There is a saying,”The [only] difference between men and boys is the price of their toys.”
I would say Bill Lorence, a retired DeKalb County engineer, epitomizes how a childhood gift of an American Flyer train set in 1949 can mushroom into a lifetime hobby that now takes up 1,500 square feet of space in his basement on Ashwood Drive in Sycamore.
Starting with that beginner model train set when he was 5, set up in his family’s basement coal bin when they lived in South Hempstead, New York, he now has more than 400 feet of track on his mainline layout, about 120 locomotives, 50 passenger cars and a whopping 2,300 freight cars, including 200 coal cars.
When I was about 10, my Christmas wish list had one big item on it – a Lionel train set.
My parents came through on Christmas Eve with a train layout under our pingpong table that had eight cars plus a steam locomotive that had a horn and puffed smoke. How cool was that.
Many years later, I bought our two sons an HO-scale train set with about the same sized layout. After many moves, we only have a half dozen cars, a replacement engine and transformer left, just so we can run it around the Christmas tree during the holidays. Actually, I run it more than our sons.
I imagine that today a model train set has to be about as far down a boy’s wish list as a dollhouse is for girls.
But I looked in some local department stores, and they still carry model trains, mostly HO-scale. For $100 or less you can get a four-car and locomotive set that has enough track to run around the Christmas tree.
But don’t let your kids see the world-class train layout at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, or you may end up in debt satisfying their wishes for a much bigger train layout than around a tree.
Getting back to Bill’s trains, it takes anywhere from four to eight fellow hobbyists to operate the entire layout, which is divided into 10 districts, powered separately in case one section does down. He has a group of enthusiasts from around the area who meet at his house two Monday nights a month to run the trains, work on portions of the layout and change out rolling stock. He said he enjoys designing the landscape and building layouts as much as he does actually running the trains.
His layout depicts the period between 1926 and 1929, when steam power still was dominant but diesel engines were hitting the tracks.
He chose to replicate a small portion of the Shenandoah Valley, which covers parts of Virginia and West Virginia, where he once served in the military. Included in the extensively landscaped layout are six coal mines, a “Tyronium” smelter, named after a fellow hobbyist, and dozens of other industries and businesses, many of them with names of friends incorporated into the
Running the trains can be done with the traditional power controls, using his laptop, with a Java Model Railroad Interface program, or even with a smartphone that has an app designed for this.
Bill has been generous with young people who express an interest in model railroading and has a box of spare cars and track to get them started.