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Annual train show in Delavan encourages interaction with exhibits

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Catherine W. Idzerda
March 9, 2013

— The small railroad crossing sign outside of Delavan’s American Legion said, “Stop, Look, Listen.”

It should have said “Stop, look, listen, be mesmerized, be enchanted, and don’t miss the Lego train in the basement.”

That’s too many words for a sign, but not enough description to capture the spirit of this weekend’s Delavan Train Show.

It’s the sixth year for the show that is held on both levels of the American Legion Hall, 111 Second St. Last year, more than 3,800 people attended the show. Part of the attraction is the lack of admission fee. But it’s the atmosphere that really brings them in.

“At some of the big club shows, the layouts are really up high,” said Sara Deschner, who runs the show with her husband, Brad Deschner. “It’s hard to see them, and that’s no fun for kids.”

At those train shows, the rule is “NO TOUCHING, not now, not ever.”

At the Delavan Train show, most of the displays are at toddler height, and—this is the cool part—visitors are actually encouraged to push buttons, move levers and generally interact with the displays.

Jonathan Davis, 3, Elkhorn, became the lord of a small realm that included Thomas the Tank Engine, James the Red Engine and the Polar Express. He operated the train whistles, pushed and pulled controls and watched, transfixed, the results of his efforts.

Across the room, an elaborate circus layout, complete with a variety of tiny amusement park rides, concession stands and a guy taking a bath under a tree—don’t ask—was surrounded by little door bells. As the train chugged by, visitors could push the doorbells to light up displays, operate the Ferris wheel or make the guy in the tub scrub his back.

David Rohr, president of Lionel Railroad Club out of Milwaukee, said that the manufacturer had always been interested in “motion, sound and action.” That’s what kids are interested in, too. “Look but don’t touch” isn’t enough.

Model railroader Connor Hutson put it best: “When you tell them not to touch things, they want to touch them even more.”

Hutson, 11, has been in model railroading since he was 2 years old, more or less. He was at the show with a Lego train layout that he created. As the train circulated around a series of structures—including a burning building, complete with firefighters—Hutson chatted about his hobby.

Along with his Lego system, he has also worked in with O Scale and HO Scale. The scale refers to the size of the trains. O Scale trains are about 4 inches long by 2.5 inches high. HO Scale means “half-o.”

Hutson has built a variety of custom rail cars, and he talks about them in a flurry of letters and initials, as in “That’s a Wisconsin and Southern GP35” or “that’s an ES44 DC built by GE.” But he’s also articulate about his hobby and willing to explain the basics.

When his friends come over to his home, he encourages them to make their own Lego creations.

“That way when they come to my house and see it again, they can say, ‘I made that!’” Hutson said.

And that’s part of the appeal of model railroading. Anybody can put tracks down and run a train. Creating the world is the challenge—and provides much of the reward.

In a previous life, Ron Schlicht of Greenfield was probably a renowned painter of miniatures.

His goal, he said, was to give people a new scene to look at, “every foot or so.”

Street work, movie scenes, a forest—can you find all 17 animals?—a junk yard, families out enjoying the weather and dozens of other scenes run together around the massive layout.

He made much of the scenery and tiny people by himself.

“I tell people that for model railroads, you can use this (he gestures to his wallet) but it’s better to use this (he taps his head),” Schlicht said.

He even created a welder for his junkyard with a light that glows and then fades to orange, just like a real weld would.

The tombs in the graveyard are made from the tips of plastic silverware, and he transformed an ordinary plastic figurine into the Cowardly Lion.

The show runs through Sunday, and it seems unlikely that the model railroaders enthusiasm for their hobby will abate anytime soon.

IF YOU GO

What: Delavan Train Show

When: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., today; 9 a.m. to 2 p.m., Sunday.

Where: American Legion Hall

Cost: Free, but donations are accepted.



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