Stay-At-Home Dad: The secret garden railroad
By Howard A. Ludwig October 4, 2012 12:00PM
Peter and Bubba Ludwig pose in front of a model train at Taltree Arboretum & Gardens in Valparaiso, Ind. | Howard Ludwig~For Sun-Times Media
Updated: November 8, 2012 6:14AM
There’s something about boys and trains. Nowadays, the fascination usually starts with Thomas the Tank Engine. For some boys, that’s also where it ends. For others, this begins a lifelong obsession with the railroad.
My father-in-law is one of those boys who never outgrew his love of trains. He scours the Internet searching for miniature trains, railcars, electric track and buildings for his backyard railway.
Papa Dave’s railroad remains a work in progress, but his hobby led us to the little-known Taltree Arboretum & Gardens last month. Located in Valparaiso, Ind., the arboretum is home to the Taltree Railway Garden.
In my opinion, this elaborate railroad exhibit is second only to the Great Train Story display at the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. Only this attraction is outside, weaving through a delicately manicured landscape of tiny ponds and intricate bridges.
Thomas and his pals make an obligatory appearance. But there are also scenes from the Civil War and Abraham Lincoln’s funeral procession. All of these models rely on tiny buildings, animals and people dressed in period fashions.
I’d heard from parents of train-crazed children about the Illinois Railway Museum in Union which features full-size trains and boxcars. Thomas makes regular appearances there too. And there are always carnivals and pumpkin patches that have “Silver Spoons”-style train rides for kids.
But this was the first I’d ever heard of the outdoor Taltree Railway Garden. My father-in-law read about the arboretum in one of his railroad magazines. I scanned the guestbook and learned many of the visitors hailed from the Southland.
The G-gauge trains captivated my 6- and 4-year-old sons for about an hour. They asked to take pictures of all of the battle scenes with my camera phone and pointed out the bloodiest displays.
Admission isn’t particularly cheap — $10 for adults, $8 for seniors and $5 for children ages 5 to 12. Visitors younger than 4 are free. There also appeared to be some beautiful walking trails on the property. I saw a pair of newlyweds stopping to pose for pictures too. But it was getting late and starting to rain so we stayed away from the hiking trails.
We did keep with the railway theme as we headed to dinner at the nearby Industrial Revolution Eatery & Grille. This Valparaiso restaurant takes its themes from steel mills, skyscraper construction and other heavy manufacturing of the past. A miniature train circles the ceiling of the restaurant, captivating young and old alike.
The food was also really good, and the atmosphere was a lot of fun.
Bubba and Peter had a great time at both the restaurant and Taltree Arboretum & Gardens. On the way home, they sat quietly and watched a movie in the car. My in-laws, on the other hand, were abuzz. Papa Dave couldn’t stop talking about all the fresh ideas he had for his own backyard railroad.
Thus supporting my theory — some boys never outgrow their love of trains.
Howard A. Ludwig is a former SouthtownStar business writer who traded his reporter’s notepad for a diaper bag, becoming a stay-at-home dad.
He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.