All aboard the hobby train Art teacher builds miniature world in basement to keep track of it all
By IDA CHIPMAN Tribune Correspondent
With the flip of a switch, Tom Johnson can make his basement come alive.
Tribune Photos/IDA CHIPMAN PLYMOUTH -- Tom Johnson has been crazy about trains since he was 5 years old.
He grew up on Third Street in Plymouth, close by the old Nickel Plate Railroad.
Sounds of hissing steam, grinding wheels and clanging bells are in his blood.
Sometimes, if he was really lucky and timed it just right, he'd get to see the trains switch tracks uptown.
"The railroad crossing guard at Washington school was Merlin Jolly," said Tom, an art teacher at Lincoln Junior High School for the past 31 years. "Everybody called him 'Jolly.'"
And he was.
He'd give the kids a candy bar on their birthdays and he was always willing to talk.
Tom, a student at St. Michael's, would ride his bike to the crossing almost every day to chat with Jolly.
"Jolly would ask us kids to gather up acorns on the school grounds and the next time that we'd see him, he'd have changed them into peanuts in the shell."
Tom said it took them a long time to catch on to that one.
George Bergman, Tom's uncle, owned the Bergman Laundry near the old fire station, and lived in an apartment upstairs of the business. In the spare room, he had a wooden chest full of American flier trains.
"Once a year, close to Christmas time, Uncle George would set it up and all of us cousins would get to play with it."
In addition, Tom would occasionally sneak up to the apartment to look and to hold the cars.
He yearned to have a toy train of his own.
When he was 12, he got a job cleaning Bob Kelsey's barber shop on Washington St. He made $2.50 a week and saved every penny of it to buy his first H-O train set.
The locomotive -- three cars, a caboose and a 4-by-8 oval track -- cost around $18.00 at Malloy's City News Agency.
Tom Johnson's basement has been turned into a miniature world for his model trains.
He put it on layaway.
"Every week when I got paid, I'd take my money down to Mr. Malloy and he'd record it in a little book."
Finally, the big day came when the full amount was paid off and Tom got to take the train set home.
He set it up in his bedroom, where it pretty much stayed until he sold it, after graduating from Plymouth High School in 1970, while he was going to Manchester College.
Tom, now age 53, has ridden the rails a couple of times. He's traveled on Amtrak and the South Shore on short trips. Once, 25 years ago, he rode in a locomotive from Fort Wayne to Chicago.
"That was a thrill of a lifetime," he said.
He went back to his model railroading hobby a little at a time.
Ten years ago, in their home in Culver, Tom pretty much took over the basement.
He laid 80 feet of track on 12- to 18-inch wide shelves he built around the walls for his 30 locomotives to run on.
Gradually he has created a panorama of small farm towns along the track with 400 covered hoppers, seven grain elevators, a Texaco gas station and a number of depots, antique stores, cafes and shops.
He has added such touches as pop machines, cases of fruit and other interesting details.
"One of them," he said, "is sort of spooky."
He built the Bruce Lake Grocery store out of his imagination.
"Turns out," Tom said, "it is eerily like one that was really there!"
One of Tom's pet peeves is that people don't really understand the model train hobby.
"Some think we are adults still playing with toy trains," he said.
"That's not it at all. There are history lessons to be learned and, for me, it's another way to be creative other than painting pictures on flat surfaces."
When he was a kid, the greatest thing you could get for Christmas was a train set, he said. It is too bad that in this computer generation, "there is not a whole lot left to the imagination any more."
There is hope, though.
People can buy trains, kits and accessories these day at the Bremen Hobbies and Crafts.
"I think that model trains are coming back strong," he said.
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