A hobby that has grown and grown over the years takes up most of the basement in Tom Thompson’s DeKalb home.
At 22 feet in one direction and 20 feet in another, Thompson’s G-scale model train setup – a recreation of a European village in the Alps – has taken on a life of its own. It’s all about the stories for Thompson: He finds joy in imagining the possibilities with the villagers, businesses and train passengers who inhabit the tiny world.
“Everywhere you look, you’ll see little interesting tidbits, something that kind of tells an interesting story,” Thompson said.
In the 10 years he spent building the model railroad, Thompson let no detail go overlooked. Miniature parking meters have time left on them; others are expired. There’s a roll of toilet paper on the inside of an outhouse door. The Swiss Alps are reflected on the windows of the passenger cars, where people sit inside.
“It’s your own fantasy world. I mean, model railroad, that’s what it is,” Thompson said. “The reality is, it’s your world and you can make it what you want.”
When Thompson retired from Northern Illinois University in 2001, he planned to occupy his time building dollhouses for his grandchildren. During a trip to a hobby shop, he spotted a model train instead. The idea for a grand railroad was set in motion.
He sketched and mapped the layout of the train setup that soon would take over a good portion of his basement. He’s particularly proud of the trestle he built on a curve, which was challenging.
“It’s a work in progress,” he said. “As anybody who builds model railroads will tell you, it’s never finished.”
The European theme of the railroad reflects trips he and his wife, Jane, have taken to Germany, Austria and Switzerland. Thompson was captivated by European trains.
Freight and passenger trains make complete loops through the miniature
village, where signs and business names are written in German. A cog engine that handles steep inclines heads up a mountain similar to the Matterhorn. A trolley runs past the train station and out to a beer garden. An opening in the middle of the train setup allows for a 360-degree view of the village.
“We’ve lived with this for 10 years, and I could still notice something for the first time,” Jane Thompson said about the details.
The real thrill for the couple is seeing children enjoy the model railroad. Thompson’s grandchildren will say, “Run the train, Poppy, run the train” when they visit. The train setup has attracted neighborhood fans as well, including 2-year-old George Taylor.
George loves trains, and when the family stopped by the Thompsons’ home on Christmas and saw the expansive display, his eyes lit up.
“He was in awe,” his mom, Sarah Taylor, said.
The Taylors have visited the Thompsons’ railroad a couple of times. When they walk by the home, George says, “trains.”
Thompson has “obviously spent a lot of time on it,” Sarah Taylor said.
Thompson has amassed a collection of train paraphernalia, including photos and prints of trains, a railroad crossing sign that hangs in the basement, and an authentic conductor’s hat Thompson wears when he reads “The Polar Express” to his grandchildren each Christmas.
“It’s really taken on a life of its own,” Jane Thompson said.
Eventually, Thompson will dismantle the model railroad. When the couple move elsewhere, they probably won’t have room for such a setup, but they plan to display train cars on shelves.
“It brought a lot of pleasure, and it still does,” Thompson said.