Tuesday, June 7, 2011

All aboard for Trainland (Colfax, Iowa)

DesMoinesRegister.com: All aboard for Trainland
Colfax, Ia. - Red Atwood seems to be having too much fun.

"Do you want to see the fireworks again?" he asks a visitor.

He reaches under a railing, pushes a button, and, just as planned, a cluster of three separate animated lights flicker in the darkness - giving off a fireworks special effect - as a toy train whirs around on metal tracks below.

Not far away, strobe lights ripple along the side of a miniature airport's runway. He presses the button again. The pretend fireworks flash once more in a make-believe night sky. He cracks a smile, surrounded by dozens of the 600 tiny lights that twinkle and glow here in the small world he and friends built more than a generation ago.

Atwood, a lifelong farmer who turned 77 on Memorial Day, is living proof that there are grown men who will always find delight playing with toys.

As the owner and founder of Trainland U.S.A., he presides over a sprawling, homespun toy train museum celebrating its 30th season this summer as a just slightly off-the-beaten path roadside attraction.

While the focus of Trainland has been on toys and models for the past three decades, Atwood and his wife, Judy, rescued a full-sized Civil War-era train depot two years ago from Calamus, which is west of Clinton in eastern Iowa.

They have begun the process of restoring the small depot and hope to have it open before Labor Day, when Trainland closes for the season.

Until then, the lure of this place is the nearly 25 classic toy train sets that roll along over about 4,000 feet of track that meanders in and around about 200 model buildings, most of which light up when make-believe night falls. Scenery is hand-painted; glass protects the custom-made basement display built in the late 1970s with the help of dozens of friends.

"We get a lot of young kids who come in here and almost can't contain themselves," Judy Atwood said. "We also get quite a few baby boomers who come in here and get to relive their past."

All the trains and accessories are part of a classic collection of Lionel O-gauge trains that Atwood began assembling in the early 1960s after he finished a tour of duty with the U.S. Army. The vintage pieces function as they did when they came out of their boxes.

"I wasn't smart enough to start my collection earlier, during the 1950s," he said, harkening back to the immediate post-war years when the most sought-after toy trains were still manufactured in the United States.

Trainland has consistently attracted visitors from every state since it opened in 1981, Judy Atwood said.

Yearly attendance has declined from pre-1995 highs because tour buses that once stopped at Trainland now pass the attraction on their way to the casino at Prairie Meadows.

But thousands of visitors still pull off the interstate spontaneously, lured by the Trainland signs just before Exit 155, she added. Trainland opened with a full parking lot on Memorial Day weekend.

The fact that the season opened with noticeably large crowds might suggest that both Iowans and out-of-state tourists have become increasingly interested in taking paths less traveled, said Jessica O'Riley, communications manager of the Iowa Tourism Office.

"We often tell people the best way to experience Iowa is to get off the interstates and explore," she said. "That's where they're likely to find hidden gems of attractions."

There are larger toy train museums, such as the San Diego Model Railroad Museum, with 27,000 square feet of display. But Trainland has more than enough atmosphere and hardware to remind many adults of the golden age of trains and introduce youngsters to a world they never knew.

Visitors can see three eras of time; frontier, steam and diesel. Dozens of depictions of well-known American landmarks and scenes of Americana are part of the display. Look closely to see gun fighters in the Old West, a moonshine still in Missouri, an operating drive-in movie theater, or San Francisco trolley cars.

In a way, Trainland reflects Atwood's lifetime of interest. Although he did all of his serious toy train collecting as an adult, his tie to toy trains goes back to a 1930s childhood Christmas.

"Santa brought me a Marx train set when I was a kid," he said, a train he still owns.

After Atwood and friends finished Trainland in 1981, they had an American original - a place to visit that some might regard as off-beat. Now, when he speaks of his homemade museum, there's a lilt in Atwood's voice. He moves around it, having fun, perhaps too much fun.

"Sometimes, you can get a little burned out," he said. "But I am probably going to keep doing this until the day I die."

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