BLISSFIELD, Mich. — Inside a nondescript building off the main drag in this charming town of 3,400 people in the heart of farming country is a big room teeming with life.
First, there’s the impressive sight of HO scale trains simultaneously moving along tracks at multiple levels, together forming a “choo-choo” chorus of sounds that calls to the inner child of visitors young and old.
But really teeming with life are scenes of yesteryear created by the building’s owners, the Blissfield Model Railroad Club.
With incredible precision and artistry, the club’s permanent display — three years in the making — shows how railroads were part of everyday life from the mid-1950s to mid-1960s, with a special focus on small towns in Tennessee, Ohio, Virginia, and West Virginia.
The display — which can be seen by appointment or during one of six weekends a year when the club holds its open houses — is a launching pad for countless stories about American culture, offering strong whiffs of nostalgia even to people who don’t consider themselves hardcore train fanatics.
“We have a lot of ex-railroaders who like to come in,” Joe Watts, club president, said in explaining how each of the members have keys and are known to sometimes show the display to people at odd times.
“We have truck drivers hit the brakes and ask if they can come in,” he said. “We’ll open the door for them.”
The club’s last open house of the spring will be 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It plans to resume monthly open houses again in September. For more information, go to bmrr.org.
The Blissfield Model Railroad Club’s building is just a few yards west of Blissfield’s Old Road Dinner Train and only steps away from railroad tracks that run through the historic town itself.
The club members don’t think of their efforts to fill their 2,700-square-foot building as an arduous chore. Rather, it’s been a labor of love, down to the exact placement of miniature tree branches.
With a combination of tiny plastic figurines and decorations they’ve made on their own, members have created scenes of flyfishing, coal mines, downtown businesses, farming, and port activity. Walk around the display, and you’ll see an old-fashioned movie house, a ferris wheel, hotels, restaurants, parks, ice cream parlors, post offices, cemeteries, churches, drug stores, barber shops, and lots of riverside activity. There are lovely vistas of mountains and blue skies and a whole lot more.
Mr. Watts, who moved to Blissfield after many years in Jackson, Mich., is a spry looking 80-year-old who is almost hesitant to admit four of the club’s 28 members will be 80 years or older later this year.
But the group isn’t just for geezers. Its youngest member is 17-year-old Scott Keaffaber of Toledo, who started attending club meetings when he was only 7 years old.
“It became like a special event to me,” he said.
Likewise, 20-year-old Drayton Blackgrove of Jackson, Mich., began attending a year ago. He now produces YouTube videos, helps maintain the group’s website, and contributes in other high-tech ways.
“My grandfather got me hooked as a kid,” he said, adding that he’s a train buff who — like others — photographs them passing through different parts of the country.
At least half of the club members are from the Toledo area, including group spokesman Ted Gillespie of Sylvania, who said several members also are from Maumee, Bedford Township, Monclova Township, Monroe, Tecumseh, and Adrian.
Mr. Gillespie, 70, said he got interested in trains as a child and now is passing along his knowledge of them to his children and grandchildren.
Most members either came from a railroad family or had model trains as a child.
“I was from a railroad family,” Mr. Watts said, then explained how he went to college at the insistence of his mother as railroads were shutting down.
Mr. Watts said he became a NASA engineer and worked at Edwards Air Force Base in southern California from 1960 to 1975.
At times, he now runs the computer-operated control room that allows members to switch tracks.
“Everyone has a niche,” club member Tom Coleman, 68, of Swanton, said.
Mr. Coleman’s niche is with scenery and lighting.
The painstaking work with the set design is worth it all when members see smiling faces of children and their parents, Mr. Coleman said.
“The first time you see a little kid’s eyes light up — wow! — all of those weeks and weeks of work are forgotten,” he said.
The Blissfield Model Railroad Club was created about 24 years ago. It spent its first two decades renting 2,300 feet on the second floor of an old building nearby, then bought its current site and began the three-year project of erecting the permanent display.
While open to everyone, the group doesn’t just have would-be members fill out an application so it can begin collecting dues. There’s a 30 to 60-day probation period to see how serious applicants are about the hobby. That’s intentionally drawn out to give incoming members time to get to know existing ones, Mr. Watts said.
During that time, applicants are expected to attend meetings. If voted in, they get their own keys to the building.
Mr. Blackgrove’s role with the club offers some exciting possibilities in terms of attracting the next generation to trains.
A little more than five years ago, on Nov. 26, 2011, at the ripe age of 15, Mr. Blackgrove founded his own railroad video and media production company, Delay in Block Productions, delayinblock.com.
He now has 50,000 YouTube followers, several thousand others on Facebook, and has had articles written about him.
“This experience of running my own business, funded primarily by my success in YouTube, has given me so much insight about myself and has inspired me to challenge myself in other areas,” Mr. Blackgrove said in a blog post. “When you take something raw and unorganized and turn it into something beautiful, meaningful, and entertaining...and then hearing people's reaction (good or bad) is really satisfying.”
He told The Blade he wants to introduce more people his age to the world of HO trains.
Mr. Blacgrove said he’s convinced that hobby and others have enough appeal to keep from dying if more youths would put down their cell phones and socialize. He said he occasionally takes friends to the club headquarters at night, after older members have gone home.
“It’s just there aren’t as many opportunities to do it and this is one,” Mr. Blackgrove said.
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