OTTUMWA — You can learn a lot building a model train.
There’s the soft skills, of course, like patience and attention to detail. But there are more concrete lessons, too.
“You’ll learn something about electricity, about woodworking and for the scenes, about art,” said Tom Morgan of Mount Pleasant.
Morgan and his fellow train club members were joined at the Great River Railroad Club’s 21st Annual Train Show by vendors and everyday train enthusiasts Saturday at the Quincy Place Mall. One shopper carrying her bags as she stepped from a store commented on how busy the mall was.
That was true, Morgan said, but in this age of video games and computers, it’s been getting harder to recruit fans of model trains, which were once toward the top of many lists to Santa.
But there is interest. Young Thomas Spoelstra of New Sharon was patiently following a model train around the 90-foot circle of tables at the center of the mall. With three tracks running side-by-side, the club’s setup had roughly 270 feet of track.
Thomas watched them all.
“His big brother got a train set for Christmas,” said Thomas’ dad, Steve. “It was just a [small one], but yeah, they can grow! Now Thomas is thinking about building one, so we came here for this.”
The event drew other children, too, but it often looked like far more adults were crowding the tables.
The other club he belongs to, the Iowa Model Steam Engineers, use miniature — but real — steam engines to power locomotives strong enough to pull the owner and friends around a homemade track. Morgan has more than 1,800 feet in his backyard.
Both types of train models, said Morgan, allow the hobby to be as exciting or relaxing as a person wants. He’s been involved for 50 years.
Morgan said there are plenty of model train enthusiasts who love “real” trains, too. They’ll let their own track sit a while as they grab a camera and head out to explore their favorite train locations. After a bunch of photos, they can then recreate that location in their own basement.
Some hobbyists want fast trains, more than one locomotive at a time and multiple, computer programmed track changes.
“Or,” Morgan said, “you can just sit and watch it run in circles.”