For some, a train starts and stops – as a commute to work, as an easy way to get to the city or as the halt in driving somewhere in the back-country roads.
For Pete Robinson, a train holds a stronger magic.
For 24 years, Robinson has hosted the annual Pumpkin Train rides through October in Waterman. The train travels a mile through Waterman’s Lions Community Park, past tombstones and through a fog-filled 300-foot tunnel.
Recently, Robinson walked around the blazing red and yellow train, punching tickets and greeting newcomers and regulars alike. Children eagerly handed out tickets and waited for the train to move.
Robinson said, “My dad always joked about how one day, I would have a train of my own, and here we are.”
Robinson’s Pumpkin Train is a quarter-scale, fully functional train that he built on his own. He started building the locomotive in 1984 and completed it in 1990. He waved his hand over the whole length of the train and said, “I made all this.
“You can’t buy any of these parts. There’s no market out there for them. So I build them instead. I turned steel into wheels and wood into cars. I took classes, and got drawings from an engineer friend.” He chuckled, “But I mostly designed it from the seat of my pants. There was never a manual for making these kinds of trains.”
Michael Honeycutt, who has helped with the Pumpkin Train since the Halloween season started, said, “Pete makes sure the kids are having a good time. That’s what this is for.”
This was Rebecca, Nate and Xander Ofake’s first year riding the Pumpkin Train.
“Xander is obsessed with trains,” Nate Ofake said. “It’s nice to have trains available for him that are near DeKalb.”
Xander leans out the window and points out everything he sees.
Rebecca Ofake said, “We’re rail fans. We watch trains and go out all over to enjoy them. Wherever we can find a train, we go.
“With Xander, he has a hard time talking, but here, he becomes more communicative around trains. Other people know the details with describing trains, and he can understand them. With trains, he’s visualizing and describing what he experiences, and that’s huge. Trains break the communication barrier. It’s more than a train ride.”
Halfway through the ride, the train slows to a stop, and kids can roam around to pick their own pumpkin to take home.
While Robinson loves trains as much as the children do, and it shows by the beautiful train he has crafted, there’s a bigger reason he keeps hosting the Pumpkin Train each year.
“Look at the kids,” Pete said, pointing to the young children smiling and running along a train that fits snug in the size of their world.
“You can always tell when there’s a kid with the engineer driving the train. The horn goes crazy. Once they find that button, it’s all that’s heard around here. That’s the most amazing thing, to watch them love it here. It’s the kids.”
Robinson belts out a grand, “All aboard!” and calls for tickets. The Pumpkin Train honks and kids whoop and holler and can’t sit still because of their excitement.
As the Pumpkin Train chugs along, kids cheer for the full-sized train that flies past.