New Lenox club’s train display keeps Christmas spirit on track
BY SUSAN DEMAR LAFFERTY email@example.com December 5, 2013 6:50PM
If you go ...
What: Open house and visit with Santa at the Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club
When: 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 14
Where: 1311 S. Schoolhouse Road, New Lenox
Cost: $2 per person/$5 per family
Updated: January 7, 2014 6:14AM
For many families, having a train encircling the Christmas tree is as much of a holiday tradition as the tree itself. It adds an electrifying dimension to the tree and brings out the child in many.
An example of that effect is apparent when viewing the nearly 500 rail cars chugging along thousands of feet of track all around the Christmas tree at the Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club in New Lenox.
Club president Herb Koch, of Palos Park, spoke for most members when he said, “The excitement of trains goes back to my childhood. We all had a train under the tree.”
At the club, where the 100 members gather — in a 4,800-square-foot space of moving parts — everyone is a kid.
“This place is only for kids — little kids and big kids,” said club member Angela Reed, of Frankfort, who has her own treasured memories of riding in a steam engine as a child. “There is so much going on here. It is not just trains running around a track.”
The public can get a glimpse of all that goes on there during holiday open houses from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday and Dec. 14. The club is at 1311 S. Schoolhouse Road, Unit 3, in the industrial condominium complex.
Amid the constant sounds of train whistles, rail enthusiasts digitally manipulate their freight trains and passenger trains through tunnels, over bridges and all around the room, through hand-held devices, a computerized station and an iPad. A 12-foot screen overhead can provide a view from the engineer’s seat.
The space is filled with railroad memorabilia and photos, too, giving the clubhouse a museum feel.
For the CLRC — one of the few clubs to own its own space — this has been home since 2004. And like children with new toys at Christmas, members are eager to show visitors around and point out all the painstaking and whimsical details in their ever-evolving layouts and designs.
The display brings out not only the child in members, but also their expertise. There are computer technicians, electricians and engineers who all work together on a master plan to create a permanent layout with museum-quality scenery.
They make major changes every summer, as well as changes throughout the seasons, Koch said.
The Christmas season has brought out a replica of the Polar Express. There’s a Santa train, and elves waiting at the station. Holiday movies are showing at Grover Mill Drive-In, one of many lifelike scenes along the tracks.
“Changing the layouts is part of the fun. We’re all about fun,” Koch said. This year, the club has added new accessories and scenery, and Chicago’s el, which loops around a residential village, with vintage cars running.
“Everyone works together doing what they enjoy,” Reed said, and for her, it is scenery.
Her vignettes all are slices of real life. There are scenes within scenes that depict people at work and at lunch, kids at play, and hobos huddled around a fire under the train trestle.
“I want people to feel like they want to live in this town,” she said. “To me, the railroad is like a play on a stage — the scenery is the props and the trains are the actors. When that comes together you really have something special. You feel like you are part of it.”
Club members also want children to feel like they are part of the action. There are plenty of buttons to push that bring these scenes along the tracks to life.
Push one button and a fireman slides down the pole, while the fire engine emerges from the station. Push another and a car comes around the corner into a drive-in, and a car hop comes out to meet it. A coal car dumps its load, and children play on a seesaw.
“This gets the kids involved, which is really important,” Reed said. “There is so much to learn.”
Member Ron Foster said he enjoys seeing kids’ eyes get as big as saucers when they blow the train whistle from his hand-held remote control.
Upstairs in the loft are trains for toddlers to play with, including Thomas the Tank Engine.
Thomas, an animated version modeled after a real engine, attracts kids to trains, and it evolves from there, Koch said.
To further snag their interest in trains, club members work with local Scouts on related merit badges.
Koch’s own interest began in childhood and has been passed on to his children and grandchildren.
For him, “it’s the massiveness of the engines and being able to control it. It’s the excitement and interaction,” he said. “When I was growing up, Lionel was the largest toymaker. It is what video games are today.”
Members welcome those who don’t have trains. Those who do are welcome to share. It is also a place to buy, sell and repair trains.
“This is a social organization with trains as a theme,” Koch said. “Trains brought us together, but the camaraderie also keeps us together. This is a gathering place.”
Open houses are held on the third Saturday of most months.
Members often gather near the “dining car” and chat over a cup of coffee, or cocoa and a snack.
There are enough members to bring a wide variety, as each contributes by sharing his or her “toys,” knowledge and passion.
“It’s about enjoying our dream ... ” Koch said.
” ... and reliving our childhood,” Reed said, finishing for him.