All Aboard: Journey into model railroads

By Catherine Godbey | Living 50 Plus

On any given Saturday, stop by the Historic Union Depot to see a train chugging past replicas of Decatur landmarks — the Princess Theatre with a working marquee, Turner-Surles, Dancy-Polk House, Old State Bank and Tennessee River bridge.

The model railroad, which replicates the CSX yard, Norfolk Southern yard and interchange yard, and the miniature buildings displayed along the track represent more than 5,000 volunteer hours spread across more than two years.

“It was a labor of love for a lot of people,” said Jim Norris, visionary of the model railroad display.

For Norris and other model railroad enthusiasts, including Bud Brueggeman and Bill Koval, the set-up housed in the free museum on Railroad Street in Northwest Decatur served as a way to share their passion with the community.

“I don’t know what it is about trains. What is the draw? It’s hard to put it into words. There is just a fascination around them. Someone asked me once, ‘Why model railroads?’ I said, ‘It’s kind of hard to put an operating nuclear power plant in the basement,’” Brueggeman said with a laugh. “Same goes for model airplanes. But you can put a model railroad and train in the basement.”

Each of the men — 82-year-old Norris, 80-year-old Brueggeman and 77-year-old Koval — took a different path into the hobby.

Brueggeman credited his grandfather, a bridge builder for the railroad, for sparking his interest in trains.

“He and I would go down and watch the trains all the time,” Brueggeman said. “I’ve had a train set ever since I was 12 years old.”

For Norris, who had a model railroad as a child, an electrical outage in 1987 resulted in his reintroduction to the hobby.

“I went to work one Saturday and the security guy said, ‘Don’t bother to come in, the power is off.’ I remembered seeing that there was an ad in the paper for a train sale that day. I went to the hobby store, bought a couple of books, read them in the car and went back in the store,” Norris said. “By the time I got home, I had two model trains, all the plywood for the table and the wiring.”

When Norris built his home, he designed the structure to fit his personal model railroad.

“I built my house around the railroad. I told the designer the room upstairs had to be 21 feet wide to fit the model layout,” Norris said.

“You have to have your priorities,” Brueggeman said.

Koval became involved with the hobby after he retired.

“One of the guys I used to work with talked about building the model train at the depot. I came and watched them lay tracks and do the wiring and I got hooked,” Koval said.

The team of volunteers completed the model railroad, which includes mostly made-from-scratch buildings, five years ago.

“Some of the buildings are made out of a combination of kits, but most, about 90%, are scratch buildings. Each one took 15 to 20 hours to complete,” Norris said.

Now, every Saturday, a member of the Mid-South Division of the National Model Railroad Association operates the model for visitors to the depot.

“I like to watch the kids when they come in because their eyes just light up. It’s even better at Christmastime because we set up trains that they can put their hands on and actually operate. The kids love it and the parents do too,” Koval said.

“There’s a certain romance about trains, both model and real trains, that people love,” said David Breland, Decatur’s director of historic resources, including the depot. “It’s Americana and makes you think of bygone days.”

For individuals looking to get involved with the hobby, the National Model Railroad Association’s Southeastern Region Convention will take place June 20-23 at the Doubletree by Hilton in Decatur. The convention will include how-to clinics and tours of model railroads at people’s homes.

“The convention will be an excellent opportunity for people who think they might be interested in getting into model railroads to come and learn about the hobby,” Breland said.

Along with the convention, a train show, which will feature trains and layouts on display and an opportunity to buy items, will take place at Turner-Surles Community Center.

“Most trains sold in big box stores are ones you don’t want to buy. People get discouraged by them because they stop working. At the train show, you can talk to people who have been in the hobby for a while and get tips on what sets to buy that will last and help build their interest,” Brueggeman said.

The depot, which attracted over 7,000 visitors last year and is on pace to exceed that number this year, also will be open during the convention.

In Decatur, the hobby attracts many engineers, who like to see how trains work and operate, and retired military.

“I guess we know the answer to the age-old question, what do you do with old soldiers? You turn them on to model railroads,” said Brueggeman, a former U.S. Marine, as he glanced from Koval, who served in the Navy, to Norris, who served in the Air Force.

Norris encouraged parents and grandparents to get children involved in modeling.

“Let them do modeling of any type. They learn to complete something and it has more meaning for them,” Norris said. “I’ve spent hours and hours building something and practically never use it again. I just enjoy building the items. My niece, one time, saw how big my layout was and said, ‘Uncle Jim, is the journey more important than the destination?’ I think she is right.”

Norris, Brueggeman and Koval are members of the Mid-South Division of the National Model Railroad Association. The association meets the first Saturday of the month at 9:30 a.m. at the Historic Union Depot.