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In America, since the late 1800s, toy trains have been inextricably bound up with Christmas, fathers and sons. This is not to say that sister didn't crave to play with brother's train set and could, if she waited until he was away.

At first toy trains were wooden and designed to push or pull along the floor. A little later, cast iron was substituted for the wood, but the train still had to be pushed or pulled. By the end of the 19th century, European clockmakers, using the same key-wound, spring-driven mechanisms, developed self-propelled trains, called "clockworks," that ran on tracks

In 1901, Joshua Lionel Cowen built the first Lionel train in his New York City loft, using the reliable electric motor and improved dry-cell battery he developed. Originally, he built it with the idea that shopkeepers would use them in their windows as animated displays. But, after kids saw these wonderful train displays, every boy in the nation yearned for his own train set, and the rest, as they say, is history.

While Lionel was the main force in the toy or model train market, he was not without competition -- Ives, American Flyer and Marx - each with a niche carved out. Marx became the mass-marketer with his no-frills locomotive that sold for a dollar and his cars for a dime.

In the 1950s, recovering from the horrors of World War II, the constant barrage of news about the Korean Conflict and anxiety over "The Bomb" tended to bring families closer together, spending more time at home and harkening back to "traditional values." In this era, gender lines were clearly drawn, trains for boys and dolls for girls. It was also a time when fathers had time to spend with their sons. And what better way than to construct a layout for the train set, build the villages and put up the billboards. It has been rumored that many Dads played with the trains long after their sons were in bed.

For boys, there were two thrills associated with trains and Christmas. The first was for a boy to wake up on Christmas morning and come downstairs to find a toy train set under the tree. The second was to set up a Christmas tableau each year through which the train could run all during the holiday season. Depending upon the family's means and the time available, these scenes became more and more elaborate with each passing year.

As technology advanced and new high-tech toys, such as robots, space rockets and computer games, came on the market, toy trains became sidetracked. But, the memories that the fathers of the 1960s and 1970s had from their childhood lingered on. Many of these fathers became collectors and model train enthusiasts.

Today, according to Neil Besougloff, Editor, Classic Toy Trains magazine, there are 40,000 to 60,000 "collectors" of electric toy trains in the United States, although how those folks define the word "collecting" varies. The largest toy train collector organization in the country - the Train Collectors Association - has 31,000 members.

Railroading runs in Bob Hahn's blood: His grandfather was an engineer on the Pennsylvania Railroad. He can tell you just about everything you'd ever want to know about trains dating back to 1915. Why is this grown man so enthused about model trains? For him, it's an age-old tradition and perfectly normal.

Several weeks before Christmas, there was always noise coming from the second floor of the Hahn home in Pennsylvania. Bob was told that the noise was just Grandma moving the furniture. When his dad had to go upstairs to help put together the complete toy train layout, he would say, "I have to go help Grandma." In December, Bob was told that the noise was Santa Claus. Come Christmas morn, Bob would come down to see a most elaborate model train set up, complete with houses, lights and stores. Although Bob Hahn is quick to point out that he is an operator, not a collector, his fondness for model trains is obvious.

R. J. LaJeunesse, a model train collector, lights up when he recalls the Christmas of 1948 when he was nine years old. His father, who was a locomotive electrician for Conrail in the Stanley yards, had gone downtown Toledo to The Railroad Surplus Store. Its business was to buy up goods damaged during transit on the freight trains and then sell them. One of the items that Christmas was a train set that was economically feasible for his dad to buy for R.J.

Four years later, R.J. received an American Flyer train. He says, "For every kid who had an American Flyer, there were ten kids who had Lionel." He still has the original trains from his childhood. Why does he collect model trains? "Once a kid, always a kid," he replies. "We're bringing back a tradition."

At the dawn of this century, with the threat of terrorism, nuclear armament and possible war, families are spending more time at home together. Those "traditional values" that were embraced so tightly in the 1950s by their grandparents have become the values so many of today's families wish to hold dear.

Wouldn't it be wonderful if today's dads and grandfathers could interest their children and grandchildren in model trains? Building the sets, the villages, putting up the billboards, adding the trees, the grass, the streams and rivers take planning and artistry. Take a moment to remember your own sense of excitement when you funneled the liquid into the engine's smoke stack and out poured smoke as it ran around the track, when you loaded grain or coal into the freight trains from the downspouts, and when you could switch the track for one train to avoid colliding with another? Hours and hours of fun.

According to John Grams, author of the book Toy Train Memories, ".toy trains under the tree have become integral to the way we celebrate Christmas - every bit as traditional as twinkle lights, ornaments and evergreen garland. The difference, however, is that along with toy trains come cherished memories of play and of quality time spent with a parent, usually Dad. Those of us fortunate enough to have received toy trains for Christmas decades ago have steam engines and cabooses forever linked - coupled - to this happiest time of year."



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