When members of the Four County Society of Model Engineers decided to enter their modular train layout in the largest train show in North America, they expected to have fun. They did not expect to bring home the Best in Show award. But that’s just what they did.
The Four County Society of Model Engineers is a not-for-profit HO scale modular railroad club that meets about six times a year, alternating between the Mount Airy and Westminster branches of the Carroll County Public Library. They also set up at several shows per year and at the TownMall of Westminster for a month over the Christmas season.
Leaving on Jan. 24 and returning four days later, 20 club members traveled to West Springfield, Massachusetts to the show, sponsored by the Amherst Railway Society.
“It is the largest train show in North America,” club member Stuart Braiterman said. “It’s in four huge buildings that cover about 9 acres. The show is legendary. There were 65 large modular layouts there with probably a minimum of 30 modules in a layout. With all the entries, that’s like 1,800 modules. It’s a juried show, and there were people there from all over, even Canada and England. We won best module in the show.”
According to Club President Midian Evans it was the 50th anniversary of the Springfield show.
“They had 17,000 visitors in two days. That is how big it is,” Evans said. “The president of the Amherst club asked us to have all the members come over for a picture, so I gathered everyone for a picture and he comes out and presents us with a plaque and a ribbon. One section of our layout won the award for best module in the show. They said it was the best layout by far.”
Evans said hundreds of people had approached club members over the weekend to rave over their set-up.
“They wanted to know how we make our trees, what standards we use, and they were asking about our specs. They had never seen a modular railroad that was the quality of what we had,” Evans said. “One of the founders of the show came over to tell us they were glad we had come. They were taken back by the fact that our layout looks like one person did it. They could not believe the quality.”
Evans and Braiterman spoke about the layouts their club sets up at shows, most recently, at the Great Scale and Model Train Show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds in Timonium over the weekend of Feb. 2-4, and the one they took to the Amherst show on the last weekend in January.
“It’s 40 feet wide and 85 or 90 feet long,” Braiterman said of the one they took to Timonium. “The one we took to Amherst Exposition Hall in West Springfield, Massachusetts, last weekend was smaller. It was 45 to 55 feet long.”
Braiterman said the modules are created by some of their 50 individual members, and then bolted together.
“The modules are four feet or eight feet long or a combination. We try to make everything flow and there are very strict guidelines,” Braiterman said. “We have to use the exact same color paint on the backboards that show the sky. The tracks must line up exactly. All the wiring has to be approved. The design and execution also must be approved by our modular review board. There is a lot of uniformity, so it looks like one long scene.”
The club’s vice president, Bob Geldmacher said their goal is to make the display look like one person built it and that is why they have specifications.
“The National Model Railroad Association put out some specifications and the guys who founded our group took those specifications and changed them to come up with specifications that meet our needs,” Geldmacher said, noting that everything should look as it would have during the summer of 1955, covering the area between Mount Airy and Hagerstown.
Geldmacher said it is the perfect time period.
“With that time period, we can have steam and diesel,” he said. “A lot of the scenes that you see may not be exactly the same, but they are representative of that area in August of 1955.”
Braiterman said the club represents the four counties of Carroll, Howard, Montgomery and Frederick County, but they have members from all over.
“We are creating a perfect little world, doing things in miniature,” he said. “It’s like doll houses for us. When our kids were little I also built them each a dollhouse and we made furniture for them. That was fun but, to me, this is more fun because things are moving, and they operate.”
Braiterman’s wife, Lita is a club member, too. Geldmacher credits her with getting them to the show.
“She is the one who headed it up,” Geldmacher said. “She handled all the logistics and was responsible for the trip to Springfield. When we had the discussion about going to Springfield I was not enthusiastic about it, but Lita took the responsibility and leadership for it. This is not just a man’s hobby.”
As one of just a handful of women in the club, Lita takes it all in stride.
“This club is a wonderful resource regarding all things train related,” she said. “My husband and I started as true novices and were eager to learn how model railroading was done from the experts. This group of people are very warm and welcoming and are always happy to teach newcomers.”
Lita said, as a young girl, she loved trains, both real ones and toy ones.
“As a family we rode trains into Philadelphia from a small Pennsylvania mill town. Going to the city by train was very special. During our marriage, my husband and I love [to seek out] scenic trains to ride and dine,” she said. “We are finding the hobby requires many other skills including creating a track plan, then laying the track, track maintenance, electric wiring for both the track and buildings. And then, learning the electronics of the digital engines is a whole new ball game. So, we continue to use our brains during our golden years.”
Others spoke of how a childhood love of trains played into their interest in trains.
“Almost everyone you talk to remembers when they were a kid and had a train,” Geldmacher said. “My dad would always put up an American Flyer at Christmastime. It brings back those good feelings. Plus, there is something here for everyone. If you like woodworking, electricity or electronics or building houses. There is something for almost anyone who has a creative knack and you don’t have to be an expert. There is always an opportunity to learn.”
“Growing up, trains were always part of the relationship we had with our fathers,” he said. “One of my fondest and oldest memories is of Christmas eve, being in bed and listening to hear dad putting together the trains. We couldn’t wait to get up Christmas morning and run downstairs and see what was new in the train layout.”
Evans said, with this hobby, you are never finished.
“There is always something to do, some way to expand or something to add,” he said. “It’s not something that is on the computer screen, or that you are sitting watching on television. It takes a lot of time and it is a lot of work, but once you get it up, it is worth it.”
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Learn more about the club at www.fcsme.org or on their FCSME Facebook page.