Locals help bring small-scale railroads back to Shelburne
By Colin Ryan
Visitors to Shelburne Museum’s toy shop enter a painstakingly re-created world of trains, tracks, water towers, covered bridges, signs, stations and trees. But the new display is not just for show.
Visitors can operate by remote control the two sets of trains, direct the station, announce train times, operate the water tower, and animate other aspects of the display.
The intricate model train display reprises a Shelburne Museum tradition from decades ago. A group of local residents, including two Willistonians, lobbied the museum to bring the popular display back. It is carefully designed to evoke the original, which was displayed from 1954 through 1967.
In both the former and current displays, a shared passion for trains created a collaboration.
The original display came about because of a friendship between Shelburne Museum founder Electra Havermeyer Webb and A.C. Gilbert, a doctor from New Haven, Conn.
After graduating from medical school, Gilbert started his own company selling Mysto Magic Sets, then went on to design the Erector set. He later purchased the American Flyer toy train company and asked Webb to display his trains in her museum.
But Webb didn’t like his original layout, which wasn’t distinctly Vermont-themed. Gilbert sent workers to Shelburne to redesign the display, which was first exhibited in 1954.
After 13 years, the museum decided the display was too difficult to maintain and gave it to the Brandon Training School. It was later auctioned, and many of the details of its original design were lost.
The current display also involved collaboration, this time involving many local residents.
Ed Bianchi, a teacher at Charlotte Central School, came up with the idea of bringing the display back after reading an article in Classic Toy Trains Magazine written by one of the people who worked on Gilbert’s original display. It turned out that the museum had also wanted to pursue the idea. But the museum had two questions: Would it operate reliably? Would there be enough local volunteers to maintain it?
A group of train enthusiasts have stepped forward to help. Bianchi found eight other people to join the project to recreate the original museum’s display: John Gaworecki, John Malcovsky, Roger Brassard, Frederick Raab, Jack and Barbara Campbell, and Williston residents Mike O’Connor and Nick Hardin.
They pitched the idea to museum curator Hope Alswang in February 2003.
“We put together a display of items that would have been in display,” Bianchi explains, “using models, catalogues, and drawings to show what it would look like. They went for it.” The museum budgeted $2,000 for the display, and the train lovers put up $2,000 more.
Among the group members, O’Connor and Hardin are the most enthusiastic about American Flyer model trains. Construction of the set took place in Hardin’s basement. The unlikely group — two teachers, two electrical engineers and other devotees with various talents — met weekly for about 10 months to complete the job.
The museum prepared a backdrop that includes a poster modeled on one used in the original display and altered to look more like Vermont. One of the challenges was to keep the look and feel of the 1950s A.C. Gilbert design while meeting the museum’s reliability requirement. The group equipped the trains with modern motors and other up-to-date parts so that the display could be operated by children.
“We've made it so the kids can operate the trains all day long, but at the same time, a true S-Gauge collector would recognize this as an authentic display,” says O’Connor. “American Flyer trains are highly sought after, very desirable trains. That they run as well as they do to this day, having withstood the test of time, is a testament to everything A.C. Gilbert was about.”
The enthusiasts say that model train collectors are caretakers, not owners. Collectors understand that the trains they own were built to last lifetimes. They love the sleekness and perfection of the trains’ design and want to share them with others.
“Building this display is really about passing on the love of trains,” says Bianchi. “This hobby encompasses everything: collecting, electrical work (powering the trains), mechanical design (gears, motors, wheels and moving parts), artistic creativity (painting scenery and decorating cars), and a love of history (researching original details). And there’s a place in it for just about anybody.”
In an interesting way, things have come full circle for the group. They are planning a feature article on the display to be published in the September edition of Classic Toy Trains Magazine, the publication that inspired them to revisit the old exhibit in the first place.
The heyday of model trains ended in the 1960s. But the children who grew up with them still want to pass their love of trains down to their children. Bianchi facilitates the railroad club at Charlotte Central School, and each year kids come to him hoping the club will be meeting.
Kathryn Chase, Charlotte Central School’s librarian, says the museum display will allow her to share her memories of model trains with her granddaughter.
“As a little girl at Shelburne Village School, I remember walking over to the museum with my class,” she says. “We always looked forward to the train exhibit. I think it’s important for children to see the history of transportation, and the way things have changed and stayed the same.
“Trains will change a great deal in the next 50 years, so I’m thrilled that they’ve put the trains back,” Chase says. “Because of it, I can bring my granddaughter, the fourth generation of my family that will be able to see this train exhibit.”
Shelburne Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $9 for adults, $4.50 for children ages 6-18 and free for younger children.
Organizers of the model train exhibit are looking for people who have memories, photos or other information about the original layout. Call Ed at 425-2771, ext. 155 or send e-mail to email@example.com.