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RICKREALL -- Neal Gardiner's father gave him his first model train and railroad set during the 1930s.

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 operation.

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 mainline.

"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 obsession."

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 apiece.

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 inside it.

This lets trains move independently of one another on a block of track, beep a horn, turn lights on or off, and change engine noises.

"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 rental agreement.

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 projects.

"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 it.

The process took about a year, but the end result is a Norman Rockwell-esque neighborhood.

"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 appearance.

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 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 Thursday.

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.


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