Step back in time with model train displays

Since Aug. 20, 2011, a local hobby club has been working on the railroad on a smaller scale.

The Grand Strand Model Railroaders, founded in 1986, welcomes the public to check out its model trains – in HO, N and O layouts – for free 4-7 p.m. Mondays, noon-4 p.m. Wednesdays (through at least year’s end) and 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturdays at its store site in Myrtle Beach mall, near Briarcliffe Acres.

Getting in the Christmas mood, the club also will open its doors two extra days this Thanksgiving weekend: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Friday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

Speaking just after Veterans Day weekend, Edward Sharrett of Myrtle Beach, president of the club, said more than 36,000 visitors have stopped by the site. That figure impresses club members even more because the store space is open generally just 10 to 14 hours a week, all on a volunteer basis. Drawing “2,700 to 2,800 people a month on average” who visit the train displays, the club also has doubled its membership rolls to 41 from 19 since 2009, Sharrett said, including four winter residents from New York state and New Hampshire.

Never having grown out of a model train fascination that took off from a Christmas gift received in 1941, Sharrett said his wife also later surprised him with a train kit when he was stationed with the United States Air Force in Turkey.

Question | What keeps the joy of model trains running full speed in people’s hearts, from childhood through adulthood?

Answer | Most of our guys came from the North. They all had basements, their parents had trains and it followed on. ... My dad had a train; I had his, and I have my grandfather’s. ... My grandson has a train; for his first Christmas, he got a train. Here, the main reason also has grown, is these guys don’t have a place for trains and layouts in their houses, and they don’t have a bonus room. ... They don’t have a place to put up their trains.

Q. | Is the club hitting new chords with younger people, who might not otherwise have a chance for exposure to this all-American pastime?

A. | Our youngest member is 22, then it jumps to 42, then jumps to 50-something. Our oldest member is 92.

Q. | How do model trains continue making new inroads with youth, with not only the wheels and tracks, but all the art that goes into the settings and backgrounds for a display?

A. | Generally, trains are starting to have a bigger influence on young people today, certainly more than we had 20 years ago. ... It’s not just running the trains; it’s building the layout also. I do clinics and show people how to make trees, mountains and rivers. I really enjoy that. We had one guy at this past convention show we had, and he sat in every one of the clinics I did.

Q. | Trains also have their place, their role, in circling the bottom of Christmas trees. What triggers that extra nostalgia at this time of year?

A. | It brings back so many memories, especially if you’re 40 years old and older. ... When Lionel came out with the Santa Fe Warbonnet locomotive, with the red bonnet nose and red markings, they made only 7,500 of them the first year, and they sold every one of them. The next year, they made 75,000 of them and sold every one of them. Today it is still the biggest seller ... and it’s still the most popular color scheme on a train. ... Also, Model Railroader magazine, which publishes ... once a month, in a year, probably for four of the months, there is a warbonnet engine on the cover. It’s just so popular.

Q. | How did the club line up its part in the third annual “Atalaya Holiday Celebration” Dec. 1 at Huntington Beach State Park?

A. | We’ll have a train layout; we’ll be in the kitchen. ... We did it last year, too, and a couple of years ago at Brookgreen Gardens ... where we set up at “Nights of a Thousand Candles.”

Q. | Any newly acquired treasures among the train layouts at the club site?

A. | We just hooked up an electric crane – a cargo container crane intermodal carrier. It was made in Denmark, and it has lights that light up. It lifts cars up off trucks ... and it the cargo carrier goes back and forth. ... We had people just lined up that convention, watching this thing.

Q. | What other hits continue making waves with visitors at the mall with magnetizing effects?

A. | And there’s the American flag that waves. It folds out like it’s waving, and the trains with the whistles. We had a little boy come in here last night; he must have been 3. Guys were punching the whistle button, and he just followed it all the way around. ... We had a bunch of retired guys from the military last night; they must have stayed for an hour and a half. One of them said, “We’ve never seen anything like that since we played with trains as kids.”

Q. | In real life, trains beckon respect from everyone, especially at rail crossings. How did the club connect with Operation Lifesaver to have officials from Sunny Point Army Depot in North Carolina swing by this Friday and Saturday, to remind everyone about staying safe by railroads?

A. | There are more people killed on railroads than you would believe. Some people don’t stop for lights at rail crossings. You can’t just stop a 500,000-pound train in 30 feet. ... Operation Lifesaver: They were at the Wilmington train show last January .... and they came to our show this year. They have a small layout they bring, and they show videos and bring cardboard hats for the kids, along with coloring books and key rings and stuff.

Filling a niche

Kim Dayvault, the mall’s specialty leasing manager, also rode the rails in sharing praise for the club finding a year-round niche among the corridors, three doors from Bass Pro Shops:

Q. | Just how much of an asset is having this store full of humming trains by the club’s members?

A. | Every store in the mall is an asset, but they help fill the niche for our entertainment component.

Q. | How special is the bonus of having such a club site for Christmastime, to enhance the charm of the season?

A. I think when people see them during the holidays, it reminds them of when they were young, and it brings them to a warm and happy place. We consider them to be a multi-generational retailer; they attract all ages, and it is where parents and grandparents can connect with their children and grandchildren.