By Rebecca Denton
Jim Tate still remembers the excitement of Christmas Eve as a child in the 1950s, waiting for the first light of dawn to filter through his bedroom window. He lived on a family farm in Mt. Juliet – the same farm he lives on today – and most children didn’t get piles of presents in those days.
But Tate knew what Santa had tucked beneath the tree for him: a model train, miniature and perfectly detailed. It was an O-scale Lionel train to be exact, a steam engine with four freight cars and a red caboose.
“Back when I was little, trains were the thing going,” he says. “It was the biggest present you could get for Christmas.” Now in his late 50s, Tate – president of the Train Collectors Association’s Music City Chapter – still gets excited about trains. And he’s not alone.
Train Show in Nashville
On December 11, hundreds of train enthusiasts – from toddlers to old-timers – will flock to the 17th Annual Christmas Toy Train Show at the Tennessee State Fairgrounds in Nashville. Sponsored by the Music City Chapter of the Train Collectors Association, there’ll be dozens of model trains on display and even more for sale, with plenty of demonstrations and other train-related stuff to see. There will even be a train layout that children can operate, and a special grand-prize drawing for children only.
“It’s something parents can bring their children to and see the trains actually running,” Tate says of the event, where entrance is $7 per person and free to children under 12. “We’re trying to promote the hobby for young people.”
Tennessee Train Collectors
Tennessee is home to more than half a dozen model-railroading clubs, active groups that put on model train shows and organize work days and social events centered around model trains. The Music City Chapter of the Train Collectors Association, which encompasses Middle Tennessee, southern Kentucky and northern Alabama, has more than 130 members. There’s also a Casey Jones chapter in West Tennessee and a Volunteer chapter in East Tennessee. Then there are the Tennessee Central Railway Museum clubs, the Nashville Garden Railway Society, the Chattanooga Area Model Railroad Club, the Crossville Model Railroad Club and the list goes on.
These folks are passionate about their trains, and – like each train layout – the reasons they enjoy the hobby are all a little different.
“There’s no explaining why model railroading is so appealing,” says Mariana Levine of Hendersonville, a member of the Nashville Garden Railway Society. “For some it’s history – the Industrial Revolution replayed on our little tracks. For some it’s the memories of childhood, or the magic of places to go. It’s just different for everybody.”
She joined the society four years ago after seeing a model train layout at a mall.
“Just like that, I fell in love with trains,” says Levine, who has her own train layout at home. “I love learning about the details and trying to re-create not just an era but an art form. It’s a very pleasant social activity – lots of good food and friendship. It’s more fun to run trains with friends.”
Tate enjoys the social aspect, too.
“I’ve met people from all over the United States, and I’ve made a lot of friends,” he says. “You’ve got a hobby that you can put your hands on and that still has a little value to it. It’s something you can do at home, and something you can do when you can’t get outside.”
Another plus: It’s an activity that has no age limit. Wives, husbands, kids and grandkids can all enjoy model railroading together, Tate says.
Learning About Model Trains
Model-railroading novices might think the trains are pretty much the same, but it’s not that simple.
Model trains come in several different sizes, each with certain advantages. The smallest is a Z-scale train (about the size of your finger), and the largest is a G-scale, an indoor-outdoor railroad with engines up to two feet long that people run through their gardens.
A well-known kind of collectible toy train is the rugged O-scale, introduced to millions of children in the 1940s and ’50s by Lionel. Those children are now grown, and many are reconnecting to the simpler days of childhood by collecting those model trains – buying now what their parents couldn’t afford back then.
Model trains have come a long way since they were introduced in the mid-19th century, not long after real trains hit the rails. Modern varieties are high-tech, with puffing smoke and digital sound that is about as close as you can get to the real thing.
Jim Horton owns Chattanooga Depot and Hobby Shop, which primarily sells the popular HO- and N-scale model trains. He’s been involved in the hobby for more than 25 years, and his love of model trains spurred him to open his shop about 18 years ago. He has a 13-square-foot HO-scale layout at home that takes up an entire bedroom with two levels of tracks and scenery – an elaborate miniature depiction of a fictitious railroad running from East Tennessee through North and South Carolina. He’s been working on it for 10 years.
“Model railroading is divided into two groups,” Horton says. “Collectors buy, trade and develop a collection to put up on walls. The other group doesn’t collect so much as build train layouts that look and operate like real trains.”
They’re known as operators, and Horton is part of this camp.
“It’s a three-dimensional art hobby,” he says. “Some people enjoy the historical research or the track work, and some love building scenery or detailing locomotives. I enjoy the craftsmanship of building things.”
Horton’s clientele tends to be over 40, he says, although there’s always a rush for children’s train sets, including Thomas the Tank Engine products, around the holidays. “It tends to be an older crowd because it’s a hobby that you can’t do quickly,” he says. “It requires a multi-year commitment.”
Six-year-old Davis Kendrick from Hendersonville is the kind of kid who just might carry on the model-train tradition. He’s been into trains since he was 3 years old and owns several Thomas the Tank Engine trains, including small wooden trains and the larger, battery-powered variety.
“I like freight trains the best,” he says. “I like the way they pull stuff. I’m going to be a train driver when I grow up.”
Davis’ mother, Karen, says playing with trains and putting tracks together builds some important skills while keeping him busy.
“I’m much happier with this versus video games,” she says. “It’s an infinite source of entertainment.”
The best thing you can do is start reading about model railroading to help you determine which facet of the hobby, and which size of train, is right for you.
Visit a hobby shop in your area and attend a show. You’ll get a chance to see layouts in every scale and gauge, and there’ll be plenty of knowledgeable people to answer your questions.
Prices will differ depending on the size of the train, but you can get an HO-gauge, ready-to-run set with tracks, a power pack, engine and a few cars for about $50, hobbyists say. Most model railroaders start small – a 4-by-8-foot layout is the most common size, at least in HO scale. You can add some buildings, scenery and more cars and locomotives as you become more familiar with the hobby – and move on from there.
For More Train Information
Tennessee has a wealth of train-related places to visit. Here’s a sampling:
Train Collectors Association Christmas Show (Music City chapter) is held each December at the Tennessee State Fairground. Vendors (all different gauges and scales, old and new) and several operating layouts. Model-train races and a model-train giveaway for children. Call 615-758-6003 for more information.
Tennessee Central Railway Museum in Nashville
Crossville Model Railroad Club, a permanent layout in the Crossville Outlet Building, off I-40 at exit 320 Open Fri., noon-4 p.m.; Sat., 10-5; Sun., 1-4
Casey Jones Home & Railroad Museum in Jackson
Chattanooga Choo-Choo’s Model Railroad Museum, one of the world’s largest working HO-gauge model railroads
Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga
Tunnel Hill Museum, located inside Southbound Trains in Franklin
Take a Short Trip on a Tiny Train
Each spring and fall, the Mid-South Live Steamers chug into Columbia’s Maury County Park on their miniature steam locomotives – and folks flock from miles around to watch and ride. The trains are small by most standards, but they’re large enough to pull kids and adults, and rides are free to the public during the three-day meets.
The trains are one-eighth the size of actual rail equipment, and the engines weigh anywhere from 100 to 2,000 pounds. In most cases, the steam locomotives work just like the real ones – coal, oil or gas heats water to the boiling point, and the steam drives pistons that turn the wheels.
The Mid-South Live Steamers club has about 2.5 miles of permanent main-line track at the Maury County Park.