker.net