In many ways, it's like any other high-tech research and developmentcompany in Columbia: A shirt-and-tie employee trains his eyes on a Macintosh screen while manipulating and clicking a computer mouse. He works in a long, one-story office-warehouse building like dozens of others in Columbia.
But in a showroom down the hall there's anotherclicking sound, accompanied by puffing, chugging, clanging bells andsteam whistles. Wide-eyed spectators listen and watch as a foot-longsteam locomotive pulls miniature cattle cars emanating the sound of grunting and squealing pigs.
The realistic trains are designed and sold out of Mike's Train House in King's Contrivance village.
Owner Mike Wolf, 31, of Clarksville also brokers the overseas manufacturing of Lionel trains, sells them to Lionel and then buys them back again to sell mail-order alongwith other types of model trains. His customers include about 150 hobby stores and 8,700 individuals across the country and in several other countries. The 8-year-old business, which Wolf started in his parents' Hammond Village basement, grossed about $10 million last year.
Mike's customers are rarely children.
Fifty-five-year-old Robert S. Manley, president of a Newbury, Ohio, printing company, dropped by Mike's showroom last Wednesday to pick up his eighth collector's locomotive while on his way to a vacation in North Carolina.
He hadordered a Santa Fe diesel costing $495 -- a steal compared to the seven collector's steam engines he has at home.
His Southern PacificDaylight cost him $1,100 and is now worth $2,495 because the detailed replicas were produced in limited numbers. Manley's train set is laid out around a 12-by-20-foot room in his basement.
After he estimates the cost of the set at $5,000, Manley is quickly corrected by his wife, Diane: "Oh, give me a break! It's probably double that."
She admits that the train habit was her fault. "I just wanted a littletrain to go around the Christmas tree, and now, oh boy!"
Mike's does sell inexpensive "toy" trains in the showroom, but the business has evolved into the design and sale of trains that could hardly be called toys, say marketing managers Andy Edleman and Rich Foster.
Atthe warehouse, just off Broken Land Parkway, employees design reproductions using blueprints from railroad historical societies and then work on outfitting the reproductions with the latest technology.
The technology includes digital sound that imitates not just a generic"choo-choo" but the specific huffing, clanging and whistling made bythe original engine. For about $150, model train enthusiasts also can buy digital sound for cattle cars to replicate the sounds of cows, sheep or pigs.
Foster said the expensive train collectors are usually people in their 40s or 50s whose children have moved out, leavingthem with more money and more room to support the hobby. Often, theyare living out a childhood dream.
"They're buying what their buddy had down the street and their family couldn't afford," Foster says."It's now time to get the good stuff."
Displays in Mike's showroom also attract parents and children on Saturdays, and during the weekof Thanksgiving the parking lot outside will feature the world's largest mobile model train display, sponsored by Lionel.
Mike's started by making reproductions of old Lionel trains.
Lionel started making the standard-gauge (larger than its current trains) tin-plate trains about 1900. It stopped at the onset of World War II, when metal was needed for the war effort and the company switched to manufacturing such war materials as compasses.
The company threw away the dies for the old trains and began making more realistic trains after thewar.
As the children of the early 20th century got older, they became nostalgic for the old trains, and a few companies began making reproductions of the old Lionels.
Wolf says the reproductions show the difference between cheap plastic toys of today with sturdy toys of the past. In the early days, a single train would cost as much as two or three average paychecks. "They sold train sets for $200 during the Depression," Wolf says.
With the advent of collector trains, the ratio of train to paycheck has come back, he adds, but a train sethas always been more than a toy.
"It's always been not so much a hobby but something between father and son," he says, something that teaches children such things as history and the principles of electric current.
Wolf says he started building trains in neighbor Jerry Williams' basement in Hammond Village at age 12 and later went on to run his Williams Electric Trains in Columbia.
Williams manufactured reproductions of the old Lionel toy trains until 1983, when he soldhis dies and machinery to Wolf, who had already started a mail-orderbusiness reselling Williams' trains.
In the early days, Wolf hired some of his high school buddies to help build the reproductions in his basement.
Edleman, Foster, shipping manager Ryan Iseman and Vice President Mark Hipp are all Atholton graduates who worked for Wolfas teen-agers.
His original reproductions carried tiny metal plates with "Mike's Train House" on the side, and they helped build up his business into the world's second largest toy train mail-order houseby 1987, when the company was operating out of a 2,000-square-foot warehouse on Dobbin Road.
The company had expanded so much that Wolf decided to move it into its current 20,000-square-foot space.
"We were moving anyway and it just happened that later in that year we got the Lionel contract," Wolf says, explaining that the big toy-maker approached the Korean manufacturer who by then was making most of Mike's reproductions.
The Koreans told Lionel it would have to dealwith Wolf, so Lionel contracted with Mike's to reproduce the old trains with the Lionel name on them again.
Lionel manufacturing, someof which used to be done in the Columbia warehouse, is now about a third of Mike's business and is done exclusively by 350 employees in Seoul, South Korea, where labor is cheaper.
Mike's warehouse area is now a custom train shop and test area for the trains from Korea.