|By Barbara Miller Beem
Outdoors and overhead, it’s the sweet sound of chirping birds, not the rumble and roar of airplanes, that fills the air. Floating vacations on the sea are, at least for now, on hold as cruise ships have dropped anchor. And on the highways, morning and afternoon commutes are suddenly a lot less congested.
But not everything has ground to a near-halt: In basements, dens, and attics, trains continue to traverse mountain tunnels and elevated bridges, passing by small towns and large cities and then making up time through pastoral farmland. Whizzing round and round, making figure eights and sometimes narrowly missing oncoming traffic, model trains are enjoying a resurgence in popularity, as they appeal to a new – and wider — audience. All aboard!
“There’s comfort in a hobby that involves your hands,” explained Stacey Walthers Naffah. The president of Wm. K. Walthers, Inc., Naffah is the first woman to head the company founded in 1932 by her great-grandfather, one that still bears his name. As for Bill Walthers, his introduction to the small world of trains came on Christmas morning in 1899, when the six-year-old boy awoke to discover a windup choo-choo under the tree. Little could he know that the seed for what would one day be the world’s largest producer and distributer of model railroad equipment was being planted.
An electrical engineer by training, Walthers made the inevitable switch to electrical model trains, “graduating” to “O” gauge. The attic of his home was at one point an “empire of standard gauge.” Intrigued with the technical aspects of model trains, Walthers wrote magazine articles documenting his inventions and improvements before self-publishing the seminal book, Signal and Control Manual for Model Railroaders.
As his reputation grew, and as fellow hobbyists turned to him for guidance, Walthers (at the time “bankrupt and unemployed”) transformed his passion for model trains into a catalog business. In 1932, he placed a small ad in a hobbyists’ magazine, offering rail, couplers, and electrical supplies from his home in Milwaukee, Wis., at a time when hobby shops were few and far between.
As the business flourished, Walthers was well positioned for the “Golden Age” of model railroading. At the conclusion of World War II, fervor for the hobby swelled as returning servicemen, having seen more of the world than they could ever have imagined possible, set about creating their own universes. With limited space in smallish houses, these mid-century enthusiasts embraced the world of “HO” scale (1:48), taking advantage of leisure time and disposable income. To be sure, during the 1950s and early-1960s, model railroading was “ubiquitous in our pop culture,” according to Naffah. For the most part, this was an interest fathers shared with their sons.
“This is a niche hobby and always has been,” she continued. But even though the technical end of the hobby kept pace with the times, interest was not passed down to the next generation, and, as a result, the circle of modelers came to be dominated by older men.
It was this challenge that led Naffah to head her family’s company two years ago, following her father’s retirement. She pointed out that model railroading is a multi-faceted pursuit that can appeal to a variety of tastes and talents. Those intrigued with technology (like her great-grandfather) focus on making the trains run smoothly, especially interesting today thanks to a wide range of computerized accessories. Crafters can let loose their talents on producing landscapes and hardscapes, recreating favorite places and times, or drawing from their imagination. And for the collector, there are vintage buildings (think “Plasticville” as well as hand-fashioned structures from bygone years) and the challenge of old trains (there are those who still enjoy the smell of vintage steam engines, she confirmed).
Families, including Moms and daughters, are getting into the act, as many school programs are placing an emphasis on STE(A)M subjects (science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics). And although weekly train shows have been suspended for a while, this is one hobby that can still be enjoyed at home.
Before getting started, Naffah suggested that newcomers to the world of miniature trains decide the amount of space they can devote to their hobby. Those with little room might opt for “N” gauge (1:160), which is especially popular in Japan. Even smaller is “Z” gauge (1:220), which can be housed in a briefcase. For those with a large backyard, “G” gauge (1:25) might be the ticket. But “HO” remains the most popular, in large part because of the large selection of accessories on the market. “Diehards,” she said, insist on scale perfection, but others find whimsy in a mix-and-match approach. Benchwork (the building of a platform) can be intimidating, but an elaborate construction is not necessary; a 4 by 8-foot piece of plywood on sawhorses, the bottom of a trundle bed, or even a drawer or suitcase can suffice.
There are many reasons why model railroading has been called the “World’s Greatest Hobby,” Naffah concluded. What was once a growing field during the Great Depression is once again a welcome pastime for those staying home. “We all want to tell a story,” she said, “to remember places we love.” And in the end, model railroaders have the opportunity to make a world “the way they wish the world was and to have control over it..