Toy trains rumble around familiar landscapes, past small-scale local landmarks and through tunnels, to the amazement of Wenham Museum visitors of all ages.
Train Curator Robert Flanagan and his volunteers have created more than exhibits — they have created a whole miniature world built around model trains.
The museum’s Bennett E. Merry Train Gallery features 10 operating model layouts — in G, O, HO, N, and Z gauges — with 21 trains that operate at the touch of a button. In addition to the permanent collection, ‘Tis the Seasons for Trains, a special holiday-themed model train exhibit, is now open in the main gallery through March 13.
“I love to see the awe on the faces of first-time visitors,” said Flanagan who got his first train set for Christmas in 1962 at age 7 — and still has it. “It is especially fun to see the little kids’ reaction. Some kids have never seen model trains before they visit and those that do mostly know Thomas the Tank Engine.”
Model trains were extremely popular in the 20th century. Today, however, kids are more likely to request video games for the holidays.
The first mass market train sets were made by Marklin in Germany in 1891, Lionel introduced the first electricity-driven train in 1910, and the toys grew in popularity until after World War II, according to exactrail.com. During the 1950s toy trains were considered the number one holiday toy for boys, according to the Modelers Central website.
The Wenham Museum’s train exhibit wistfully captures the joy of model trains and their connection to the holiday season.
“Last year due to the pandemic, we had limited hours and attendance. In part to make up for that, we have added a really fun holiday exhibit, ‘Tis the Seasons for Trains, including with the beloved annual favorite the Snow Train to Bakersville layout,” said Jane Bowers, Wenham Museum Exhibits Curator and Manager.
The Bakersville train layout, which features a nighttime winter scene with snow all around, is named after the person who built the houses: Roland Baker, who lived in Salem. “It is a G gauge, 8 by 24 foot layout,” Flanagan said. “This has been a museum holiday tradition for many years. I don’t recall when we first started to put this up but it has been going on for a long time. I am guessing at least 20 years.”
“The Bakersville trains are a popular backdrop for holiday cards,” added Bowers. “We have even set it up to make it easy for families to pose in front of the snowy scene.”
The second layout is a large, standard gauge “Garden Train” track layout — a classic style layout of trains under a Christmas tree given to countless generations of kids during the holidays.
“Seeing wide-eyed kids and multi-generational visitors enjoying themselves is what makes the work fun,” said Walt Meibaum of Hamilton, model railroad volunteer and museum trustee, who has been “modeling” all his life.
Building the holiday-themed train exhibits is “a labor of love” for Flanagan and his volunteers.
“It takes three of us a couple of weeks to install the exhibits,” said Flanagan, whose love of trains is not restricted to toys. His summer home in North Conway, N.H., is a converted old caboose, and he is also conductor for the Conway Scenic Railroad in North Conway.
While the visitors enjoy the exhibits, the volunteers enjoy sharing their love of trains with others, especially kids.
“We are always looking for volunteers to help with the train layouts,” said Flanagan. “It is a great opportunity for anyone that is a model train enthusiast.”
According exactrail.com, interest in trains by young people has waned in recent decades, but there are currently over a half million model train collectors in the United States and Canada.
The ‘Tis the Seasons for Trains exhibit is a family-friendly holiday adventure.
“Watching kids share the train experience with parents and grandparents is great,” said Meibaum. “There is so much detail in every train layout, that visitors see something different every time they come. We have our regulars — there is one family that comes to our [permanent] train exhibit every Tuesday.”
For the holidays, Santa is part of the Bakersville train exhibit, said Bowers, “and he has been known to move around — making it fun to see the exhibit multiple times.”
“Trains are here on the North Shore and in Wenham because of ice,” explained Bowers. “Ice from Wenham Lake was prized worldwide. The rail lines were extended and the spur built here to move the ice. It was said that Queen Victoria would drink beverages containing Wenham ice because it was so pure.”
In conjunction with the winter train display, the museum is featuring FROZEN, a family-friendly, hands-on history exhibit that lets visitors explore how ice was harvested from Wenham Lake, stored, moved to the seaports via trains, and then shipped around the world..
To understand ice harvesting, kids are able to use ice tongs to move styrofoam “ice blocks” into an ice house and use a pung sleigh to move the blocks.
“There is also a large wooden engine that they can climb in and become the engineer of the train,” added Flanagan.
“We are creating sticky memories,” added Bowers. “Since the permanent train gallery opened in 1997, we now have grandparents that come to see the trains with their adult children and grandchildren. They watch as the grandchildren follow the same steps as their children and curiously explore the exhibits.”
The museum, at 132 Main St., Wenham, is open Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from noon 12 to 4 p.m. Tickets are $10 for adults, and $8 for seniors and children. All nonmember visitors are advised to reserve tickets online at www.wenhammuseum.org in advance of visiting. Face coverings for ages 3 and over are required to visit the galleries.
Linda Greenstein can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.