Jack Mason, retired president of Precision Paper Converters in Kaukauna, got hooked on model trains when he found a Lionel train set under the Christmas tree as a child. He is among 50 members of the Green Bay Model Railroad Club.
I was caught by a very long train on Friday morning as I was headed to an appointment with Green Bay Area Model Railroaders Club members. I was not kindly disposed to railroads just then, but relented after a very few minutes in the club's room at the Kress Family Branch of the Brown County Library in De Pere.
Because really, who doesn't love toy trains?
The club will host its first community open house, with the theme "Kids Still Love Trains," from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Nov. 2 at the library, where the club is in the third year of an initial five-year lease. "Kids" may be broadly defined.
The club's 2,000 feet of railroads and small worlds are works in progress, but then, that's more of a state of being than a temporary description. Things are always being improved. Bridges built, forests planted and streams stocked with little HO fish.
Because it's not just about the trains.
"We've got one guy in the club, all he does is build trees. It's like a real forest. No two trees are the same," said club member Fred Neveu.
Still, "Sometimes its nice just to come in and run trains," said Robert Kiser, retired De Pere fire chief and club member.
The club has about 50 members, said Jack Mason, retired president of Precision Paper Converters in Kaukauna. That includes junior members on up - they're not all retirees - and a couple of female members as well.
Mason's story is probably written on every model-railroader testimony page. He got hooked when he found a Lionel train set under the Christmas tree. When he got older, he switched to the smaller HO gauge. Then he went to college, got a wife and a life, and the trains were relegated to boxes, which made every move he did. When he retired, he unpacked the boxes, set up his tracks and was a kid again.
"It gets embedded in your psyche and never goes away," he said.
Which is about as close as most model railroaders get to explaining why they love the hobby. To each other, explanation is superfluous.
Model railroading is not inexpensive. Single engines can cost hundreds of dollars, to say nothing of all the other accessories. Which is another way the club helps, because members can pool and share their resources.
Mason got a part-time job at EngineHouse Services, 2737 N. Packerland Drive.
"I was going there twice a day to buy stuff, anyway," he said. "It pays for my toys."
"Model Railroader" Publisher Terry Thompson told the World's Greatest Hobby website in 2010 that 500,000 American adults spend $500 million annually on the hobby.
Railroading equipment is a lot more sophisticated than that Lionel under the tree so many years ago. Steam engines steam, tracks are digitally controlled, and materials for buildings and terrain are more flexible than ever.
There are sound chips for engines and cows and crossings. If apples made noises, there'd be sound chips for them, because, trust me, there are apples. Teeny, tiny ones, individually made and stuck on teeny, tiny trees.
Trains come in every style and livery. If they aren't made commercially, some hobbyist can probably do it.
Club volunteers are on hand for many library events, serving as a kind of educational resource, if not a distraction.
"This has happened quite often. This little boy, must have been about 5 years old, he got tired of watching the story time and he comes running in. Mother grabs him and brings him back and he does this four or five times. He wanted to see the trains. He could care less about story time," Neveau said.
Neveu said it's fun when younger kids are in.
"You let them blow the whistle and you'd think I handed them a million dollars," he said.
And that's how new model railroaders - who don't have the experience with real trains that older members do - are created.
Bradley Korb of De Pere is one of the younger members at 13. He gets in whenever he can to run trains. He's not a builder - yet - but he does hold the club record for putting together a 110-car train, which makes me glad he doesn't work for a real railroad.