Evansville couple's garden train display in full bloom

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Gina Duwe
Monday, July 14, 2014

EVANSVILLE--It started with a ladybug eggliner on a double eight.

“Ohh, we have to have one of those!” Carol Culbertson recalled saying at the Madison train show.

Nine years later, Carol and her husband, Steve, have their ladybug eggliner--a small train car shaped like an egg--circling on a  track that makes a double figure-eight in a fairy garden in their backyard.

But that's only a small part. 

About 40 buildings and dozens of tiny people create scenes around more than 300 feet of 2-inch-wide G-scale track weaved among colorful perennials in full bloom.

“My god, what have I done,” Steve joked as he looked over the display. “OMG, OMG. It's fun. It would be fun to run it more, but you play with the weather.” 

The retired couple enjoy sitting in the backyard of their 1881 home on Main Street just west of downtown Evansville as the trains hum around the garden.

“That sound, it's a real relaxing sound,” Carol said.

Water splashes down a fall as a water wheel turns next to Campbell's Mill, which Steve built in honor of his great-great-grandfather, who had a mill in Illinois.

If the weather cooperates, the Culbertsons' backyard will be open for viewing Saturday. The city had to cancel its railroad sesquicentennial events for Saturday, but the Culbertsons said they would keep their display open to the public as planned. They don't regularly open their display to the public but sometimes honor special requests.

A yellow house and matching barn that nearly match the Culbertsons' home started the train display. Behind the miniature home, tiny Holstein cows stand outside a red barn, a farmhouse, silos and a windmill, which honor Carol's grandfather, who had a dairy farm in Illinois.

“A lot of our things are in honor or memory of family,” she said.

“Hotel Austin, that's our grandson,” she said pointing to Main Street, which also includes Ryne's Drugs and Amber's Café, also for their grandchildren.

“And what's Ashley?” Carol asked.

“Ashley's a dentist. She's around the corner on the end,” Steve said.

“Oh, my grandmother,” Steve said, pointing. “I gave her a restaurant over here.”

Next to the display sits an unassuming white shed. Learn the history, however, and discover it's a replica of the crossing shanty that formerly sat at the train tracks on East Main Street in downtown Evansville. The building provided shelter for the person who managed the tracks in the days before automatic crossing gates.

Steve tells people that when he approached a train crossing when he first got his driver's license, he would drive six blocks out of the way to avoid it. Now, he'll drive six blocks over to watch a train.

Steve has been into trains since the early 1970s and also has an indoor display. Carol has “tolerated it all those years,” he explained.

When they got into the garden display, it became her niche, he said.

“I think we just killed an ant,” Carol said as one of the three trains chugged by.

On one end of the display spreads a carnival and circus scene, though it's not yet the 4-H fair Carol envisions from her years as a member and leader. To get the Ferris wheel and merry-go-round, she had to buy the whole carnival set when a friend was getting out of the hobby.

A train of elephants heads into the big top, surrounded by clowns, a cotton candy stand and carnival games.

The electric trains only run in good weather, and the buildings and people don't stay outside all the time. The Culbertsons need to protect them from the elements and animals that might carry a person or two away. The tracks are outside through winter.

Some garden display owners with battery-powered trains run them through winter after removing snow from the tracks, Steve said.

The Culbertsons are members of the Wisconsin Garden Railway Society, and with other members, they run the model train displays at Rotary Botanical Gardens during the holiday lights show. They also participate in three or four shows, including Trainfest, which bills itself as the nation's largest model railroad show, at Wisconsin State Fair Park in November.

Steve and Carol are done adding to their hobby, for now. If they do anything, they said, it would be to raise the whole display up a few feet so it's easier for their aging bodies to manage.

"We can get down,” Steve said. “It's the coming back up that will be the problem.” 

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