My Suburban life: Model Railroad Club heads to Springfield
Elmhurst, IL —
To build a convincing model railroad layout, you need varied talents — electricians, painters, history buffs and others — all working together. Every detail and contribution leads to another. And if you look closely, as the train passes period-specific cars, drive-in theaters and mid-century America main streets, you see the stories unfold.
On one miniature country road is a figurine of a soldier kissing his girlfriend in front of his Corvette as a greyhound bus drives away. Further along the track, there are downed power lines, and the utility men are out for repairs. The ground around a nearby factory is dark and damp — this is before the Environmental Protection Agency’s founding — and it has been dumping oil right into the soil and letting it run into a creek.
The attention to detail is striking, and now aided by technology, pinhead-sized LED lights allow the club to add headlights on the matchbox-size cars passing through the retro downtowns. A small LCD screen is inserted into the drive-through movie theater kit, connected to a video player hidden under the layout.
There is a make-believe playfulness and tongue-in cheek sense of humor. A model factory is named “Hoffa Concrete,” after the infamous union boss Jimmy Hoffa, supposedly buried under Giant Stadium in New Jersey by mobsters.
But, the focus is still on the locomotives. And with a layout this big, the train can pull nearly 200 cars.
“Running the train,” said Club Board Member Tom Fretch. “That’s the whole point of it.”
The Elmhurst Model Railroad Club has been upgrading, improving and modifying this 600 feet of track, equal to about 10 scale miles — in the current location in the basement of 111 E. First St. for 22 years. The club began in 1969, has met in two previous locations, and now totals some 140 members.
This summer, the club’s website landed them a surprise request from the Illinois Department of Natural Resources, who asked the club if it would build a layout demonstrating hardwood lumbering in Illinois and how it benefits the state through industry, recreation and environmental care.
The IDNR will present the display at the Illinois State Fair beginning Aug. 12 in Springfield, in the conservation world area.
“We kind of got the idea that kids like trains, and we knew that and it’s all part of trying to get kids outdoors more and understand natural resource management in Illinois,” said IDNR Forest Biologist Tom Gargrave, who commissioned the project. “Kids learn so much about the rainforest, but they never really learn about what they have in their very own backyard.”
The IDNR adds a new display of some sort every few years and cycles out the old ones, he said. He hopes to use this new model for several years.
“We estimate at the state fair we have 2,000 to 5,000 people, per day, coming through (the IDNR tent),” he said. “It’s going to get viewed.”
Gargrave found the Elmhurst club through its website, and called club member Dan Hollis.
“They were very interested and very cooperative,” Gargrave said. “Once I told them what I wanted to do, they were all over it. They’ve been a good group to work with.”
Hollis designed the layout to sit on a 4-by-8-foot plywood base, with removable legs. The smaller objects on the layout — trees, people, cars, timber and deer — will be attached. Several large pieces, like the lumber mill and houses, are removable for transportation. The entire layout will be surrounded by Plexiglass.
“We’ve never turned down a challenge yet around this place, so we went ahead,” Hollis said.
Fretch worked on the detailed lumber mill and other features dotting the display’s green, rolling hills.
It shows nearly every part of the renewable hardwood lumbering process, with the club’s usual attention to detail, from cutting and replanting, debarking and milling, to the houses that are eventually built with the wood, and even the hunters managing the deer population in the re-grown forest.
“(The IDNR) made the point to us that if there wasn’t recreational deer hunters, the deer would overpopulate and starve,” Fretch said. “And then with the lumbering, you can see the tree stumps where they’ve cut down the lumber and here were it grew back. What they do is rotate, and then, over here is where they planted the trees. The lumber industry wants to stay in business. So over time they clear cut a field and they plant more trees than they cut down. So that in 20 years they can come back and cut it again.”
And of course, a train will circle and weave through the display, picking up and dropping off freight cars filled with wood and other materials.
“In order to build this, I had to learn how it actually functions and what it’s for,” Fretch said. “You pick up a whole bunch of other things as you’re building it that you normally wouldn’t think of.”