The tradition of model trains beneath the Christmas tree may have started in Pennsylvania
December 20, 2012 5:38 AM
Matthew Wakefield, 4, of Monroeville watches the O-gauge train layout presented by the Pittsburgh Independent Hi-Railers club at Greenberg's Train & Toy Show at the Convention Center in Monroeville.
By Molly Born Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Where Jim Morrison lives, a tower of electric toy trains three tiers high and 30 feet in diameter circles a Christmas tree decked with more than 3,000 ornaments.
It wasn't always this way. He used to live in a normal home, until his train collection grew so large, it was taking over his living space.
"I outgrew my house," he said. "I was sleeping on the sofa."
These days, the historian who 14 years ago created a museum to celebrate one of his favorite pastimes, now lives in it -- all of its 20,000 square feet.
Mr. Morrison is curator of the National Christmas Museum in Paradise, Lancaster County, dedicated to educating people about holiday customs. He is a train enthusiast who has studied the tradition of model railroading and its role in the holiday season.
One theme he has researched is the custom of putting trains under the Christmas tree, and Mr. Morrison says it could have started right here in Pennsylvania.
In the mid-1700s, a group of Protestant Christians called the Moravians settled in the Lehigh Valley in Bethlehem, where they set up elaborate Nativity scenes in their homes called "putzen" -- the German word for decoration around the holidays.
The displays were enlarged year after year to include biblical scenes not captured as often, such as the exchange between King Herod and the three wise men after Jesus was born, Mr. Morrison said.
In the mid-1800s, he said, people created villages at the base of the tree with items such as model farmhouses fashioned after their own dwellings set atop burlap or moss.
Cast-iron toys emerged toward the late 1800s in the form of homes, carriages and fire stations. When cast-iron trains came on the scene around 1880, Mr. Morrison said, they, too, earned a presence under the tree. Before Lionel manufactured the first beloved electric toy train at the turn of the century, Pennsylvanians already were adorning their displays with cast-iron and wind-up ones.
"It was part of the magic of what Christmas is," he said.
Circling trains around the base of an evergreen made sense.
"It sort of naturally fit under the tree," said Jeff Graybill of the South Hills Model Railroad Club.
"It was just the logical thing to put around the base of a tree," said Henry Posner III of Railroad Development Corp., a Pittsburgh-based international company. "Because you can run a train circle around the base of a tree, my guess is that it was the perfect gift, at the time, for Christmas."
In that spirit, department stores would market the trains heavily during the holiday season, Mr. Morrison said. At other times, collectors would have to turn to hobby stores to build on their sets.
"They were presents and toys, and as children got older, they kind of turned it into a hobby," he said.
Often given to kids as gifts, toy trains would serve as a decoration for years. Mr. Graybill's grandfather, a collector and builder in his own right, gave him a train set when he was a boy, and Mr. Graybill carried the hobby through his teens and eventually to Penn State University, where he was active in the school's model railroad club.
Mr. Morrison received his first set from his aunt, and it became a fixture beneath the family tree. Mr. Posner's grandfather's set from the 1930s still runs.
With trains, Mr. Morrison could manufacture his own creation, and that's what kept his interest for so many years.
"You didn't see the imagination -- you created it yourself," he said.
The motivation was similar for Mr. Graybill. An engineer from Mt. Lebanon, he likes using his hands and learning how things work. Many fellow club members are also engineers or in the medical field -- the hobby becomes a natural extension of their talents and interests. It also attracts artists, who may enjoy building scenery more than laying track.
"Model railroading blends itself to all my interests," he said.
Mr. Graybill's club participated in Greenberg's Train & Toy Show, the largest traveling model train and toy show in northeastern United States, during its November visit to Monroeville. The show features an elaborate Christmas display. In December, the club suspends meetings and adds to the annual display at the Carnegie Science Center.
Although many children may prefer video games for the holidays now, collectors said an interest in trains still exists among young people. Mr. Morrison said the young son of a family friend stopped by the museum recently and asked Santa Claus for his own set for Christmas.
"Model railroading is a pretty significant hobby," Mr. Posner said. "Thomas the Tank Engine and the other kid-oriented, railroad-themed products are fundamentally good for the rail industry because they capture the imagination of kids in early age."
Collectors also note it can be a costly hobby.
Roy Hermes, former Crafton fire chief, owns roughly $20,000 worth of model trains but acknowledges he could sell them for only a fraction of that sum nowadays.
Insisting he's an enthusiast and not a collector, Mr. Hermes has nonetheless amassed a 20-train collection. At Christmas and for his birthday and Father's Day, he asks family for money rather than gifts and uses it to buy a model engine every year.
His collection is so prized that he used to tell his fire company that, should his house catch fire, they needed to break a window to retrieve his trains before any other possessions.
"Just pass them outside to somebody and try to save the trains," he said.
Mr. Hermes, too, had a train under his tree growing up but never considered where the tradition originated.
People have asked him over the years whether he's overdoing it, especially when they learn how much he's invested in the models lining the walls and the raised platform Christmas display in his home.
"I don't smoke, I don't drink, and I don't believe I have any vices," he said. "I've still got my investments on the wall."
As Mr. Graybill said: "One thing that's said about model railroading: It's a never-ending hobby."