His father always set up an elaborate network of Lionel model trains late on Dec. 24, so when Frank Winner and his little brother, Jim, got up Christmas mornings, they'd find the living room of the small family home filled with moving cars, blowing whistles and flashing lights.
The ritual made a deep impression.
"It was awesome," says Winner, a longtime Severna Park resident. "I took [model railroading] up myself when I was a teenager. I've been playing with model trains ever since."
He has done it with a twist. Craving even more railroadiana per square inch than he grew up with, he committed early on to HO-gauge equipment, which at a scale of 1:87 was half the size of the Lionel stuff.
"It gives you more room to play with," says Winner, 75, who is now in his 25th year as a prime mover in one of America's more widely respected small-gauge organizations, the Severna Park Model Railroad Club.
This weekend, at a time when firehouses, malls and museums in and around Baltimore are unveiling their traditional (and mostly Lionel) train setups for the holidays, Winner's club will be doing something it has done twice a year for more than 40 years: holding a series of open houses to show off "Maryland in Miniature," the railroading environment its members have developed over the years.
It's such an engagingly intricate setup that Model Railroader magazine, the world's most popular publication on model trains, has featured it on the cover four times.
"Everyone's welcome, but kids tend to love [the open houses] the most," says Winner, the club's vice president of operations, as he stands in the midst of more than 600 feet of hand-laid mainline track on a recent morning. "I've seen more than a few who had to be dragged out kicking and screaming."
The club got its start in 1964, when a handful of HO aficionados, led by Severna Park resident Sam Shepherd, decided it was time to congregate regularly in town. They set up in a local hobby shop, but as their locomotive universe expanded, they quickly realized they were going to need more room.
Two years later, the perfect venue became available: the small stone building that once housed the Severna Park stop on the old Baltimore & Annapolis Short Line Railroad, a transportation system that was founded during the late 1800s and stopped running in 1950. Leasing the place from the Severna Park Improvement Association, the club moved in, and it hasn't left since.
From the beginning, Winner says, the Severna Parkers had two hallmarks: an obsessive attention to detail and a sense of humor.
In most model train layouts, builders make their tracks partly, if not mostly, out of store-bought sections, and the majority of switches — sections on which trains switch from track to track via swiveling rails — are pre-fabricated.
Shepherd, now 80 and still club president, laid every tie, switch and inch of main rail by hand, guaranteeing a quality ride from end to end along its more than 600 feet.
The approach also defied an industry norm, securing a flow of current so reliable it has needed virtually no repair over the years.
"It's a good thing, too," says Winner, a retired electrical engineer who oversees the system's electronic functions. "See those mountains over there? The trains go under them through a tunnel, and they don't come out for a while. I haven't had to go back there in years."
Club founders conceived their setup as a microcosm of Maryland in the early 1950s — the forested mountains of the west, the industrial character of Baltimore, the small towns and coal mines that lay in between — and spared no detail as they crafted the particulars almost completely from scratch.
Winner flips a switch and clicks a few metal plugs into place. A bank of lights starts blinking. An 11-car train covered with logos (several read "Chesapeake & Allegheny Railroad" for the club's fictitious line) pulls out of a scale-model station.
A quiet roar fills the room, and the Lilliputian journey begins.
The train crosses a double-track truss bridge (when raised, this is what provides visitors entrance to the setup), then ascends a hill that boasts a 3 percent grade. (Had Winner not custom-weighted the engine, he says, it would have lacked the traction to make this unusually steep climb.) It rumbles through a tunnel, vanishing for upwards of a minute before re-emerging and passing a lake (see Big John's Bait Shop and Bar & Grill, not to mention the man apparently explaining to a cop and a tow truck driver why his car is in the water) and a farm (the chicken coop roof has holes) toward "Chesapeake City."
A representation of mid-20th-century Baltimore, this area of the layout features scale-model replicas of the pre-baseball Camden Yards warehouse, the American Brewery building, portions of Fells Point and more, much of it whimsically named after one club member or another.
The "Winner Pharmaceuticals" complex, for example, which features a loading area, storage tanks, a brewing area and lots of tiny workers, was added in 2006. Its billboard promises "traditional Home Remedies" for everything from flatulence to biliousness and piles.
Winner stands at one of the club's four operating stations, inserting in sequence the metal plugs that power the track section by section as the train progresses, finally bringing it home safely to the Brunswick Station, which stands across from the not-so-coincidentally named Hotel Shepherd.
The layout is available year round to the club's one female and approximately 30 male members, many of whom gather at 8 p.m. every Thursday to talk shop, show off their latest toys and run trains on the tracks. (Most bring their own trains and cars.) Still more members attend operating sessions — the one Friday night per month on which they work as a team to run the setup's gadgetry — often spending up to four hours guiding the trains on missions such as picking up coal from a mine and delivering it to a processing plant across "town."
The club offers open houses twice a year, once on the first weekend in May, a second time on the first weekend of December. Guests this weekend will be able to watch members run the system, ask as many questions as they like and stay as long as they wish to take in the HO-gauge locomotive vibe.
The club has welcomed as many as 300 visitors per five-hour session over the years, though Winner says attendance has fallen off to the double digits in recent years, probably because, as the generations have passed, younger people have found so many alternative forms of entertainment.
That's a serious concern; studies have found the average age of model railroaders worldwide to be about 64.
The Severna Park club fits the profile, with a few members under 20, several in their 80s, and none getting any younger. "We'd love to bring that [average age] down," Winner says.
In the meantime, the season reminds him of how he'd find those "big" Lionel trains under the Christmas tree long ago.
The thrill of those scenes gave birth to a lifelong passion, but Winner is still glad he made the switch in gauge.
He gazes at his club's celebrated layout.
"Lionels are great," he says. "But with HO, you can pack a lot more in."
If you go
WHAT: Open House at the Severna Park Model Railroad Club
WHERE: 3 Riggs Road, Severna Park
WHEN: noon-5 p.m. Saturday, noon-5 p.m. Sunday
FOR MORE INFORMATION: visit severnapark.railfan.net or call (410) 647-3335 or (410) 647-6077