Herman Engel remembers growing up four blocks from the Southern Pacific station in Santa Clara, and how he and the other neighborhood kids would ride their bikes over to watch the passenger trains arrive.
Engel is 59 now, lives in the San Bernardino County town of Highland and sees those sights only in his memory. But they live on in the form of model railroads built by him and the estimated 300,000 other Americans who pursue the hobby.
On Display This Weekend
More than 10,000 such model trains will be on display today and Sunday in Building 7-A of the Los Angeles County Fairgrounds in Pomona, as the Great American Train Show makes another appearance. Hours both days are noon to 6 p.m. Admission is $4 for adults; children under 12, accompanied by an adult, will be admitted free.
Among the many displays will be the 28x42-foot layout built by Engel.
"I took up the hobby 20 years ago, right after I retired as an aircraft mechanic in the Air Force," Engel said.
Since then, he has become an active member of the Inland Empire Modular Railroad Club, whose members (about 20) meet monthly to discuss their mechanical babies and where their next setups will be, which are mostly in malls.
'The Only Chance'
"Once in a while we are allowed to use the firehouse in Fontana," he said. "Other than the shows, it's the only chance (and space) for some of us to work out our equipment." A train layout with a different touch is the one by the Canfield family of Fullerton, also on exhibit today and Sunday--a traveling circus.
"It is 8x20 feet and is called the Canfield Family Circus," said Claudia Canfield, wife of Fred and mother of Laura and Carolyn.
"We started on it about 14 years ago, and what it depicts is the downtown of a community in the 1950s, observing a circus parade," she explained. Clowns, cages, walking elephants, even a worker at the end with a pooper scooper--all are shown, some in animation.
"Beneath the big top are 4,000 spectators, observing three revolving rings holding performers," Claudia Canfield said. "A motorcycle goes back and forth along a high wire."
And, of course, on separate tracks along the perimeter of it all are two model trains running in opposite directions.
"One contains the circus personnel, the last of the 14 cars being a private one for the top executive," she said. "The other train carries the tents, animals, wagons, portable seats and so forth."
The family's club (many of the hobbyists belong to one) is the Module Railroaders of Orange County, of which Fred is vice president and which he said has about 30 members. They meet at least monthly. "About a third of the members are older adults," said Fred, a 48-year-old computer programmer.
"We put on about six shows a year, such as at shopping centers," he said.
A Unique Layout
As for his family's unique layout, he said it is the popular HO scale, which came to the United States from England in the 1930s and is 1.87 inches to the foot.
Stephens, executive secretary of the Model Railroad Industry Assn., said by phone from Cedarburg, Wis., that there are more than 5,000 items on the market for the hobbyists--everything from stations to tracks.
"The hobby itself began in England in the early 1900s, and was introduced here in 1933 at the Century of Progress International Exposition in Chicago," Stephens said. "Three different railroads had scale trains in operation, and visitors were able to see the difference between those and simple toy trains."
A scale model, he went on, is a detailed and accurate reproduction of the real thing--usually in a realistic setting of signals, stations, switches and bridges. And often in the midst of a town and scenery.
The hobby has gone through cycles.
"During World War II, some supplies were difficult to come by, but afterwards, not only were they plentiful, but former GIs who had served in Europe had gotten to see what the Europeans had been able to do with scale models," Stephens said.
"And it is still a big activity over there."
When slot racers came out in the '50s, interest in small trains declined for a while, the model railroad industry spokesman recalled, "because dealers felt they could make a quicker buck.
"Then we grew again, only to slump for a while when TV started consuming everyone's time. But that practice wore off, we became popular again, and we have been growing steadily ever since."
The enthusiasts sometimes buy, sometimes build, sometimes trade, always are willing to listen to still another train story.
A trend, Stephens said, is that sales are increasingly of freight cars, because people don't see or ride that many passengers trains anymore.
And the avocationists aren't, as you might have suspected, mostly kids. The average age of the active model railroader, Stephens said, is 39.5 years.
Not that there won't be any small fry at this weekend's Great American Train Show. In fact, one of the attractions for them will be a hands-on Lionel Fantasyland, which is a 20x20-foot layout with 80 buttons, allowing spectators to control a train's speed and horns, plus lights and switches.
And leaving with memories is guaranteed. Among the numerous displays will be a 25x40-foot one by 70-year-old Albert Bailey of Glendale, a retired manufacturer of educational film strips.
Rather than being a scale model, it is a Lionel tinplate, the original type of years ago. Bailey's club of about 15 members is called the Tinplate Trackers, because that is what they prefer to own.
Bailey's creation includes an animated sawmill, showing logs rolling off one of the cars and emerging as boards.
Like him, more than a few adults still remember childhood sounds of real steam locomotives, and going to sleep to the lullaby of train whistles.