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Lionel Railroad Club inspires daydreams among young and old

Herbert Koch president ChicagolLionel Railroad Club controls two trains while overlooking their setup Lionel Railroad Club Open House New Lenox

Herbert Koch, president of the Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club, controls two trains while overlooking their setup at the Lionel Railroad Club Open House in New Lenox, Illinois, Saturday, Nov. 17, 2012. | Karen Gioia ~ For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: December 27, 2012 6:14AM



The scene at the Chicagoland Lionel Railroad Club was pure nostalgia.

The holiday lights were on, decorated trees were up and toy trains were chugging through it all.

Herb Koch, a founding member of the club, said it was Christmas 1956 when he and his brother got their first train set.

Koch’s father set up the train to run as they walked into the room, and Koch’s lifelong love of trains was born.

The club, headquartered in a New Lenox industrial park, recently opened its doors to the public so others could indulge in a little way-back daydreaming. The club hosted an open house that served as a prequel to its December holiday open houses that traditionally draw big crowds.

The club has been around for almost 20 years and has grown to more than 100 members — most of whom have set up train stuff at the clubhouse as well as in their family rooms or basements at home. Members host public open houses at their clubhouse each month.

“You’re never too old to be a kid,” member Bob Ciolino, of Frankfort, said.

Even without that iconic Christmas image emblazoned in one’s memory — like Koch, of Palos Park — the visuals and sheer coordination required to run trains through the exhibition is intriguing.

Or, if electronics or engineering is your thing, the club can feed that interest, too.

Some club members specialize in fixing Lionel train parts, and some have the knowledge to ensure the trains run smoothly without derailing or colliding.

“If you have trains at home, you always have somebody here who will know how to handle it,” said Joe Oster of Frankfort. “It’s an avenue for people who, maybe their father left them a train but they don’t know how to fix it.”

Young and old wandered around the giant O Gauge modular layout, crouching to study the detail of the scenery, waving away the smoke curling from the tiny engines as they chugged around the room.

“It’s never too late to have a happy childhood,” club member Kevin Barry, of Chicago, said. “I’m 62 and I still play with trains.”

Scott Prihar, of Manhattan, stood by as his 5-year-old son, Ryland, hurried along the layout carrying a stepstool — the club keeps a stack of them near the door for kids like Ryland. The boy set it up at various points along the edge of the table and stood on it, silently watching with wide eyes.

“We come to all the open houses,” Prihar said, adding they’ve been regulars at the clubhouse for about three years. “He loves trains.”

An actual train inspired Angela Reed’s hobby.

Reed, of Frankfort, vividly recalls a childhood memory of riding in a steam engine with her father in her native New Zealand, feeling the heat and hearing the roar of the fire as the firemen fed the engine.

Now, she focuses on detailed scenery to surround her trains. Her handiwork — natural surroundings such as mountains, rocks and trees, as well as buildings, fences and people — is on display at the clubhouse, where she creates to her heart’s content.

“I love it,” she said, mentioning her painstakingly-tweaked family room train display. “My mother was a commercial artist, she was very artistic.”

The club will host its Winter Wonderland Christmas open houses Saturday and Dec. 8, which will also include photos with Santa. The clubhouse will be open to the public from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. those days.

The club has a space large enough to fit a huge layout capable of running trains 142 cars long on 143-foot-long mainlines. Visitors are able to operate more than 30 interactive features — such as cars pulling into miniature gas stations and paperboys flinging newspapers — with the push of a button.

Admission is free for members, $2 per nonmember or $5 per family. Free popcorn will be available, and hot dogs, pizza and pop will be sold.

Visitors also may bring trains in for repairs, as the CLRC is an authorized Lionel service station, Koch said.

For more information or directions, visit www.clrctrains.com.



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