The nostalgia of having a train circling the base of a freshly cut Christmas tree or on a track that winds its way through a miniature village dotted by tiny trees evokes the spirit of the season for many people. Whether you have a fondness for locomotives, get giddy upon the sound of “choo choo” or recall the days when trains were a primary mode of transportation chugging along from depot to depot, the Paper Valley Model Railroad Club is offering a seasonal opportunity to children who are young and young at heart during its annual open house event.
“We get a lot of people out here. … It exposes our club to a lot of people and it’s a lot of fun,” says Paul Hillmer, vice president of the club. “Model trains are still very popular, but it’s amazing that our club has been around that long.”
The holiday open houses date back to the 1940s. There is no admission, but donations are appreciated. This year, the public is welcome from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Nov. 27-28 and Dec. 26.
The club, while at its current Kaukauna location, W221 Block Road, since 1995, dates back to the 1930s. It has hopped around from the Eagle Flats area at the old train station near what is now Pullmans at Trolley Square restaurant to Valley Fair Mall to Avenue Mall and most recently WSKC’s old station. The building is still owned by Relevant Radio, but leased by the club.
It is one of the oldest model train clubs in the country, says Hillmer. The 501c(3) nonprofit has 40 members, which gather on Thursday nights and Saturday afternoons to swap stories, solve problems, work on updates, run trains and tackle what’s next on the agenda. There is a membership fee and new members are expected to donate a piece of “rolling equipment.”
Upon arrival at the club, visitors may feel not only like they’re stepping back in time, but also into a relaxed museum of sorts.
“I think it’s one of our charges and goals to preserve that history — we’re not just talking about railroading,” Hillmer notes. At one time, there were five depots in Appleton alone.
“I like the historical aspect of it (and) recreating what once was,” adds Joe Vandenberg who is originally from Kaukauna, but now lives in Clintonville. He has done track work for the club and recalls working with founding member Karel Richmond who has since passed. Vandenberg joined the club in 1986.
Visitors will find freelanced layouts featuring not only the Fox Cities, but also stretching from Green Bay to Milwaukee.
“I think that’s what all of us grew up in this area watching,” says Bill Moede, noting the Chicago and North Western Railway.
Though not exact, there are scale models of some recognizable landmarks, like the Kaukauna mills, which serve as snapshots in time. Guests also will be treated to treasures like the scratch-built Clyde Beatty Circus Train created from balsa wood by Budd Popp. It took about 20 years to get the overall layout to this point, Hillmer shares.
“It grows like a fungus,” he joked. The club is currently working on rebuilding one of the rooms, which will be in progress during the open house and recovering from water issues in the basement that damaged some of the inventory. Updating layouts is an ongoing project. There are O scale or O gauge trains downstairs and HO trains on the main level.
“It’s not just running trains in circles, we do operate them,” says Hillmer who has N scale trains at home. He joined in 1990, about six months prior to Moede. The club does have a schedule for how the trains run that would mirror an actual schedule. It also has trains, track and supplies that stay onsite, but members are welcome to bring their own items as well.
“I like it because everybody has different talents — people paint, do track work, electronics,” adds Craig Volkman of Appleton who took up an interest in trains in his youth. “If you get stuck, there’s always someone here who can help or share an idea.” He operates G scale trains at his home, but has enjoyed seeing how the layout at the club has evolved in the at least 25 years that he has been a member.
Dennis Frederick of Appleton became involved due to his electrical expertise. He was in the Signal Corps and Ordnance Corps in the Army.
“My electronics was just something I picked up in the service,” says Frederick who played with Lionel trains as a child and later picked up HO scale in the 1990s when he became involved with the club. He also is a past president.
While the use of trains in today’s world may be changing, so is the hobby of the model-sized version. Paper Valley Model Railroad Club is keeping up with changes in technology, however, by moving to digital command control or DCC. A chip in the engines will now allow them to run independently.
“The hobby in the last 10-15 years since the DCC has been out has really changed the electronics,” Frederick shares. “There’s enough electronic things going on out here that I could stay busy for awhile.”
Up to 30 engines can now can be running at a single time at the club.
“You can actually install an app on your phone where you can run an engine,” Moede adds.