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From Thomas the Tank to Nscale empires: Model trains continue to enthral

by Chris Daponte

GUELPH-ERAMOSA - In three weeks, countless boys and girls across the world will wake up on Christmas morning and unwrap their first model train.

Whether of the Thomas the Tank Engine variety or a more traditional and complex version, that first toy may plant a seed in the child that could eventually grow into a fascination with model trains that transcends age, gender, and time.

At least that’s the wish of people like Jim Watson, who count themselves among the band of lifelong model railroad enthusiasts.

“Growing up with him, how could I not be,” Watson says with a laugh, referring to his older brother George, who was first to gravitate to trains.

Watson recalls waking up one Christmas morning as a young boy to discover George had received his first model train set. The pair was hooked from the start.

“That was it ... It just stuck and it grew from there,” Watson said while standing in front of the massive and intricate layout belonging to George in the basement of the County Road 29 home shared by the brothers and Watson’s wife, Jane.

Watson grew up in an era when model trains were the gift every boy wanted to receive. He and George share great memories of working on model trains with their father and of travelling to Toronto around Christmas time to view the window displays and to visit the train layouts at the Eaton’s and Simpson’s department stores.

It was a time, Watson fondly recalls, when young boys loved working with their hands and getting lost in the little worlds they helped create.

“I’m worried the next generations now aren’t going to do that,” he said, noting many youth today seem to prefer sitting for hours on end in front of computer or TV screens.

As a result, “the hobby has been on a decline for a few years now,” he explained, “with fewer and fewer stores and modeller’s to assist those that do take an interest.” He notes the closest retail store for him is The Train Cellar in Mount Forest.

Anthony Fletcher, The Train Cellar’s custom painter, said the economy did hit the model train industry hard - nationally about 10 stores closed, including two in Burlington - but things seem to be recovering in a big way.

He explained the biggest problem now is availability, due in part to the fact Canada is a “secondary market” to the U.S., where the economy is still bad, and partially because there is a labour shortage in China, where much of the merchandise originates.

Yet Fletcher said The Train Cellar, which this year is celebrating its 21st anniversary, continues to do well.

“Basically we just keep getting bigger,” he said. “We’re worldwide now.”

He attributes the store’s success to its excellent stock, fair prices (which draw clientele from outside the area, including many from Toronto) and its use of social media like Facebook to promote the hobby and its products.

He admitted growth of the hobby among the younger generations was stagnating for years, but now - at The Train Cellar at least - that’s starting to change.

“We’re finally seeing a younger demographic,” he said. “And that’s nice to see.”

Model train enthusiasts often acquire a lot of their goods by mail, and Fletcher estimates about 30% of the Mount Forest store’s overall sales are mail-order items (see www.tctrainscanada.com for more information).

But as for actual bricks and mortar stores, outside The Train Cellar, Watson said there aren’t a lot of local options. He often travels to Mississauga for trains and accessories.

“Fortunately the Wellington and Waterloo regions still have a good number of active model railroaders,” Watson said. “Several clubs exist and there are some layout tours and open houses for the general public to come and see what it is all about.”

By far the biggest local event is the annual self-guided tour hosted by the Double Headers Model Railroad Club, which features over 40 layouts in the Kitchener-Waterloo, Cambridge, and Guelph areas. Next year it is being held on March 26 (visit www.doubleheaders.org for information).

More recently, the Royal City Model Railroaders, which was started by Watson and Guelph’s Bill Peart, welcomed about 50 visitors to its 11-layout tour on Nov. 20. The Guelph Model Railroad Society, of which both men are also members, held its annual open house on Nov. 7.

And Aberfoyle Junction, a 1,500 square foot model railway depicting southern Ontario in the late 1950s located on the east side of Brock Road at the south end of Aberfoyle, is hosting its pre-Christmas show this weekend - Dec. 4 and 5 from 10 am to 4:30pm (for more information visit www.aberfoylejunction.com).

Gwen Bard, of Guelph, is a partner in the Aberfoyle Junction operation. She said the display is only open about 14 days a year for its spring, fall, and pre-Christmas shows. She explained a group of friends, led by Frank Dubery, started the operation in 1973 at the Aberfoyle market, before opening to the public at its current location in 1982.

Currently, seven individuals are involved with Aberfoyle Junction, which features steam engines built from scratch by Bard’s husband, Charles, who quickly joined Dubery almost 40 years ago due to his love of trains. Gwen said the display, particularly the night scene, remains popular with seniors and families.

“Seniors come for nostalgic reasons because it’s set in the 1950s,” she said. And families bring in small children in large part because of an interest in Thomas the Tank Engine, she added.

Despite Fletcher’s optimism, Bard shares Watson’s concern that the collective face of model railroaders is aging.

“Not so many young people are getting into the hobby anymore,” she said. “We find that kind of distressful ... you can learn so many skills through it.”

But groups and clubs in the county remain dedicated to both retaining current members and recruiting new ones.

“There’s a lot of sharing and camaraderie [within and among] the groups,” Watson said. “The message I want to get out there is model railroaders are still around ... and there are people here more than willing to help.”

Such assistance is especially crucial for beginners, he explained, who can become frustrated when something doesn’t work properly and there’s no one to help.

“Then it’s gone,” he said.

If novice enthusiasts are kept informed and engaged, the hobby has a much better chance of “sticking,” Watson explained.

“This is one hobby where a mentor is practically required,” he said. “Many see our hobby as big kids playing with toy trains, but to many of us it is an art form.”

From painting backgrounds to constructing layouts, buildings, and geographic  or other features to working on mechanical and electrical details - there’s always something to do, it seems.

And that’s before even operating - guiding a train between various locations and picking up and dropping off certain cars along the way - which can test one’s puzzle-solving skills.

Once hooked like the Watsons, the hobby can almost take on a life of its own, occupying a lot of time and requiring a significant financial investment.

“You can build an empire that never ends,” he said. “[The layouts are] an ongoing work in progress. You’re never happy.”

In fact, George still tinkers with his HO scale “Bear Mountain Southern Pacific” railroad, which he started over 35 years ago. The layout is 2,400 square feet in size, with over 600 feet of mainline and 350 feet of branch line, and features 20 towns on the route.

Watson and his wife’s N scale Bear Mountain Santa Fe Railroad, which features two levels spread out over 600 square feet, is a work in progress as well.

Tens of thousands of dollars have been invested in the layouts - and perhaps as many hours. The brothers’ skills and employment history - Watson is an electrician and George was an auto mechanic - seem to perfectly suit their hobby.

They also come in handy when it comes to their “other hobby”: antique tractors. For Watson, the tractors and trains are an outlet of sorts for his desire to stay connected to the past. And in the area, there are few families with as rich a heritage as the Watsons.

“We’re natives,” he said with a laugh. “My family’s roots are here.”

Family on his mother’s and father’s side have lived in the area since the 1830s and Watson and George’s current property was once part of their grandfather’s farm. In fact, for almost two centuries, most of the farms along County Road 29 belonged to someone in Watson’s family.

Watson Road, located two roads to the west, was named after Watson’s great uncle, Jim Watson, a blacksmith from Arkell, after whom he was named.

As for railroads, Watson’s uncle once worked for Canadian Pacific Railway, and in an unfortunate twist, two of his ancestors were killed at a local junction. Yet so many family members were involved with trains and the culture so ingrained in their everyday lives, that Watson jokes he had little say when it came to his hobby of “choice.”

About 30 years ago, he once sold off a large portion of his model trains in order to purchase computer equipment, but he soon returned to the hobby he has known since childhood.

Recently the Royal City Model Railroaders welcomed a 15-year-old boy as its newest member. Watson said it’s a positive step, considering most of the club’s members are over 50.

He is hopeful the continuing influence of Thomas the Tank engine will help draw others - those who are even younger - into the model train hobby, including the next generation of Watsons.

“I have now reached a point in my life where I can share my hobby with my grandkids,” he said. “Watching them is heart warming and reminds me of time my father spent with me as a child on my layout.”

It’s one of the many joys of being a lifelong model railroader and an ambassador for what he calls “The World’s Greatest Hobby.”

For more information visit www.royalcitymodelrailroaders.com.

 

Vol 43 Issue 49

 
 

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