What is it about trains?
More precisely, what is it about "toy" trains that draws grown men together amid 25,000 square feet of working train layouts, to snap photos and spend hard-earned money on everything from miniature locomotives to rail-side trees and shacks?
Hundreds crowded the Great Scale Model Train Show at the Maryland State Fairgrounds yesterday to do just that.
"It's not a hobby if you're not throwing money away," quipped Walt Muren.
But Muren wasn't there to spend. He arrived early to help set up and run the model layout built by members of the Four County Society of Model Engineers.
A housing finance policy writer from Frederick, Muren grew up around trains in Missouri, and never got them out of his system.
"We lived down the street from the station," he recollected yesterday. "I'd go up and wait for the trains to go by. After a while, the station master let me stop the train."
Where he grew up in Webster Groves, Mo., in the '50s, they used a lantern to tell the engineers there were passengers waiting to board, he said. "You had to get out in front and wave a lantern from side to side. That was something." He figures he was 9 or 10 at the time.
Now 60, Muren has rediscovered his love of trains as a member of the society, which has expanded beyond its original base in Carroll, Howard, Montgomery and Frederick counties.
It includes 43 people, from their 20s to their 80s (including a few women), who share a fascination with trains. They combine their varied skills to create a landscape designed to evoke Western Maryland in the late summer of 1955.
They bring it all together four times a year for shows at the fairgrounds, and for Christmas displays, when they can find a willing location.
The club had 220 feet of track and landscapes on display in the Cow Palace yesterday. It was built by individual club members in 4-foot-by-2-foot "modules." Each is crafted to precise standards so that all the sections can be assembled and bolted together, ready to run in any configuration with common wiring and electronic controls.
Muren's four sections include a rail-side brick warehouse, an icehouse, an auto dealership, a bank, an auto junkyard and an unfinished strip of Main Street storefronts. Some are built from scratch, some from kits.
"I can't paint. I can't sculpt," he said. "This is my art. This is my pallet."
Suzette Pierpont, a Germantown hair stylist who says she's the club "mascot," joined with her husband, Gerry.
"I always loved trains," she said. But when her brother got model trains as a kid, her family "wouldn't let me play." Now she can: "When you get older, you can do what you want."
She's researching plans to build a 1950s drive-in theater for the display.
Around the bend from Muren's little town, Charlie Bullinger proudly displayed the lonely wooden coaling tower he built - from scratch - on his section. It's modeled after one in Illinois, dating to the 1920s.
"It took me a year to build," he said proudly. He used lumber the size of toothpicks, each piece precisely cut and individually stained for greater realism.
Bullinger, 81, of Ellicott City grew up with model trains. "My mother and father always had a train layout, a Christmas garden," he said. But it's more than that.
He grew up to be a piping designer, working for more than 42 years on ships and power plants. "I love anything mechanical," he said, especially a smooth-running steam engine.
His membership in the Four County Society of Model Engineers and his seniority have made him a teacher and a student.
An expert in the repair of fine brass locomotives, he was sought out - until he "retired" - by hobbyists across the country. And he's been learning the fine points of modern "digital command controls," which have brought some model trains into the computer age.
That's the beauty of the 20-year-old club, said Jay Voight, 50, of Westminster. Members include a doctor, a building inspector, teachers, government bureaucrats and many others. And each brings a particular skill set or interest to the whole.
They hold monthly meetings and workshops to share their expertise in such things as carpentry, electricity, computer programming, even tree-making and the "weathering" of train cars to make new ones look old.
But "you don't have to know anything about trains to join the club," Voight said. "Every member is willing to take the time to teach you how to do it, to advise."
Mostly, he said, "it's just a lot of friendship."
For more information about the Four County Society of Model Engineers, visit www.fcsme.org.