RICKREALL -- Neal Gardiner's father gave him his first model
train and railroad set during the 1930s.
"It just went around and around in a circle," recalled Gardiner,
who lives in Dallas and turns 80 next month. "Forward or backward
or stop ... that was about it."
Gardiner grew up, but not out of the hobby.
After finishing his military service in 1953, he went out and
bought a little brass engine for $15. He's been playing with model
trains ever since.
"It just puts me back to being a kid, I guess," he said.
Similar stories and sentiment echoed more than once on a recent
Thursday evening at the Rickreall Grange.
Gardiner is a member of the Polk Station Rail Model Train Club.
Every week, he and others converge here to shoot the breeze, talk
model railroading and labor on their miniature railroad layout.
In this case, miniature is a relative word. Polk Station's
layout consists of hundreds of lineal feet of track linking
small-scale farms, valleys, bridges and even a mining
A centerpiece component, the fictional town of Willamette,
features a train station, church, grocery store, neighborhood,
street lighting -- all crafted with such detail that calling it
intricate is an understatement.
Tonight is a "run night," meaning members get to test out
Southern Pacific locomotives, California Zephyrs and other
computer-programmed train replicas. That's the fun part, said Fred
Dalzell, the club's vice president, using a throttle to move his
Great Northern locomotive slowly up a shallow slope of
"It's a hobby," said Dalzell, a Salem resident who reconnected
with his childhood passion after taking his family to a model
railroad show in 1984.
With a laugh, he quickly adds: "And it's almost an
There are perhaps a dozen model railroading clubs scattered
throughout the Willamette Valley. Polk Station Rail was founded in
Dallas in 1993 by Bill Lawrence, who had moved to the area from the
Midwest and brought his layouts with him.
Lawrence sold the structures to the group in 1999. Tom Pryor of
Rickreall became president and the layout began to grow in size,
scenery and scope.
Polk's club, meanwhile, has stayed steady at around a dozen
members from around Salem and Polk County.
"I would say 90 percent of them are retired," said Pryor, who
runs his own machine shop and hobby store outside of Rickreall.
"Retirees are the most typical age ... and they're looking for
something to do."
As a hobby for young people, model railroading diminished in
popularity a generation or two ago. And it's not cheap; engines and
cars can cost anywhere from $50 to several hundred dollars
Still, there has been a resurgence in the pastime thanks to
technological advances that give it another level of
sophistication, Pryor said.
An old train setup used analog control, in which the polarity of
an electric current fed into a block of track determines the speed
and direction of a train. This limits, however, the number of
engines you put on a track.
Almost all train enthusiasts now take advantage of Digital
Command Control systems. This system uses a controller to send
power and a signal to the track. Each train engine has a decoder
This lets trains move independently of one another on a block of
track, beep a horn, turn lights on or off, and change engine
"You can actually have an engineer's voice in it talking," Pryor
said. "I think that's why it's coming back."
Polk Station Rail found a new home in the Rickreall Grange in
2006, doing a series of repairs to the second floor as part of a
The club's layout now occupies 900 square feet of space, with
perhaps 300 to 400 lineal feet of track that winds through a
variety of terrain erected from casting plaster and foam.
Depending on what aspect of model railroading appeals most to
them, members fill out work orders to design and build out
"It seems like it never ends," said Doug Taylor of Dallas. "I
hope most of us will get to live to see it done."
Building is Taylor's favorite element of model railroading. He
and his wife were the masterminds behind the Norman Willamette
layout, with her constructing the scenery and Taylor installing
The process took about a year, but the end result is a Norman
"Now that it's done, we're finishing the farm and the valley
next," he said. A harbor is also forthcoming, he added.
Much effort goes into painting and detailing
their engines and cars, as well, to give them a weathered
Gardiner still uses a 5-inch, double-decker sheep hauling car he
built nearly 60 years ago from black pine. The undercarriage
features tiny tie rods and suspension on the wheels.
"I don't think I could do this type of thing now with my eyes,"
he said with a laugh.
Join the Fun!
* Polk Station Rail model train club is always looking for new
members. For more information, contact Tom Pryor at 503-606-0398 or
send an e-mail to PRY626@juno.com. You can also check out
Polk Station Rail is located at the Rickreall Grange Hall, 280
Main St. (99W), Rickreall. The club holds meetings at 7 p.m. every
Did You Know?
* Polk Station Rail's layout is built at the widely-used HO
(pronounced aitch-oh) scale. With this system, 3.5 mm of track
represents a foot, and the train engines and cars are 1/87th the
size of the real thing.